Rip off / rip open
19th edition of the National Art Exhibition
In the West, due to the corporate and media boom and the technological innovations, the diversity, scale and the rate of production in the visual culture has thrown it in the direction of vicissitude pushing things to their limits; and the artists of the erstwhile empire, colonized as they still are through an imperial design in its advanced stage, seem to be following suit. 'Spectate with awe' – this happens to be the frame through which most artists are negotiating the here-and-now of the artistic geo-polity utilizing the tools of cotemporary modes of expression.
If most Bangladeshi artists are self-satisfyingly attached to idioms that offer little in terms of aesthetic possibilities, some are set out on courses with the hope of breaking new grounds. This latter category of artists, inspired by new technologies and techniques they are now being exposed to courtesy of the net, are in a hurry to effect a change by either strategies of appropriation without acknowledging the debt or through half-hearted efforts – failing to realize to the fullest the processes of such fresh move. If this is the predominant attitude to art-making, when a few try and rip open new grounds all on their own, works that carry meaning in the context of location as well as against the backdrop of the dislocation that globalization has sparked, is bound to receive confusing feedback from all quarters – starting from spectators to art connoisseurs to art critics and writers.
As historical processes have no claim in all that is going on in the realms of art-making and showcasing, we should relinquish any hope of inciting the imagination of the public, and, instead, be contented with the short-term buzz created by any exhibition of national import. 19th National Art Exhibition has been a similar splash-on-the-can art-event as it too has no potential to leave any considerable aftermath in its wake. An exhibition with a history of creating national icons, no matter how poorly curated and off-key with the changing time and the evolving mores of the art practises it has been in its design for the last twenty years, now seem to have lost its purpose altogether.
The fact that the rest of world has already ditched the framework that always attempts an authoritative display of nationalistic desire has no place in the cultural discourses in this country. At least, no such signs are visible to inspire hope.
In trying to bring under one umbrella the entire spectrum of artistic prcatises in the country, the Shilpakala Academy of Bangladesh is not only failing to realize the beyondness of the very concept of having a national show where all the specimens of art produced by their practitioners can be made present, but through its outdated knowledge and inadequate apparatus the institution is also promoting the hierarchy of the chosen urban centers such as Dhaka and Chittagong. Many have raised the question that these two cities, important though they are for having been the hubs for most practising artists, seemed to have colluded to ensure exclusion of the rest of the nation.
Among the various corpuses that surfaced in this exhibition, New Media shows a strong presence, which testifies to the fact that not only the young and the aspiring proponents of the arts are trying to be in sync with the rest of the world, but are also hard put to finding the socio-political context in their own country to legitimize these practises. The result, unsurprisingly, is not always that pleasing, or should one a say inspiring.
Those who have run the risk of going an extra mile to meet their aspirations using unorthodox dictions and media, display a tendency to revitalize the artistic space with the techniques of appropriation that have already been made cliché by their Western counterparts. The standard tropes of experimental art in the West has long been tied to a keen understanding of the material used and the conceptual rigour that drives the artists in using those materials; add to that scenario the fact that the changing aesthetic and social-philosophical theories have long been their fodder. In order to be in their league one will have to have some extent of understanding, or at least be in proximity through a process of osmosis to ensure that one has found one's own voice among many.
By way of this final caveat we may direct our commentaries to the audience on some the works that together create the high and low topographic points of the uneven aesthetic landscape we encounter in this exhibition.
The indices of success that we are fed by the media and the art/cultural institutions and the indices that we are able to create by making our own discoveries as we course through exhibitions and art-events, provide a contrast otherwise not imaginable. Let us begin probing the works of art – those that come closer to the ambition that is their building spirit, and others that fall flat on their face by attempting the same. We may look at the current index from the bottom up – trying to make sense of, sometimes, the deliberate agglomeration of materials to evoke meaning while the creators are begging to prove their social relevance, and, at others, be alert to the genuine efforts that allows for interpretation giving rise to moments akin to the rights of passage that open up aesthetic possibilities.
'Garden of Hell' is an installation by Saidul Haque Juise, which received the AB Bank award. Its conceptual premise challenges the dominant structure of the current social-political grid, but in its built it remains undecided regarding its antagonism vis-à-vis social structure and about the expressiveness it wants to achieve through a rather crafty display which draws on both three- and two-dimensional elements. If the absence of a discernable discourse and a clear political position afflict the work, the organizing principle it is based on seems too feeble a frame through which to raise an urgent voice – be that political or aesthetic. The two prop-like figures in embrace have been conceived as the meeting of the villainous humans, but their attributes are incapable of removing the visual layer to open the counter-discursive realm to become a testimony to our troubled times. As a concept, the displacement of heaven was of some psychosocial importance, but its thrust towards a visual logic that places its bet solely on retinal engagement falls short of the intellectual ambition the work and its title initially extarnalizes.
Existentially inclined Bishwajit Goswami, a young proponent given to naturalistic tendency, is also an artist whose carefully crafted visual elements, invested as they are in human condition and the anxiety that condition releases, apparently ends in futility. Failing to transport the viewers in the realm of awakening so that they are able to sense the dehumanizing effect of modern times, the artist unflinchingly opts for a grand display of his ability to give a run-through of the details of human anatomy – through a realistically rendered centre figure and a series of magic-mirror image rendered in lines and composed in grid. His painting has snatched the Bengal Foundation Award.
