Art in the age of infosphere
A departure from immutable modernity
It was mainly in the decade of the nineties that the most promising expressions of a new language of art began to proliferate. It was a time when some boldly and others with hesitation, started working across an array of media. Even before that, the 80s saw the emergence of 'Shomoy', a group of artists who stridently articulated their political intent in art continuing the tradition of Quamrul Hassan's critical imagery from the 70s and early 80s. Influenced by the Indian avant-garde's social commitment and determined to break free from the temperateness that defined the then art scene, 'Shomoy', which literally means 'time', issued forth works in group shows, from which the modality of contemporaneity could be discerned.
Deeply saturated in a resistive spirit born of a time marked by the polemics against the then military government, these artists spoke of the social degeneration afflicting their country of birth, apparently in light of the global context. What is clearly sensed in their intervention is a critique of the militarist form of government and the rise of the Islamist obscurantism – both seen as reactions against the global hegemon. Because of a certain lack of understanding of the local trans-class politics, the 'silence' of a large section of the masses remained uncaptured in the works of 'Shomoy'. Despite this drawback, however, their contribution towards unflinching mirroring of contemporary society lent their endeavours a historical importance.
By dint of their artistic sympathy for a secular society articulated through an intense language animating a narrative mode of expression, they managed to arrest the spirit of the decade that witnessed intermittent political struggle by the pro-democratic forces against the autocratic regime that finally buckled under a mass uprising in 1990. Since then, the relatively more renowned members of the group Shishir Bhattacharjee, Dhali Al Mamoon, Wakilur Rahman, Nissar Hossain et al have grown independent of their earlier collective ethos.
If for some, the 80s was the era of persistently voicing the political/social discontentment/disillusionment, for artists like Ra Kajol and GS Kabir, art simply resided at a threshold between poetic interpolation and synecdochical gestures of political significance. If the former went through changes in position as he subsequently began crossing the boundaries of traditional mediums to widen the possibilities of art; the latter, almost fortuitously, followed a circuitous path to attend first to the politics of existence and then to the global hegemony and violence.
Having preferred not to address sociopolitical reality in the same grain as their male counterparts, a number of women artists began to reject the established notions of art in the 1980s. Nilufar Chaman launched a broadside against convention by severing ties with the frozen corpus of the mainstream network of image circulation and digestion. She, by clearing the painted plain off sensuous details, distanced herself from the stereotyped markers of the feminine mystique. Dilara Begum Jolly, and Atiya Islam Annie, too, hauled themselves out of the hackneyed strain of signification. However, both artists, in their respective manner, came to terms with the issues of the place of women in the world, Atiya employing a coarse and sarcastic voice while Jolly, a cryptic yet enchanting language.
In the mid zone resides Nazlee Laila Mansur who places her art between the fetishized mainstream values and the peripheral existence of women in a patriarchally overwritten real polity to playfully allude to the massification of the stereotypical essentialist notions about women. She carefully weaves her canvases with intricate details of daily life using popular art as a source of inspiration.
In the 80s, if the sculptural remained at some remove from the painterly, the narrativizing spirit was infectious and was shared by sculptors such as Hamiduzzaman Khan, who, at a later date, abandoned his earlier method of emplacing found and created objects on a horizontal frame; Rasha Khan, a kindred spirit, on the other hand, remained faithful to his animated signifiers which are hyperbolic portraitures and figures presented in clusters. He too slowly turned a corner by prioritizing writing and activism in the new millennium.
In search for the seeds of a new art form Bangladesh, the tendency to overcome the limits of art may be identified as an important catalyst. The Asian Biennale at Dhaka that customarily showcases a wide variety of international art may be taken as a crucial locus of inspiration. The art of the 90s, with its experimentations with medium, content and process, derived huge sustenance from the national and international level exhibitions organized by the Shilpakala Academy. The notable and curious facts of the emerging art in the 90s, was that the vanguardists wiped out the clinical divisions between the mediums of painting and sculpture; in fact, interdisciplinary approaches started to show some decisive signs of incursions at that time.
Reacting to a world in flux artists either began to grapple with or dexterously manipulated ways of forsaking the traditional mediums to lean towards newer forms of practice. If object d'art framed art where the signifier is too uncomfortably close to the signified missing the conceptual loci altogether, some also delved into the abyss of meaning and signification with counter-narratives to negate both simplified narrative gestures and monolithic modes of practice. Nissar Hossain, Dhali Al Mamoon, Mahbubur Rehman, Tayeba Begum Lipi, Ronni Ahmmed, Rafiqul Shuvo stand out among others for having unseated themselves from linearity to opt for more or less nonlinear schemes.
