IN 1979, the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum, organised an exhibition titled ‘Art of Bengal: The Heritage of Bangladesh and Eastern India’. It ran its course from November 9 to December 30. The exhibition also travelled to Manchester City Art Gallery in Manchester the next year. It was to ‘foster recognition and understanding of the rich culture of ethnic groups living in this country [of England]’, that the organisers amassed ‘forms of industry and art’, reads the preface to the catalogue.
The show had fewer artworks and more cultural and historical objects ranging from terracotta sculpture from Paharapur to black basalt Buddha to a rare ninth-century Shiva and Parvati statue and even dedicatory inscriptions from mosques. It had some rare miniature paintings, including a watercolour one depicting Nawab Alivardi Khan’s hunting scene belonging to the Murshidabad kalam, or school. It also had a number of Kalighat paintings and a handful of Bat-tala woodcut prints from the nineteenth century.
As for modern paintings, the exhibition featured some masterpieces by Indian modern pioneers, including Abanindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Mukul Dey and Rabindranath Tagore, besides three works by Gopal Ghose, a less known artist. It had on display only three paintings by three pioneers of modern art in Bangladesh — a famine sketch by Zainul Abedin from the year 1943, a 1944 woodcut print titled Homeward by Shafiuddin Ahmed, a 1943 watercolour titled Peep by Quamrul Hassan.
Bangladesh’s modern art was simply cold-shouldered as opposed to a generous showcasing of rural art and craft produced by the kumbhakar community, which was represented in the form of shora paintings, hand-modelled terracotta statuettes, etc.
Looking back, the question that may trouble any Bangladeshi art connoisseur is bound to be as follows — what led to such a poor representation? It is, of course, tied to a tangle of issues.
Was there a vast repertory of artworks out there waiting to be discovered and indexed at that point in history? In a country that is yet to witness the development of adequate institutional infrastructure, which would have ensured the collection and preservation of modern art, the most pertinent question, in any given time, would also be — what aspects of the development should one zero in on?
All these issues hover over a black hole that is the art market and they beg some form of historical reckoning.
The modern institutions of the country have failed the modern artists as it developed out of the ferment in Dhaka after Pakistan came into being in 1947 and the surge of contemporary art in the past two decades. The story of the failure has multiple protagonists — starting from artists, mainstream media, art writers, art institutions and even private galleries that opened and struggled to remain in business.
Myopia that continues to (mis)guide gallerists and collectors has also seeped into the collective consciousness — it is evident in our failure to separate the gold from the dross. Capitalising on the good and the moderate is the only proven way to sustain a market as well as a ‘scene’.
There are no alternatives to judicious curation. And in the absence of good collections to source the artworks from, any curatorial effort is bound to look like a shoddy job. Other than the Bangladesh National Museum and the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, there are no institutions dedicated to the collection and preservation of modern art. The Zainul in the Whitechapel show came from the collection of the museum.
In any art scene, the promotion of art needs an intellectual armature built around the past and the emerging trends to create grounds for all kinds of objective/subjective accounts of art, which are products of subjective structure developed in a given social matrix. The circuit of narratives also motivates an unsuspecting majority to be attentive to the emerging new languages. They also come in handy if one is to break them down and put them in relation to the historically located questions of social processes and context.
Every Indian piece represented in the Whitechapel catalogue, by their master artists accompanies a small descriptive note. Each text, extracted from a book or from journals such as Modern Review or Visva-Bharati Quarterly, complements the work by providing some key information. Artworks of the three Bangladeshi moderns had no such textual accompaniments.
TO RETRACE how ‘modern art’ thrived in the eastern part of Bengal, which gained freedom in December 1971 after a nine-month-long war and proudly appropriated the name Bangladesh thereafter, one would have to scoot back to some of the historical moments of the immediate past century. One also needs to pay attention to how the English academia became the yardstick of art education by enshrining academic realism, or naturalism to be precise, against which all other trajectories were initially measured. Only Rabindranath Tagore and few other renegades after him developed their oeuvre from outside the pale of the mainstream primarily preoccupied with ‘visual facts’ rather than formal and conceptual innovations.
