There’s a stillness in Ayesha Sultana’s creations. Lines and grids emerge on a blank sheet, every stroke a curious combination of stasis and movement, stillness and rhythm. At the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata, where the 33-year-old is hosting her second major solo in India titled ‘Making Visible’, her minimal interventions play out in the sparse gallery space. Geometric shapes swell with crimson and dark brown, faint pencil marks metamorphose into gentle movements of the tide and alluring fragments emerge out of ink and graphite. These visual tropes are a part of Sultana’s practice. Beneath the veneer of sophistication and complex play of material is her hometown, Dhaka. “Some of my ideas are sparked from negotiating with my surroundings. Dhaka inadvertently permeates my work. There are no direct references, but the works have implications of space, whether anonymous, real, tangible or psychological,” she says.
Sultana’s work embodies the freshness and tide of change in the current art scene in Bangladesh, that first attracted global attention with artists such as Tayeba Begum Lipi, Mahbubur Rahman and Naeem Mohaiemen. They were the first to respond to the political and social unrest in the subcontinent through their work. In the last decade, a new crop of artists — Sultana, Rafiqul Shuvo, Mustafa Zaman, Shehzad Chowdhury, Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Samsul Alam Helal, Salzar Rahman, Farzana Urmi and Marzia Farhana among others — have taken over the international stage. Their work, steeped in the history, politics and the cultural landscape of Bangladesh, make for an interesting study to understand not only the country, but the rise of a completely new class of artistic endeavours.
Zaman, for instance, is known for his multidisciplinary work that examines loss, disillusionment and marginalisation amongst socio-cultural paradigms. After completing BFA at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Dhaka University, he went on to study in Lodz, Poland, and exhibited at the second Asian Theatre Festival, Hong Kong in 1993. Urmi, known for merging printmaking with painting, has exhibited in Barcelona, Tokyo, Beijing, South Korea and Yinchuan. Helal is increasingly becoming a voice to reckon with in documentary photography, sprinkling it with performative elements, setting up live studios in which the viewer becomes the performer. His work has travelled to the US, Netherland, Portugal and France, among others. Nupur’s aesthetics take off from the social values of Bangladesh, inspired by its ecological and community aspects and working closely with the public. She has exhibited in Mauritius, South Korea, the US, Italy, China, Egypt and Pakistan.
But this change has taken its time in coming. “Most artists grew up seeing art history being created as the country was only founded in 1971. The Asian Art Biennale began in 1981, bringing artists from across Asia to Bangladesh, the Chobi mela was founded in 2000.
While the National Museum and the Shilpakala Academy regularly hold exhibitions, there is also verbal transmission of art history as some of the founders of the art scene of the country are still alive and regularly lecture (like Syed Jehangir),” says American curator Diana Campbell Betancourt, who has been working in Dhaka for the last four years as the artistic director of the Dhaka Art Summit. In September 2016, Betancourt took the works of 11 Bangladeshi artists to Krinzinger Projekte in Vienna for ‘You Can Not Cross The Sea Merely by Staring at the Waves’, arguably the biggest show of Bangladeshi art in Europe. The artists brought stories from their homeland — from the atrocities in sweat shops to ship breaking — drawing from the landscape and challenging institutional order by creating new artistic fraternities. Participating artists included Shumon Ahmed, Ehansul Karim Aninda, Marzia Farhana, Shuvo, Sultana, and Munem Wasif.
“This was the first time ever that such a prominent show featuring Bangladeshi artists was organised in Europe and we also sold several works to national and international collectors and institutions. Ours artists in residence, Rafiqul Shuvo and Rini Mitra, are now based in Vienna and the response to their work has been really good. We also invited Shumon Ahmed for a residency this year and are looking forward to continue working with artists from Bangladesh,” says Ursula Krinzinger, director of Galerie Krinzinger. “It’s all about the exposure. Earlier, the only internationally renowned artists were Lipi and Mahbubur. Now, with greater awareness, most of the artists are exhibiting abroad,” adds Betancourt.
Shuvo, 34, agrees. The Vienna-based artist had a studio in Dhaka for five years after graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, before he got a scholarship at Beaconhouse in Lahore. When he came back to Dhaka in 2008, he started a collective with a few others, called Only God Can Judge Me (OGCJM), encouraged by the example set by Lipi and Mahbubur. “Our local institutions are formalists. For experimental artists, collectives act as a catalyst for finding their own voice. That’s how more performance art came up and there was an increase in the number of art programmes,” says Shuvo, who works with video, collage, photography and installation. The depth of Shuvo’s work stands out in its abstract depictions, where he jumps between art, craft, activism, power relations, culture production and journalism. There is a focus on the ontological influence of time and the evolution of human behaviour, along with concern for the politics of art’s language. His work has travelled to Vienna, Rome, Delhi, Seoul and Vonyarcvashegy.
One of the biggest accomplishment for Bangladeshi art, perhaps, was the debut of its national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. The exhibition titled ‘Parables/Parabole’ had five Bangladeshi artists — Promotesh Das Pulak, Kabir Ahmed Masum Chisty, Imran Hossain Piplu, Rahman and Lipi — “interpret contemporary cultural difference”. The co-commissioner for the pavilion, Lipi, made an impression with a sculpture of a bra made in her trademark medium of stainless steel razor-blades. Mohaiemen has been visible at key art events such as Documenta 14, where he exhibited his work, 34 Exercises of Freedom: #17 Red Star, Crescent Moon / after Sohail Daulatzai, which examines state-led international Muslim projects of the 1970s. A 2014 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, he has also shown at Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland, the 2015 Venice Biennale, Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Tate, London.
