voices from the periphery Santaran's recent incursion into Dhaka
Etymologically the Bangla word 'Santaran' means 'to swim'. Taking that word as our starting point we may proceed on to unearth the organizational ethos of the artist-run nonprofit Santaran, which is based in Chittagong. Santaran and the river Karnafuli, the lifeline of the district of Chittagong, are aligned as together they stand for the cultural mix which is territorially bound. Though the artistic practices Santaran have made foundational to their organization link them to the global surge for the interactive art, and are also the result of the self-conscious bridging of the issues in hand with the dialogic principle of the contemporary performance, site-specific and installation art. The members, who play duel responsibilities as both activists and practising artists, feel a strong urge to embed their art into the contemporary and locational cultural traditions to deal with environmental and social problematics, the aesthetic registers they willingly inhabit have them negotiate the divergent modes of expressivity drawn from the local realities, inspired by global trends. Setting their activities in specific context, they often forward their messages from the margin – the perceived hinterland where the Bangladesh mainstream has little control over.
The Santaran members along with some other invited artists jointly bring in a cross-section of contemporary art from Chittagong to Dhaka, as such the curated effort From the Karnafuli may be seen as their recent attempt at creating a collectivized signature in lieu of the current art produced on the bank of Karnafuli. As the Dhaka residence of the Italian ambassador to Bangladesh serves as the venue, in the dynamics of this alternative spatial reality, where the artworks were disbursed across the lawn, the sprawled-out display seems enough to spark a re-evaluation of the art from the port city. Drawing on their rigorous practices of the last few years Santaran's Manjur Ahmed has, time and again, set the stage to rock the art world; though, this time, the spectrum seems too speculative as it contains too many conventional constructions. Among the 27 participating artists, many who never even dared to flip things to see what happens, were brought to make bold new statements, amongst whom there are notable mainstream exponents.
A staggering 50 paintings and seven installations, which together make up the current layout of the exhibition, are, thus, bound to incite mixed-emotion. The idea of the 'bikalpa', or the 'alternative', so conspicuously summoned through their textual and artistic practice of serious intonation and intention, seems to take a blow. In Bangladesh, the search for the 'alternative', in many a venue, generates more inanities and nicities than substance; perhaps this particular locus simply save its face by incorporating works by artists such as Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Afsana Sharmin Jhuma, Ripon Saha Sanjoy Chakraborty et al.
What seems teasing are the elements or/and accoutrements that spur one to construct art piece which we may refer to as 'conceptual'. It is not only a process of intellect, but rather a phenomenologically arrived at disposition which results from certain ways of making art by letting it appear as a process of unmasking of new experiences, or open-ended narratives. At its core lies the concept of 'freedom from object and collaboration with the environment', or, at least, the intention behind such art can be described as such. Therefore, the phenomenon called art grows tentacles to drive into other social, literary or cultural phenomena.
The creation of 'otherness' through the embodiment of newer concepts thus is linked to a position one takes vis-à-vis art, seen in its relational diagram where the immediate as well as the greater socio-economic environment are taken into cognizance. The format that some of the exponents of such othered creations have been made to employ are often clearly beholden to the global surge for installations and various forms of new media art. It is the de-facto contemporary tradition, and if this new undertaking of art is swiftly taking over the mainstream in our neighbouring regions, in Bangladesh it is still seen with a degree of suspicion.
The aesthetic occasion this exhibition gives rise to by amassing varied and disparate artistic dictions under one thematic, can best be interpreted as a showcasing of the recent crops form Chittagong. And if we are to cluster them so that we are able to elicit meaning out of the mixed bag, four categories appear. One of them centres on the human consciousness and its mysterious communion with nature, while the second category artworks are mostly about the relation between man and nature framed through the humanist tradition of man having the privilege of occupying the centre, mostly through absence of the represented being. The third and the fourth categories have to do with excavation of the collective imaginary and the representation of the urgent social-historical issues.
The artists who intersect art with nature or discourses on nature are Afsana Sharmin Jhuma, Alak Roy, Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Sharad Das, Bivol Saha, Abu Naser Robii and others. The artists of the second category are KMA Qaium, Shayla Sharmin, Nilufar Chaman, Manjur Ahmed, Arifuzzaman Chowdhuri, SM Ansar Ali. Into the third slot we discover works by Osman Pasha, Mansurul Karim, Tasadduk Hossain Dilu, Meherun Akter, Shahidul Islam Khokon, Tanjil Tushi and Subrata Das, while the fourth category is occupied by Majur Ahmed, Ripon Saha, Sanjoy Chakraborti, Shatabdi Shome et al.
Amidst such a motley crowd, those who shine do so by dint of their inclination to operate from a locus inconceivable through the normativized practices of the mainstream. Though the legacy of modernism in the form of a subjectivized and romanticized account of the theme explored still haunts many, or even thwarts attempts at effectuating a gaze-shift, artists like Yasmin Jahan Nupur, in, I am in an Ocean with My Reflection creates 'the' aesthetic moment of the show. The subject's neuter voice appears before us in the form of a series of portraitures which seemed to have resulted from a performatively felt closeness with water and air. Artist Ripon Saha, operates as he does from within the fourth category, symbolically frames the iconic poet Rabindranath amidst references to a series of pop art like symbols of women starting from Venus of Willendorf to Marilyne Monroe. It bears all the ambiguity a piece of popular constructions might be packed with, and perhaps the artist addresses the conundrum of the feminine beauty in relation to the romantic poet in a semiotic mode which the present influx of images both popular and otherwise has forcefully turned us into consumers and interpreters.
Sanjoy Chakraborty, whom we have also clustered among the ones who attempt an unveiling of the historical-social context, frames his nationalist narrative through liberal discourse of tolerance among Bengalis of different faiths. He freights his commentary through a pleasurable as well as innovative way, structuring his figural motifs with a strong emphasis on a linear executional techne.
In the end, it is necessary to comment on the 'identity' which Santaran attempts to generate or reflect through this exhibition. Especially, one must emphasize that the very site where such an emergence is to take place is still in need of some predetermined factors – including a curatorial framework which, through further discernment, will have focused on a particular aspect or thematic of the art scene of the port city. Yet, that a chunk of Chittagong (its artistic turf, of course) has successfully been brought to Dhaka, for this very deed alone the event deserves kudos, though one is left with an aftertaste that is underwhelming. Perhaps the mix between traditional moderns and the new-moderns could have been avoided. The word new-modern is necessary as modernism and its traditional frame of coding and decoding seem to inform most artworks including many of which anatomically resemble postmodern constructions. All things said and done, after scanning the horizon created by such an amalgamation of disparate, different, distuned art, one is able to pick up some nuggets which, together, signal a thrust towards a future.
'From the Karnafuli' was showcased at the residence of Giorgio Guglielmino, ambassador of Italy in Bangladesh. The exhibition, jointly organized by Santaran, Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts and the Embassy of Italy, lasted from 27 to 29 January 2012.