After the formation of Pakistan, following the partition of Bengal/India, artists of East Bengal and the Muslim practitioners who summarily jettisoned themselves from Kolkata, after a spate of riots rocked the city in 1946, converged in Dhaka. These artists, though of different emotional and intellectual valence, gave to ‘contextual modernism’, which had seen its beginning in Kolkata, some definitive new contours.
THE post-independence climate witnessed a surge in new forms of cultural practice coeval with the collective enthusiasm for the reorganisation of the social-political horizon. Two art establishments played a catalytic role in the very formation of the new firmament — the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and the College of Arts and Crafts, now faculty of fine arts, Dhaka University.
The renewal of languages in art appeared through some specific stratagems developed by some artists who were already established icons of the region as well as by new talents that emerged after the country’s independence.
The educational institution founded in 1947 by Zainul Abedin and his compatriots had played a seminal role in creating the conditions of all such new germinations in this clime. The mutation that had taken place during the Pakistan-era in the then budding art scene — first to assume a regional face and then to incorporate non-art subjects as well as international trends — ensured a natural progression towards heterogeneity.
The shifts that appeared right after the independence had primarily been fuelled by nationalist passion. To take a more materialistic view, one may say that they largely stemmed from a renewed enthusiasm for the ‘here and now’.
Dhaka and Chattogram, two of the most important cities that served as the loci of new art in Bangladesh, also became the sites for the proliferating debates on and around situated and unsituated knowledge and praxis. These debates were at once productive and counterproductive. While it is a mystery why Kolkata, Bombay and Karachi escaped the radar of the moderns in these two cities, there is little meditation on how Japan, France and even Italy penetrated the delta. That the outward-looking artists had all been there to pursue advanced studies should not be the sole reference point while explaining such processes of absorption. The postcolonial condition is created through the continuation of colonisation in many forms across many fronts, including the realm of knowledge and culture. Thus, the ‘time lag’ relating to modernisation became a source of anxiety. To be modern following the introduction of industry and infiltration finance capital also meant to think and act in relation to the borrowed intellectual structure of secularism/progressivism.
Indigenous modernity, Burhanuddin Khan’s early postulation, was perhaps a way to skirt around any direct confrontation with the changing colonial/imperial structure that gave rise to the new social, economic and epistemic coordinates. By identifying European modernity’s ‘othered’ half in the works of Zainul, Sultan and Quamrul, one is able to edge closer to reconciliation between the modern and the traditional.
In the pre-independence period, Zainul, the chief game-changing agent of contextual practice, whose abrasive realism had once earned him all-India fame, along with Shafiuddin Ahmed, Quamrul Hassan and others were responsible for the new cultural oasis where modernism gradually unfolded and acquired a specific shape through a multiplicity of practices. It can safely be said that the Zainulian armature of practice and pedagogy bred diversity. The artists belonging to the second generation — Murtaja Baseer, Aminul Islam, Mohammad Kibria, et al — were, therefore, able to set forth their new languages in an environment of freedom.
Abstraction was a major preoccupation among the new breeds in the 1960s as was the search for newer imagery that would mirror the spirit of their time. However, after independence, two of the modern figurative master painters, namely SM Sultan and Quamrul Hassan, the fomer’s ‘subaltern messianic nationalism’ focused on decolonisation and latter’s attempt at melding the Cubist stratagem with the linear techne of the rural shora painting clearly suggests an artistic leap across time in the semantic field of innovation.
WHAT appeared as ‘new’ in Bangladesh in the 1970s was informed by a new sociality and a heightened awareness about the function of art in modern society. Quamrul and Sultan turned a corner in the early 1970s, and with the benefit of hindsight, their sizable body of works can now be understood as the most impactful creations of their time reflective of modernism’s twin preoccupation — style and philosophy.