If we agree on the fact that the acceptance of pluralism of expressions and the mediation of new media is a recent phenomenon, the inscription of the national or the local seems to crowd any exhibition of this nature with too many trivial iconographies and a number of exercises where the medium is put to use to construct the most prosaic narrative one has ever encountered. Works of Tasadduk Hossain Dulu, entitled 'Surface and Inside the Surface', which depicts a colourful curtain, and Kamaluddin's 'Afflictions of Society' that fatishizes poverty and disease, are two prime examples of how the Bangladeshi art scene is bogged down in the banal and the unimaginative. Interestingly Dulu has been awarded an Honourable Mention, while Kamaluddin received the Dipa Haq Award.
The crisis that besets the post-1970's art scene in Bangladesh is one of intellectual vacuum – this fact has often manifested in crass sourcing of both traditional iconography and the most superficial re-inscription of the political and the social in the artistic production. The faint light that we are able to discover at the end of the tunnel is the gift from artists who are still trying to hone their craft to perfection; their sincere efforts surely deserve attention. Abul Hussain Dhali, with his woodcut print tilted 'Grazing Ground 1' makes clear the fact that its creator seems to be operating under the shadow of the naturalistic tendencies of early Safiuddin Ahmed, he has been deservedly awarded an Hounourable Mention. On the other hand, Ruhul Karim Rumee, with his four portraitures presented in one work of woodcut print clearly demonstrate how erasing leads to excellent aesthetic solutions. His work of four seemingly unrelated portraits at their various levels of mutation plumb Western modernist more connected to existentialism, and they disarmingly introduce an effacement of nose, eyes and other recognizable elements in the vein of Francis Bacon. Rumee, for his eloquently expressive work, received Bhasha Shainik Gaziul Haque Award.
Ashraful Hassan, whose 'Tree-man, Newspaper and Brick' received the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academi Award was quite a bummer, especially in the eyes of those who have been to his solo this year and have already posses the foreknowledge that this rather fashionably crafted but blatantly monophonic series is already behind him.
From other new corpuses one can easily zero in on the most riveting, though simple in its projection of the idea, video installation by Tyeba Begum Lipi. Her sarcasm is subtle but directional, as the artist – who is also the protagonist in the act – shears away at local newspapers and end up with quite a small-hill-like heap of paper cuttings – all just to make playful commentary at how we consume information. The vulgarity of the habit of amassing information, no matter whether they are useful or redundant, is the sign of listless era that Lipi wants to mediate showing the subject's pursuit as an end in itself, thereby abolishing the possibility of critical engagement.
Anisuzzaman Sohel, on the other hand, gives new lease of life to an over-used trope to formulate a political commentary. His supersonic warplanes – a symbol that usually stands for power, technology, and domination – because of their novel surface patterning, jumps out of the wall and attends to the ambivalence through which we look at and at times judge imperial ambition and its effect on the rest of the world. Dilara Begum Joli, in her busy installation, where dried branches comingle with carefully constructed doll-like figures, introduces some new devices: human forms wrapped in decorative cloth sourced from expensive saris. It is perhaps a way for her to allude to the acquisitive nature of our wealth-driven age and the death wish that it inaugurates by way of our wish fulfillment and the continuous widening of the horizon of desire.
There are other works, which are only enfeebled relay of responses to the consumer-haven-of-a-universe that we inhabit and the social mobility that all men and women are engaged in apparently contrasting with works that tackle, though in equally timid language, the world fraught with Western excesses – a fact which intermittently makes us change or rethink our attitude towards our cultural and political lives. But if the processes of activation of such discourses, or should one say preponderantly pseudo-discourses, are examined one realizes that the critical tools are rarely in use, though New Media and the entire spectrum of art strategies, before acquiring its current status, was part of the body of external criticism of both artistic and political establishments. When artists of this region fail to attend to this fact, they either show an utter reluctance to re-envision these modes of art from their own context, or just manage to pay homage to the antecedents of such techniques. Yet the most terrible fate that often befalls them is the heavy-handedness they display in putting the physical elements to the service of the conceptual framework of these categories of work.
In retrospect, it seems there is a dearth of tropes, types and trajectories in Bangladeshi art scene, as is evident in the recurrence of clichéd symbolism. A stretched out pair of wings suggesting flight seems to pop up as an abiding sign of freedom or absence of it in many works nowadays. In this particular show it appears as a transcending device positing eschatological significance to a wrecked car, and in many other installations as well as two-dimensional images as plain human desire; and in one particular painting as justice dreamt through the muzzle of a handgun. Yet, one particular winged work – an entry by young installation artist Wahiduzzaman – seems to stand apart for its illuminated drama of signs of major religions placed beside handguns and which share space with secular political icons. It is a work that seems to mediate the loss of meaning in most social-political strategies and in urban semiotic transmission as a whole. Though made to look like a bland inscription of relics culled from religious discourses, another work of some elemental difference with its references to the grid of Buddhist ways of seeking enlightenment is entitled 'Me in Yantra 1'. It creates its flat-facedness employing hundreds of baked mud-fingers organized in grid as readable/palpable signs, perhaps to announce the limits of the discursive way of knowing. Presented in a number of panels the work's ambitious creator is Gonashai Pahlavi.
Apart from all that is unintentionally mundane, and as such negligible, there are only a few high points in this show to direct one's attention to. Many a display rooms has been made cluttered by entries that are actually products of apprentices – fit to be hung in annual exhibitions of art educational institutions. It is sheer lack of professionalism that besets the art showcasing scene in Bangladesh. May be artists-led imitative will change that in near future.