To understand the art history of Bangladesh and the language of its artists, it is important to look at the larger picture. The years leading up to the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 were rife with violence. By then, the artists, writers and other culture workers were the primary force of resistance to anti-democratic surges. In his essay, Mango people are looking for this Epoch’s Quamrul Hassan, Mohaiemen observes that the frontrunner among the artists who protested against the state’s clampdown on a heterogenous cultural identity was Quamrul Hassan and his generation, formed within the twin crucibles of 1947 and 1971.
In his seminal book, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (Islamic Civilisation & Muslim Networks), historian Iftikhar Dadi writes, “(Before Partition) there was not a single art school, not even in Dhaka; the few artists who resided in East Bengal or who moved there in the wake of Pakistan’s creation had been trained at the Calcutta School of Art. But, during the two decades following independence in 1947, a number of key institutional developments supporting modern art were consolidated. These included the establishment and upgrading of art schools, the founding of artistic societies and exhibition venues, and an increasing focus on modern art by English-language publications.” Bengali modernist artist Zainul Abedin emerged as the founding figure of modern Bangladeshi art, writes Dadi.
After independence, there was a focus on building “national identity”, leading to unquestioning cultural politics, with a focus on institutionalisation and material rewards for artists. While institutions such as the Dhaka Art College and Faculty of Fine Arts at Dhaka University were established. Over time, a paucity of quality teachers and academic resources have hindered their contribution to contemporary art. “The language of the artists who come out of the existing collectives and schools have become repetitive. Nobody is willing to experiment. Those who think out of the box suffer. Writers, artists and critics are not allowed new thoughts. Suddenly, everybody has become political. They don’t allow free thought, even in abstractions,” says Shuvo. Abstractionist Marzia Farhana, 31, says that the resultant stagnation is holding artists back from charting their own course, “Art in colleges here are mostly skill-based. Everyone copies what the teacher has done,” she says.
While several artists opt for art education abroad — for instance, Sultana studied at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore and Farhana at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London — they face new challenges when they return home. In the absence of commercial spaces that would exhibit and promote their work, Bangladeshi artists still need to look outwards. Their studios are based in Bangladesh, but their art often travels the world without being exhibited at home. “When I started exhibiting in the mid-’90s, there were just five-six galleries and people weren’t really familiar with experimental art. That hasn’t changed much. Even now, we don’t have galleries to represent us. The collector base in Bangladesh is limited and people prefer two-dimensional work. The internet thankfully brings the world to us. With a bunch of us travelling, interest in Bangladeshi art is being generated,” says Lipi, who established the Britto Arts Trust in 2002 with her husband Rahman.
The alternative arts platform has supported young artists such as Sultana, Nupur, Pulak and Manir Mrittik. “We did not want the next generation to face the same problems that we did. It was essential to have a space that promotes experimentation and encourages exposure to various mediums and ideas,” says Lipi, 48. Last summer, she and Rahman presented their show, ‘The Artist as Activist’ at The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan, US. Touted as one of the first exhibitions of contemporary art from Bangladesh at an American museum, it had Lipi confronting gender-specific violence and Rahman basing his work in the contemporary socio-political history of Bangladesh.
Filling the void in the local art scene are also organisations such as the Dhaka Art Center, Bengal Lounge, the photography school Pathshala, and the Samdani Art Foundation (SAF), which launched the Dhaka Art Summit in 2011. Mohaiemen believes one characteristic of the local context that is helping contemporary artists is that they have also frequently worked as curators, long before the institutional term was popularised. Mohaiemen argues that “interdisciplinary, cross-pollinated practices existed since the 1970s, but the absence of systematic art history means that when audiences see hybrid practices today, they are often mistaken as imported, missing the connections already existing in local history.”
With fresh opportunities and art infrastructures in place, with all their foibles and limitations, this new rung of artists are shaping their response to the “new struggles”. Swiss curator and critic Daniel Baumann, director of the Kunsthalle Zurich, observed the bubble of simmering energy in 2015, when he came to Dhaka for the first time to meet 20 artists shortlisted for the Samdani Art Award. “I’d heard a lot about the art scene in Bangladesh, but I didn’t know what to expect. Their level of education, engagement and enthusiasm, the way they are committed to their place and the urge to get involved and make a difference — I was surprised and fascinated,” he says. “The quality of their works is formal, but it’s not folkloric. They’re sentimental and proud. Despite the social and religious issues, these artists are emerging in large numbers. The problem with the West is that nobody cares. Here, it still matters. One often thinks that the East should look to the West, but I think we are the ones who need your help,” he adds. His interaction with artists such as Sultana, Helal and Shuvo has led him to curate ‘Speak, Lokal’, an exhibition in Zurich that puts works by Bangladeshi artists alongside those from across the world to talk about the fundamental question of “belonging”, a battlefield dominated by class, race, religion and nation.
“There is a new level of excitement,” says Rajeeb Samdani, the co-founder of SAF. “This year, when I walked down the aisles of India Art Fair, in whichever row I would be in, I would see Bangladeshi artists. This was never so before. Now, lots of Indian galleries such as Experimenter, Project 88 and Exhibit 320 represent Bangladeshi artists . That’s an achievement for us. Whenever I visit my friends in Delhi, I see works by Bangladeshi artists at their homes. They have become visible.”