The works of the two modern masters came full circle by way of symbolism and allegory, which in turn also served as the source of alternative narratives with which to challenge the status quo.
Of the two gifted artists, Quamrul’s philosophy was akin to that of the European avant-garde exponents who forwarded a critique of society at once to vent discontentment over the social-political fallouts of modernisation and to transcend the given social reality. While Sultan arrived at a utopic vision, Edenic enough to idolise an organic communistic life set in what came to be known as the rural hinterland in the modernist parlance via modernist ideology. He sought to overturn the dominant narrative by making work and a primordial human-nature relationship visible.
Sultan, in his large canvases dating back to the early 1970s created panoramic visions that conjured memories of an Eden-like village life. There are important exceptions to such a sanguine model of imagery though. There are large-scale works in which scenes of resistance were made to unveil, showing sturdy males collectively waging a war against the landowning gentries, whose representation the artist deliberately eschewed.
All things considered, the 1970s can be defined as the rise of the ‘narrative’ strain of painting as storytelling and formal rigour, conceived of as a critique of immediate social reality that came to dictate the major shifts that occurred. Not that the preoccupation with the ‘surface’ had ceased to exist rather it climaxed in a series of paintings Mutaja Baseer brought forth to commemorate the martyrs of the war.
His method involved translating the contours and characters of real objects into sublime images. It is interesting to note that before embarking on the epitaphs, he came up with a series of drawings in which he blatantly used the human motif to represent the Bengali populace and the bestiaries to condemn the Pakistan junta.
The Epitaph series were works that were neither narrative nor fully given to purism. These were developed by way of amplifying the surface quality and contours of pebbles he had collected during his stay in Paris. In many an interview, Murtaja Baseer categorically referred to his non-representative idiom as ‘abstract realism’ as he developed his works from actual objects.
The Epitaph series began in 1973 and ended in 1976 (only one piece done in 1977 is found) and the result was 28 works done on medium and large canvases. It is arguably the most solemn-looking series of paintings he had ever produced.
The post-independence art scene also saw the emergence of a tendency to overcome the established limits of art. Among other artists who made a name for themselves for such transgression in the 1970s, one of the most versatile was Kalidas Karmakar. At the outset, his complex yet charming visual solutions mostly transferred into combines where car parts formed the object of manipulation to arrive at a pictorial solution. As disciplinary boundaries collapsed in his works for the first time in the region’s history, it laid grounds for future transdisciplinary practices.
Both his paintings and etchings helped secure his reputation as an artist showing an apparent ability to overwrite the art of the past. Kalidas’s performances are some of the earliest examples of body-oriented action in this region that predicted the rise of performance art in the new millennium. By going against the grain, or sowing the seed of discontent in the very landscape of the mainstream production and reception of cultural products, he played the role of a renegade.
Following Novera’s exit from Bangladeh in the 1960s, the field of sculpture became a barren horizon. It was Hamidduzzan Khan, whose experimentations with found objects were the only redeeming feature in the post-independence art scene. His combines predated the ‘immersive’ experience that installation art would eventually bring into view in the late 1990s, which would gradually turn into a generic practice in the new millennium.
A particular work titled No More, built with a broken shop shutter and a sculpted dead body presented in a real pair of trousers and a shirt addressed the ongoing political movement against the military rule. The work has little resemblance to the outdoor metapieces he is now known for.
In the tumultuous decade of the 80s, the heat of the political arena where resistance against the military regime crossed over into the artistic spaces. However, it did not deter the artists of the country from advancing their narratives in their own terms and devising their own idioms to articulate their position.
It is in this fraught environment that women artists, seeking recourse to beauty, continued to project the ‘self’ into their visual languages anchored in nature and in painterly processes. Women painters, who appeared on the scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, save for Dilara Begum Jolly, Nilufar Chaman and a few others, mostly worked on and around the idea of visual analogue of nature.
