The Changing Paradigms of Bangladeshi Art
– By Ruxmini Reckvana Q Choudhury, Assistant Curator at Samdani Art Foundation.
The text was produced in connection with the exhibition Fabric(ated) Fractures, a collaboration between the Samdani Art Foundation and Alserkal at Concrete, Dubai. Courtesy of Alserkal.
As the daughter of two artists, I have long been in touch with the contemporary art scene of Bangladesh. From a young age, I never missed Bangladesh’s Asian Art Biennale (AAB), and I remember eagerly waiting to see the exhibition. It was there, in the early 2000s, that I first experienced video art. I also recall visiting the Britto International Artists’ Workshop in Bogra, in the north of Bangladesh, where I would meet teachers, students, and artists from different parts of the country—and where I first encountered the performance art of Mahbuhur Rahman and Yasmin Jahan Nupur.
I didn’t know what to make of those art forms; I was confused, but at the same time, excited to see something new. I would find myself in the midst of artists who were debating the acceptance of New Media in art, and I loved hearing their arguments. Fast forward to today, and the debate continues— but I see that the same people who opposed changes strongly have now learned to accept them. In 2010, when I was admitted to the only Art History department in the country (at the time) at the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, the first thing I noticed was that the curriculum was outdated, with no facilities or encouragement to practice non-academic art. Fortunately, many artists were already experimenting outside of the academy. A couple of years later in 2012, while working at the Dhaka Art Center, I had the chance to experience the sound art of Ayesha Sultana at the Seven Senses exhibition—I instantly fell in love with her work, 02. This show, to me, was extremely important. Although several groups were already working in different media, students had hardly been exposed to these exhibitions; but the Dhaka Art Center was a prominent space where everyone felt welcome, and through this exhibition, people were finally exposed to new media art for the first time.
Around the same time, the Chobimela photography biennial (although it had been taking place for quite some time already) was starting to get noticed by the artistic community. From 2017, Chobimela started collaborating with artists through fellowships, in a bid to break down the barrier between art and photography. Longitude Latitude, founded in 2003, is another bi-annual event where artists, photographers, architects, cartoonists, and creatives from diverse backgrounds would exhibit their works. Groups formed by artists were also experimenting and taking art outside the white cube. Site-specific, land, and performance art became more explored mediums. The primary reason for this was the lack of formal gallery spaces, and few opportunities for emerging artists to experiment. Groups such as Santaran Art Organization (founded in 1999 in Chittagong) and Gidree Bawlee (founded in 2003 in Thakurgaon) have long been working with indigenous communities in rural contexts, giving opportunities to mainstream artists to collaborate through residencies for quite a long time. Another group, CRACK Trust (founded in 2007 in Kushtia), focuses on local communities.
The now-defunct alternative artist initiative OGCJM, which was founded in 2012, rebelled against the academy to follow their own passions. In 2013, the Uronto Artist Community, who document abandoned architectural spaces through art, and Back ART Foundation, who champion performance art through the Dhaka Live Art Biennale, were founded, along with other groups who continue to work to develop the Bangladeshi art scene. However, many students still couldn’t see the potential of exploring new forms due to lack of proper guidance, and continued to follow the academy.
The 2014 Dhaka Art Summit created a stir in the country’s art scene. I was a student at the time, and my generation felt very inspired. The art practices that were thought of as alternative became validated in the mainstream. This was perhaps the first time that performance art and photography were formally included in such a big event. It was also around this time that AAB started accepting photography— performance art, however, took much longer.
Today, I see a remarkable diversity of works by the country’s young artists. Breaking away from formal practices, they have started to collaborate with non-artists and people from different backgrounds, and are slowly changing critics’ views towards Bangladeshi art. While in the 1950-80s we saw artists involved in politics or taking part in the formation of the nation, this practice was discontinued until the early 2000s. The scenario has changed once again; many artists are now working to raise awareness about the environment, refugee and migrant issues, religious bigotry, as well as political oppression. It is also amazing to see that through their work, artists are not only highlighting issues, but also making a name for themselves in the art world. Zihan Karim, whose primary practice is ‘untraditional’ video art, is now an art professor, inspiring students to explore non-traditional practices. At the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, teachers such as Munem Wasif - who started out as a documentary photographer and now works with sound, video, and different photographic devices - impart their experience onto the next generation of artists.
A curator’s role has also become increasingly significant in staging meaningful exhibitions. Since there is no formal training on curation in Bangladesh, artists have taken on the responsibility to curate. The artist Wakilur Rahman has been playing a dual role for a long time, whereas Kehkasha Sabah has moved out of her artistic practice entirely to focus on her curatorial practice. While the art scene in Bangladesh is still predominantly led by male artists, I am proud to see that international museums such as the Guggenheim and the Tate have collected female artists from Bangladesh, Tayeba Begum Lipi and Ayesha Sultana, respectively—Lipi and Sultana became the first Bangladeshi artists to ever be collected by the Guggenheim and the Tate. Young female artists such as Ashfika Ahmed, Marzia Farhana, and Farzana Ahmed Urmi, all nominated for the Samdani Art Award, are travelling around the world to different art exhibitions, biennales, and residencies.
Shako, the Women’s Association of Bangladesh (founded in early 2000s), is made up of some of the country’s leading female artists, and has been working tirelessly to contribute to the betterment of communities through art-focused workshops for acid victims, the disabled, and other less, empowering them through art and crafts. Members of Shako also put on exhibitions and donate profit from sales to organisations who work with underprivileged groups.
On that note, I would like to mention that 95 per cent of the team at the Samdani Art Foundation is female. Though it may take a few more years to feel a significant change in female empowerment in the Bangladeshi art scene, the process has already started.
Over the last decade, I have witnessed the most dynamic development of the art scene in Bangladesh. More precisely, things have taken a revolutionary turn since 2014. From Documenta, the Venice Biennale, Gwangju Biennale, and Asia Pacific Triennial, to Kunsthalle (Basel, Zurich), Para/Site, Hong Kong, and MoMA Warsaw, Bangladeshi artists are being presented widely on an international scale. While writing this essay, the Bangladeshi modernist Rashid Choudhury (1932-1985)—whose tapestry is presented as part of Fabric(ated) Fractures, and who is well-known for his contribution towards establishing an art college in Chittagong (now the Institute of Fine Arts, University of Chittagong) in the hope to decentralise the art community from Dhaka—has become the first Bangladeshi artist to be collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and his work is currently being shown in their Modern and Contemporary galleries.
The world is taking note of the Bangladeshi contemporary art scene. As a young art professional, I predict a future where Bangladesh will become a leader of the South Asian art scene— and I believe we are well on our way.