One of Bangladesh’s most cutting-edge artists, Mahbubur Rahman, 49, has documented the country’s complex political and cultural history through his work. Co-founder of Britto Arts Trust that promotes young talent, Rahman has been among the few Bangladeshi artists to have exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale and Fukuoka Museum, Japan. At his recent solo, “Sounds from Nowhere”, at Delhi’s Bikaner House, the artist explored ideas of national borders and his fondness for music. In this interview, he talks about the political restraints on art, his influences and Bangladeshi art in the global context. Excerpts:
You had explored notions of national borders and forced migration in the 2010 charcoal drawing, Landing. In the series Dislocation — ink drawings on digital prints that we see in this exhibition — you depict displacement. Is this something that bothers you?
I grew up in the older part of Dhaka, where the neighbourhood had residents from diverse religions. But it also had these abandoned houses that people would refer to as ‘enemy properties’ — primarily belonging to Bengali Hindus who lived there before 1947 and before the 1971 war. As an artist, I want to confront the state and assist the marginalised. I want to express my agony against the failure of the nation to recover from the colonial past, and from the impact of the two wars in 1947 and 1971. In my own family, several members have married migrants from India. Through Dislocation, I want to comment on the trauma of constant movement. I use stamp papers of property that belongs to my family. When my grandfather purchased land, it featured the British stamp of undivided India, there is a Pakistani stamp in another property document, and now we have the Bangladeshi stamp on the legal documents. Political change has many ramifications.
We also see installations of musical instruments in stainless steel. Are you interested in music?
As a child, I always wanted to learn the violin but never did. I am fascinated not just by the beauty in the shape of the instruments but by how the sounds produced have a strong voice and no particular language. I first began working with instruments after the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, in which over 1,000 factory workers died when a multistoried clothing factory collapsed in Dhaka. I made an installation with video footage of the catastrophe; news reports comprised the audio. The sculptural piece had a motorised hacksaw playing the violin, referencing the rudimentary tools used to free the survivors. I also curated an exhibition dedicated to the incident. When I was approached by a friend to curate it, my instant response was to refuse. As an artist, I felt it would be selfish to film people who were suffering, but then I realised that some of these photographers were also helping in the rescue.
Do you feel that artists should not base their work on tragic incidents?
I feel that directly responding to tragedies by documenting them for art is opportunistic. As an artist, I consciously try not to cash in on tragedies. For instance, in recent years I have tried not to work on the Rohingya crisis. If it is an unbidden, spontaneous reference, it is another matter.
How would you describe the current political situation in Bangladesh? Recently, there was widespread criticism when photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested for criticising the government’s use of violence during student-led protests in Dhaka. As an artist, do you feel your freedom of expression is constrained?
It is a difficult situation. There is a lot of progress in terms of infrastructure but the disparity of income is increasing, laws are being introduced against free speech. Through my art, I try to raise questions I don’t have answers for. In the performance piece, Enjoy the Democracy (2004), I commented on the religious fundamentalism professed by prominent political figures of the time. There are times when I am worried that a particular work might not be accepted. For instance, at the 2011 Art Biennale in Bangladesh, I had fibreglass figures of pigs covered in cow and goat hide, crisscrossed with barbed wires. In Islam, it is forbidden to eat pork. I was expecting a backlash but there was none.
Your 2016 exhibition with your wife Tayeba Begum Lipi at Michigan State University was titled “The Artist as Activist”. How do you mould your work to fulfill that role?
We see ourselves as cultural activists, fulfilling the role through not only our work but also by working for the community. Even as students, we joined processions against the military government, supported flood victims. We have been working for the benefit of the art community through the Britto Arts Trust. When we first established it in 2002, our objective was to support young artists. We wanted to promote experimental work and ensure that artists do not face the problems that we did. Instead of seven years, it took us more than 10 years to complete our MA from the University of Dhaka because of the military rule. It was difficult to find a market, too.
Is it true that you often leave several of your works incomplete?
Half of my store is filled with incomplete work that I lost interest in midway. I want to do as much as I can in one lifetime. I have been experimenting with mediums since my student days. I would practise performance art and videos at a time when no one in Bangladesh was. I remember one of my teachers telling me that I am good at sculpting and should specialise in that. I told him, ‘If I am already good, then I should probably learn something new’.
Naeem Mohaiemen was nominated for the Turner Prize this year. In 2011, Bangladesh had its first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. How do you locate Bangladeshi art in the global scenario?
We are producing a lot of interesting work. It was a wonderful experience to be at the prestigious Venice Biennale and place our work in front of people. Several artists from Bangladesh are now showing at museums and galleries across the world. What we need, though, are galleries in Bangladesh to encourage experimental works. Even now, most gallerists exhibit landscapes because that is what people want to see and buy.