In the 1960s, Novera was the sole guiding light for women artists. In the post-independence regime, a number of women artists were able to create their distinct style. Among them Farida Zaman, Naima Haque, Nasreen Begum and Rokeya Sultana found a way to straddle the line between abstract and figurative idioms. Especially Rokeya Sultana, who, with her Madonna series, began to attend to her immediate social environment in which the struggle of a mother and child duo is presented in an informal, even childlike, manner. Her rise to prominence coincided with a surge in printmaking, an otherwise less explored medium for it involves a lot of paraphernalia as well as arduous processes.
Being aware of the brutality of dehumanised figures and its power to ferry anger, many women artists, including Jolly, and especially Atia Islam Anne, began to interrogate the patriarchy to speak about women’s position in society. Jolly’s large paper scrolls, a series titled Lalsalu, done in 1985, are arguably the first few attempts at creating a feminist narrative weaved around polemical positions developed in reference to literary works.
In an important departure from the high perch of modernism, narrative painting fused with rickshaw painting. Behind such unconventional proximity between high and low art was a Chattogram-based artist — Nazlee Laila Mansur. She began to depict easily recognisable social scenes, subjecting them to a feministic probe. Nazlee radicalised her canvases by lifting colours and forms right out of the picturesque plates of Bangladeshi rickshaws.
A romantic longing for pristine nature and the individual’s existential crisis was the twin preoccupation of many artists. The new sociality led some artists, both male and female, either to cast an escapist position or to poetically deal with both the issues. Of the latter type, the most emotionally layered drawings and paintings flowed from Kazi Hassan Habib who died a premature death in 1988.
The protracted resistance movement against the military rule that finally ended in 1990 served as the backdrop for the continuation of the strands of emergency aesthetic that continue to this day. However, it is in the works of the group called Shomoy, which was formed by students in Chattogram and Dhaka, that the political-economic dispensation of imperialist power was directly approached. The early works of the group’s founding members Wakilur Rahman and Dhali Al Mamoon speak of their engagement with the issue of global order.
Other members, Habibur Rahman, Shishir Bhattacharjee, Nisar Hossain, et al, sought to redefine narrative painting in relation to the resistance they articulated both in text and images against imperialism and the rise of religious obscurantism. Shomoy images gave rise to some healthy debates about art and its relationship with knowledge and power. Of the members, Dhali Al Mamoon, Wakilur Rahman, Dilara Begum Jolly, would soon develop their separate methods of negotiating the here and now.
Simultaneously, RA Kajol, who continued to hold solo exhibitions in Dhaka since he made Denmark his new home in the late 1970s, extended his discursive tentacles spun around his inventive word puns such as ‘evilisation’, ‘democrazy’, etc, to the art scene. It is no wonder that the first exhibition Kajol mounted in Dhaka in 1984 was tilted Colony, where the civilizational implications were dealt with in simple visual terms where naked humans abounded.
POLITICAL art saw its start in the drawings and prints of Quamrul Hassan, a first-generation artist. It first appeared by way of a fraught response to the immediate reality after the war. His was a transgression that had no precedent in the delta. The impact of his practice would soon affect the artists of the coming generations.
At a critical moment in history in the late 1960s, Quamrul’s oeuvre forked into two directions. One continued along the line of the sanguine notion of art he was already famous for, one that mirrored an idealised bucolic life, and the other that saw its beginning in his attempt to forge a visual equivalent of the sinister figure that he encountered in the military dictator Yahya Khan in 1969. The sketches that finally led the artist to the well-known rendition of the face of the dictator in the poster ‘Annihilate these Demons’ produced in 1971, were developed through the hybridisation of human and animal forms. Quamrul entered the realm of the critical art to negate what Burhanuddin Khan Jahangir referred to as ‘colonial modernity’ and, according to the sociologist’s argument set forth in the 1993 book titled Quamrul Hassan.
