15th Asian Art Biennale an overview
Launched in 1981 with the participation of only 14 Asian countries, within a short span of time the Asian Art Biennale became the lifeline for the Bangladeshi art community spurring the ensuing changes in the next two decades. Aside from an increase in the number of participating countries, which led to the widening of the compass to accommodate art from countries outside Asia, it primarily served as a space where new ideas and concepts of art percolated through the homegrown talents. Though, it is now beset with manifold problems, and is often seen in a critical light due to its failure to register the rapid changes of the last ten-to-twelve years compared to other such venues across Asia, the Biennale still remains the most important platform for artists seeking exposure and institutional validation.
The Shilpakala Academy itself has been slow in registering the shift that has taken place in the new millennium, the ground for which was prepared by some practitioners in the 1990s. And this is due to the fact that the institutional knowledge that guides it is tied to that of the 1960s Dhaka, when modernity was conceived through a set of fixed aesthetic variables. In fact artists from the first and second generation modernists are still calling the shots in most government institutions. These artists along with their sympathizers, from both outside and inside the art world, who share their zeal for traditional interpretation of art, sit on the panels that are responsible for policy level changes.
So, the approaches that we dub stereotypical are here to stay, at least for some time to come. Changes deemed necessary, thus, will have taken place only when the people at the helm would look 'afresh' at both current and past art practices and re-assess their age-worn positions. Though, in the last decade or so, Shilpakala Academy as a validating institution, since its inception in 1974, failed us in many ways; yet in lieu of its past contributions and as the only platform for staging art at the national and international levels, its relevance can never be undermined.
As per its routine practice, in the run up to the 15th Asian, the Academy invited 48 countries from the Asia Pacific region through the government channel. Thirty three countries submitted 259 artworks by 118 artists in response. A selection committee, where artists are predominant as members, selected 137 artworks by 100 local artists sifting through the entries submitted by 537 artists. For the first time all the artworks have found space under one roof, as the newly-built National Art Gallery of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy is a big enough venue for such a huge convergence of artworks.
Though framed as a platform for Asian artists, in addition to works from home, it received entries from six nations outside Asia, including USA, Canada, UK, Germany, Italy and Egypt.
In this 15th edition of the biennale, Kazi Salahuddin Ahmed (Bangladeshi), Bashar Al Hroub (Palestinian) and Meiro Koizumi (Japan) won grand prizes for their works, respectively in mixed media, photography and video installation. Of the six honourable mentions local artists Zihan Karim and Yasmin Jahan Nupur received two for their video installations, while one went to Australian artist Todd Fuller, the rest went to Rajan Kafle from Nepal, Sadegh Tirafkan from Iran, Nisrine Biukhari from Syria.
Perhaps, for the first time the award selection committee, made up of national and international artists and curators, decided to deemphasize medium-specificity. No pure painting, sculpture, graphics and print were considered for award. Rather, experimental works that uses photography and video and other form of crossdisciplinary technique won seven out of nine awards.
Experts from both home and abroad seem united on one pivotal issue – achieving a signature style for the biennale to secure a unique position in the global art scene alongside displaying the best yields from the region. To achieve that target, most of them favour the creation of a curatorial team that will work for the next edition which will be premised on a chosen thematic; the selection of the best art from the region will also be centered on and around that theme.
Sifting through a vast corpus to arrive at works with staying power or relevance is not an easy task, this is exactly what the jury was aiming for. Dorothée Brill, German curator and lecturer for contemporary art, who was on the panel of jurors, reflects on the process: 'Only the quality of the individual works counted, independent of the medium in uses. The dominance of painting is remarkable; however, awards were given to new media and installation art considering their merit.'
Like Dorothée Brill, most foreign delegates and participants had only constructive feedback to give. They lauded the effort by the lone government institution which has been staging the biennale since its inception in 1981. When many biennales across the globe are struggling at present, such a publicly funded project that has sustained over the last three decades attracted a mixture of surprise and kudos.
