Breaking out of the white cube

Shahidul Alam | Published: 17:53, Oct 31,2016 | Updated: 14:04, Nov 01,2016

Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy

A display of Zainul Abedin’s works at Bangladesh National Museum. — Courtesy: Tapash Paul

The old guard will not like this show. And that is precisely why this show is so important. The idea that a gallery is merely about a white cube with prints on walls in some sort of a chronological sequence, is as tired an idea, as the tired ‘experts’ who extoll the virtues of such expositions. Interestingly, I feel Zainul Abedin himself, would have loved it. The master painter was not simply a great artist, but an innovator who was open to ideas and loved to experiment. He was more contemporary than most ‘contemporary’ artists of today. The sheer breadth of form, his political engagement, the range of techniques he embraced and even his need to revisit old techniques and inject fresh energy into old styles, set him well apart from most of the people around him. Had he been around today, Charukala Institute, would have been a vibrant place embracing the entire range of artistic practice, rather than the mindless tunnel it has become today. Sadly, there is no light at the end of the tunnel and the only way to shed light, is to blast open a passage to the sun. To let new ideas flow.

In their world, there would have been no Ramanujan to try out partition theory. Bobby Fishcher would never have played game six against Boris Spassky. Hashem Khan would not have made Wembley go crazy with a squash racket held in the middle. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s beheading of John the Baptist would have been painted over a sketch with not a trace of chiaroscuro and Zainul Abedin would have taken on a job as a banker.

Safe people living in zones of comfort, do not take risks, do not rock the boat, do not venture into the unknown. They protect their territory with zeal, crushing all attempts to subvert their unassailable position. This exhibition will have them fuming.

It is not a white cube. Not all the images are rectangles on walls. There is multimedia. His massive scroll, never before on display at the museum, hangs like a suspended halo, with people having to stoop, to enter the hallowed space.

The lights, carefully selected to ensure the temperature, warmth, and ultra violet emission that show the images to best effect while ensuring there is no damage to the precious artwork, provide the professional treatment that such a display necessitates, reminding us that this is a serious attempt to reinvestigate the work of our most celebrated artist.

The text introduces not only Zainul the artist, but Zainul the human being. The activist, the organiser, the angry soul, the romantic. The artwork, presented not in a linear chronology, but segmented in terms of the phases in his life, the influences, both artistic and political that shaped him, helps us rediscover a Zainul Abedin hidden below the public façade. This is the Zainul that would have been in the streets today, protesting the repression. Like his contemporary Quamrul Hassan, he too would have been drawing political cartoons. He would have struck out at gatekeepers who have prevented the Charukala Institute that he so lovingly built, from entering the twenty first century.

The gatekeepers will do their best to stop you from seeing this show. But Zainul waits inside and beckons. 


The writer is the founder of Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and visiting professor at Sunderland University.

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