If Quamrul’s preoccupation with the rural bore some obvious signs of romanticising the ordinary people, he continued to produce masterpieces along that line till his death in 1988. Naiar or Three Maidens done in this vein are among his most popular paintings. With his political imagery, Quamrul began to court trouble in the newly emerged country. Burhanuddin Khan fittingly puts his stance in context in the book mentioned above: ‘[D]uring the reign of Sheikh Mujub, the historical moment of Quamrul Hassan’s works stood opposed to the nationalist leadership and close to the class position of nationalism.’
THE spectrum of practices that redefined art following independence included yields out of the pales of abstract realism, purist abstraction associated with Mohammad Kibria, and, most importantly, a range of new figurative genres inaugurated by Sultan and Quamrul. On the heels of the inventiveness demonstrated by the two modern stalwarts, a fresh new talent made his appearance in the late 1970s — Shahabuddin Ahmed.
Young Shahabuddin, in the early 1980s, brought forth a set of figural motifs associated with the spirit of the war legible in the impassioned representation of male figures. The appeal of his muscular men scampering across the canvas showing painterly gestures in brown and ochre even brought recognition of the middle-class — matching thereby the achievement of the master artists such as Zainul, Sultan and Quamrul. Shahabuddin’s role in the war of independence as a soldier-commander has also helped secure a niche in the public consciousness.
IN THE new configuration of the culture of the late 1980s, ideas and rhetoric linked to Bengali identity politics were brought closer to a political narrative that sought to stigmatise Islam in the wake of the country’s second military ruler Ershad’s cosmetic Islamisation and introduction of Islam as the state religion in 1988. The public gaze was thus shifted from the imperialist design to what many progressivists dubbed as ‘the rise of Islam’. Burhanuddin called the conundrum the rise of ‘reactionary neo-conservatism’ where ‘strengthening of linear values’ was pitted against ‘pluralism’.
The new political polarisation hijacked pertinent political debates. Though the heat attendant to such political despondencies seeped into the art scene and at times coloured the debates cast around secular-religious duality, the situated practices showed some internal logic to grow in its own terms. As the scene was heated up by the introduction of many new practices of the late 1990s, primarily internalised what one may define as a smattering of postmodern languages and the conscious and unconscious poststructuralist drift towards ‘subjectivity’ and ‘self-reflectivity’. The urge to move away from medium-specificity attendant to the disciplines thus left a decisive impact on the young and aspirant artists, which, in turn, guided the scene into a more socially engaged, heterogeneous practice in the new millennium.
Storytelling, allegorical framing, symbolism and even cross-referencing found a perfect vehicle in cross-media art. The new social realities, the pathologies included, were tackled in many ways than ever thought possible, including through parody and pastiche via absurdist story teller Ronni Ahmmed.
While mixed medium art, including text art, if my own solo exhibition in 2002 can be called that as the pairing of sourced image and text lay the basis of the installation.
Artists began to perform the new artistic position(s) by bringing art both figuratively and literally out of the cloisters of modernists monuments — galleries and art educational institutions.
More and more artists began to drift towards a new ecology which was already in the making, where disciplines collapsed and installation and combines rose to prominence.
The best art of the last thirty years — the last decade of the previous century and the first two decades of the new century — was developed while artists were at a remove from the mainstream art educational and promotional institutions. The venue of the Asian Art Biennale served as an important venue to stage all such art. It was, in fact, the very first heterotopias where new Bangladeshi art juxtaposed with the art that came from across Asia, giving a taste of the global mainstream.
With the launch of the biennale in 1981, the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy served as an important stage for the mnemonic transfer of new trends, at least until the late 1990s, before it met with a gradual slump in quality. One must note that the home-grown unconventional and experimental art also appeared in the scene through the government apparatus that was the biennale.
Remaining far from the rarefied environment of the academy, artists who developed a penchant for site-specific interventions had not only widened the horizon further by trying out new non-art materials but also being inclusionary. Concerns about places and people and a new form of informal pedagogy that came out of it slowly began to lend basis to the alternative practices. All this resulted from the group and individual activities in which Mahabubur Rahman had played a catalytic role.