Mahbibur Rahman's art, at the outset, expanded on the political art of the 80s where dramatization of a moment was of crucial import. His vital addition, however, was the functionings of the human body in its represented form, shown under different conditions of time and space to narrate a grim reality. This made Mahbub a depicter of the medicalized body in its social context.
Body remained an important point of reference in artists who set out to depart from the convention. Bodies read in relation to a phenomenology of action upon which are imprinted the signs of a violent past traverses the works of Dhali Al Mamoon, an artist who was bound to easel painting throughout the 80s. Yet, it was Dhali who first resorted to multimedia articulation in the late 90s fuelling the enthusiasm of many a young artist who were already set on the path of exploring the new avenues of expression. Additionally, the late 90s saw Nissar Hossain, who, to this day, holds on to a language of expression that portends violent insurgence of faith-based politics, devising new techniques which are often performative and at times even rhizomic.
The aesthetic preoccupation that came to prominence in the late 90s flows, fundamentally, in two directions: on the one hand, for some self-representation and the politics of identity, a throwback to art from the 70s and 80s, was of prime importance; and on the other, the fresh new talents who boldly replaced the idea of 'where you are at' with 'what you can become', blithely and completely. So the drift, as one may understand from some of the successful works, was geared towards a divagation utilizing a neo-absurdist, non-sequitur like logic, as is obviously the case in the works of Ronni.
Perhaps, on the heels of Ronni Ahmmed, Rafiqul Shuvo followed suit as did some other artists who made their appearance in the new millennium. Aside from Ronni and Shuvo, it was amongst the budding artists who have just begun to experiment with objects and the possibilities latent in decontextualization, that we are able to locate multiform, multidimension and even a multiplicity of polemical referencing. Shuvo seemed like the ideal multiplicator when he came to prominence with his paintings and sculptures; and in the last five years he has proved to be the most prolific video artist who playfully toggles between ideas of modern-day schizophrenia and transcendence.
To negate the empirical to arrive at the discursive, the new proponents of art, at present, seem to take their cue from all kinds of tableau – social, psychographic and psychological. Through metaphorical simulation artists such as Tayeba Begum Lipi, Abu Naser Ribi, Palash Bhattacharjee, Promotesh Das Pulak, Imran Hossain Piplu, Afsana Sharmin, Marzia Islam, Abir Shome, Jubair Alam, Swarnaly Rini, Md Shakhawat Hossain et al, keep pushing the parameters of art setting conventions that replace the old.
Lipi's recent forays exemplify the spirit of simulation in the most literal, physical form of all. Her pieces constructed with especially made razorblades combine the real with the metaphorical, and it follows a history of similar methodology efficaciously applied since the late 90s. Whereas, Ronni Ahmmed, who started out in the new millennium, has been inclined towards a metaphysical phenomenon through psychosocial recasting of all existing fables and metanarratives; he sets the standards for an art that sees the amalgamation of simulation and the allegoric as a ground for engendering pseudo-irrational narratives.
Even though they may not directly conform to the new surge for interdisciplinarity, there are a number of artists whose names may be suggested as originators of points of departures from the field of mainstream modernism. These are proponents who often conflate the fictitious with the empirical. If absurdity and hyper-realism informs Anisuzzaman Sohel's digital prints, in Mohammed Wahiduzzaman we find a crosscultural effusion, as he meticulously superimposes popular art with references to political icons of the modern age.
Unlike the rest, Abdus Salam's conceptually fraught works lend their strength to a particular moment in history and its placement in a specific spatial reality. He excavates memories related to events and translates the very spot of such historical occurrences into prints which he presents in sprawling installations.
In the discussion of the art of the last two decades a few important features come to light. The birth of a multiplicity of new positions vis-à-vis art that stemmed after having negated the duality of abstraction and figuration of the sixties: some artists were also able to produce a post-modern, post-colonial language that did not have to take for granted the dichotomy of Western-Eastern or Global-Local. Whereas some drew clear lines of exit from avant-gardism, few kept attached to some of the old notions while taking to new media and methods. Perhaps, the word 'experimental' adequately captures the spirit with which the artists have produced works of substantial maturity. What remains to be seen is whether through all kinds of hybrid processes what is arrived at would remain aesthetically relevant in the years to come.