'Though, the emphasis has to be on quality, but this doesn't automatically answer all those other relevant questions of our time. Thus, one might say, that the challenge for any biennale is not only to become old, but to stay young at the same time. By this I don't necessarily mean young art, but young in terms of revising, assessing and possibly adapting programmatic guidelines.' In the case of the Asian Art Biennale, one of those moot issues, Dorothée feels, 'might be the separation of the display according to nations. This is a structure also heavily used at the Venice biennale, of course. But I have some doubts about the extent to which it limits and to which it actually enlarges our reception of the works on display.' Her suggestion on how to ensure a good crop of artworks also seems pertinently premised on the concept of curatorial consideration. 'It is as always advisable to continuously reflect whether or not the established paths in selecting the national and international participants are still the best, and examine what one means by 'the best'? 'The best' always depends on the primary objectives of a biennale,' she points out.
'Time has come to be unique. Dhaka Biennale should reflect Dhaka. And the local artists also should reflect the unique tone of the tradition for the contemporary global audience,' Skinder Hundal, puts it bluntly. He is the chief executive of the UK-based New Art Exchange who was an observer sponsored by the British Council. Skinder looks forward to a change in approach, 'It should be organized in a more planned and structured manner,' he added.
Zhang Qing, head of curatorial and research department of National Art Museum of China, have somewhat different view of the Biennale. For him a collaborative strategy might prove effective in improving the quality of such a programme. He opines that Dhaka should work jointly with the Shanghai biennale, citing that five other nations of the Asia-Pacific region including China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Australia are working together to enhance the scope of the biennales in their respective countries.
'Being the oldest biennale in the region, I feel that Bangladesh will benefit by joining hands with the other countries,' Zhang Qing reiterates. His observation takes into account the global political-economic and aesthetic shifts. He lays his faith in exploring and rediscovering of Asian biennales. 'The formation of the Asian biennale cluster [in the Far East] has constantly updated the cultural discourse conferring power upon geographical and cultural politics of the 21st century. The rediscovery of the biennales shows us that Asia is playing an important and unique role in the global art scene. The biennales prove to be the engines of the rise of Asian contemporary art,' he points out.
'As the universal idea of “Modernity” initiated by the West is gradually failing, Asian biennales provide a new stage for the establishment of a unique “Modernity”. We are rediscovering and representing our own Biennales by absorbing the local Asian Biennale mechanism and displaying the distinctive Asian cultures,' he adds. Zhang Qing further says that, 'Today the world is faced with the era of multidimensions, multiborders and multiscales for the cultivation of a new culture,' suggesting that an Asian network will interiorize in its own terms the Asian as well global developments in art and discourses, thereby helping to set the tone for art practice and staging in this region.
The proposal to restructure the biennale to keep pace with the changing time is not something which is new, even local artists, especially who emerged during and after the 1980s, have often constantly advocated an alignment with the changing ecology in and outside the country. Artist Dhali Al Mamoon opines, 'For many years we have been suggesting for massive structural changes. There is no alternative but to create a curatorial or expert committee for organizing the biennale, which should start working for the next edition just after completion of the current one.'
Echoing the German curator Dorothée Brill, Mamoon suggests that the 'presentation' should also become a major preoccupation, arguing that 'the current nature of presentation is suitable for displaying classic paintings but is unable to deal with experimental works. He also feels that the organizers waste a huge amount of money on honorariums to the members of a huge organizational committee.'
Artist Wakilur Rahman feels that 'there should also be a basic difference between the character the national art events and that of the international biennale in terms of number of participants and quality.' He questions the very significance of inviting a hundred local artists to be showcased in the current biennale. 'It's better to keep the number less than fifty and give more support to those participants so that are able to create better projects,' he adds.
The Director General Liakot Ali Lucky, on the other hand, is focused on structural change. 'In the current structure we are completely dependent on the Culture Ministry in terms of allocation of money, as we are inviting foreign artists, even in forming the organizing committee, restructuring is necessary,' he points out. 'Formation of a separate Biennale Cell with the people who are dedicated to art and have the motivation to take it to another level, is a must,' Lucky concludes.
While the gallery-going public in the country finds the venue of the Biennale inviting, enjoying a stroll inside the huge gallery spaces housed in the new building, the experts and connoisseurs are of the opinion that it is time to rethink the strategies to stage such a huge event. Many feel that the Academy should address seriously the issues pertaining to making this event relevant to the current global practices drawing attention to the major artists of the region. Only then the biennale will be transformed into a unique avenue to showcase a significant crop of art and to project a positive image of the country.
ERSHAD KAMOL is cultural page editor of the English daily New