The emergence of video art had been made possible via works of Dhali Al Mamoon and Mahabubur Rahman in the late 1990s. Their multimeadia practice, though different in valance, spared the enthusiasm for new technology in art. Mahabub, a younger generation artist who had devised narrative sculpture in the early 1990s, first introduced multimedia installation in a 1997 sculptural installation, while Dhali staged a crossmedia installation at the exhibition marking the closing of the gallery Jojon two years later where a huge video played at the background in one room. Dhali also introduced light-boxes in the same exhibition.
Concurrently, artists-run organisation such as Britto in Dhaka, with Mahbub and Tayeba Begum Lipi leading many young artists into site-specific and multimedia practice, Santaran and now defunct Porapara Art Space in Chattogram, together contributed to the rise in site-specific practice. Inspired by Mahbub’s site-specific performances, which he began in the late 1990s, Santaran and, especially Porarpara began to put equal emphasis on performance art.
No doubt, the art scene in Bangladesh developed in its own idiosyncratic rhythm, often advancing in jumps and staggers, while the artists of different stripes kept grappling with the mainstream institutional indifference and reservation of the traditional modernists. To this day, the national-level institutions are reluctant to subscribe wholeheartedly to contemporary developments. The status of photography and video art in the mainstream, thus, remains subject to vetting by the people sitting on the panels serving the relevant authorities. Interestingly, in stark opposition to this cultural parochialism, Dhaka Art Summit, launched in 2012, after its fifth iteration, has proved its growing relevance as a major space for installation, photography and plugged-in art.
Chobi Mela, since 2016, began to showcase video and multimedia installation art and many a young artist and photographer of the country.
These new sites made the Asian Art Biennale look like a valedictorian. Summit is a curated exhibition that always incorporate other curated segments focused on a range of practices while Chobi Mela, too, is always cast around a theme and is curated by local curators who are aware of the development in contemporary art and photography.
The most ambitious new works appeared in the millennium, size matters, to many, at least. Ronny Ahmed demonstrated his prowess in a hundred-foot-long painting entitled ‘Noah’s Ark’, painted in 2013, where mythology, nursery rhymes, local lore are overlapped with freewheeling interpretations to arrive at an amalgam-of-a dramatic tableaux.
Lipi and Mahbub kept on constructing huge installations using both hand-made and found materials, besides continuing their works in two-dimensional surfaces. These two leading lights of new media and installation art, with retinue of Britto members, were the first few globetrotting artists of the country, whose works became part of the Venice Biennale in 2015. It was the first time the country participated in this prestigious event.
Two years later, another contingent of artists populated the Bangladesh pavilion at the biennale with an assortment of installation and paintings, where Dhali Al Mamoon and Lala Rukh Selim together represented the country with installations that sought to redefine the form by negating the globalised sui generis.
The millennial artists aim their ammunition at the state-elite nexus and also deal with the problem of history/narrative itself. They, alongside many other young proponents, including the new materialists who show a tendency to amass found materials, continue to devise art objects and installations to, perhaps, de-aestheticise their creative acts.
Today, the holistic visions of religious or spiritual inclination easily share space with a constellation of critical imageries that seek to dredge up ‘hidden forms’ of memory/history. Even artworks based on socially-engaged narrative are more and more inclined towards anti-art now.
In March 13, 2014, The New York Times ran a piece on Bangladeshi art, trying to capture the vibrant new art ecology of Dhaka, covering even the solo painting exhibition of Rafiqun Nabi while its writer, Amy Yee, cobbled together a rather naive interpretation of the history of art in the deltaic region. But it rightly pointed out that ‘in spite of the momentum, artists and patrons are still trying to push contemporary art beyond the country’s traditional notions.’
Mustafa Zaman, an artist and art critic, works at New Age.
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