Chittagong : Far from the madding crowd
While buying water, I overheard, 'Eta ki… oshudh naki? (is this medicine?)' I turned to find a young shopper pointing to a wall of swollen polythene bags that was Satabdi Shome's installation, 'Reality’
'Oshudh naki?' he asked again.
'It's installation art,' I interjected, helpfully (I thought). 'The whole street is taken over by these projects.’
'Yes… probably. This is organized by Jog, an artist collective.’
He pointed at the only 'traditional' work on the street, 'Juncture', a painting with a multipronged figure, by Fahima Binte Zahed. 'I understand that work. I know that one is shilpa (art). But, polythene bags?' he said.
'Did your father think there would be something called mobile phone? Everything changes, so why not shilpa,’ his companion interrupted,
He seemed to like this explanation, turning away from me and launching into a discussion with his friend. This was healthy. Not a dismissal, only questions.
Throughout the day, I saw a walk-through crowd similar to this man: puzzled, curious, and eventually engaged with the work. Not just friends of the artists, or invited guests, as is common in many Dhaka openings, but people almost accidentally discovering the exhibition at Cheragee Pahar, a small hub in Chittagong.
Cheragee Pahar is a crucial walkway because of the presence of Batighor bookshop and various newspaper offices (the latter gently lampooned in Afsana Sharmin Jhuma's 'Don't Worry, Shuprobhat'). As Batighor was one of two shops in the area carrying our book, 'Chittagong Hill Tracts in the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism', this was my entry point into local culture nodes.
As the crowds swelled in the street, each installation attracted a cluster. Every piece facing questions like, 'eta ki (What is this?)'. Only the live performance of shaggy-maned Mishuk Ehsan– a loudspeaker miming a cinema announcement – had a thin crowd(it was too loud to approach, by design). A corner daab-wala did roaring business (and created a mountain of trash), an involuntary conscript into the show.
As an hour of power outage ended in the next few minutes, the lights of Cheragee came back on. It was early evening, so I had not noticed the absence. Now as circuits reconnected, I realised that some of the pieces had been sitting half-blind, waiting for electricity. The spot lighting for Sohrab Jahan's '…& Zoo', Ripon Saha's 'Third law of emotion' and Shaela Sharmin's 'Spicy Story' were ceremonial, not essential. But for other pieces, including Bivol Shaha's 'We are fine', Palash Bhattacharjee's 'Horn', Sharad Das' 'My father's chair', Arup Barua's 'Stress', and Zihan Karim's 'A simple death', the electric circuits seemed to bring the machine back to life. Now, the crowd swelled even more.
People surged and followed, creating a thick, enthusiastic cordon around the interactive/ performance pieces. I could still make out the vectors of what was happening in Aloptogin Tushar's 'Banana 5' (live drawing), Smita Purakayastha's 'Don't try this at home' (suspended caram board), Mehrun Akter Sumi's 'Onushoron' (guide and tug of war), Zesika Tasnim's 'Floating wish' (paper boat flotilla) and Farah Naz Moon's 'Ami jani tui… tumi' (ludo board as body tarpaulin). But the crowd was too intense for a clear line of sight.
Jog's Cheragee site-specific project featured Afsana Sharmin Jhuma, Aloptogin Tushar, Arifujjaman Chowdhury, Arup Barua, Bival Saha, Farah Naz Moon, Fahima Binte Zahed, Joydeb Rowaja, Mehrun Akter Sumi, Mishuk Ehsan, Palash Bhattacherjee, Razib Datta, Ripon Saha, Shaela Sharmin, Sharad Das, Shatabdi Shome, Smita Purakayastha, Sohrab Jahan, Zesica Tasnim, Zihan Karim. The show was curated by Yuvraj (Zahed A Chowdhury).
I fell back and talked with Dhali Al Mamoon. Most of the artists here were either current or former students of Mamoon, and both he and his partner, artist Dilara Begum Jolly, seemed exhilarated at how their interventions were now being generative in new directions.
While the usual Bengali Muslim domination of our art scene is slightly lessened in Chittagong, performance artist Joydeb Roaja ('Khelaram khele ja, Dekharam dekhe ja') is one of the very few Adivasi/jumma artists I have seen in the district scene, and certainly the only one at the Cheragee show. Here also, I was disappointed not to see Adivasi audiences at Cherageeperhaps Jog's dependence on their own networks kept the audience strictly Bengali, a big lapse in a region witnessing the slow-motion erasure of Adivasi identity by the Bangladeshi state.
When the visual arts are considered an appendage, luxury or shokh, the underrepresentation of non-majority communities becomes even more pronounced. In fact, at an artist talk organised by the Jog artists, Roaja said performance art gave him freedom because it allowed him to work in raw, confrontational formats, with minimal expenses.
Jog Curator Yuvraj (Zahed A Chowdhury, associate professor of painting at Charukala) talks about the challenges of finding Adivasi artists. Even a few years ago, Charukala Institute would only see a rare Adivasi, and always from the dominant Chakma or Marma communities that had some family presence in Bandarban or Rangamati. Only in the last few years had he seen any students from the Bawm and Chak communities.
Expanded Adivasi quotas in admissions would create some level of positive affirmative action, but will our slow-moving public universities take such a visionary step? When I asked Joydeb who the other young Adivasi artists were (the post-Kanak Chapa Chakma generation), he named Udoy Sonkor Chakma, Bimol Chakma, Vobesh Chakma, Bablu Chakma, Doyal Mohan Chakma, Obonti Chakma and Jigmun Bom in Chittagong; and in Dhaka, Shapu Tripura and Milon Tripura. Much too short a list!
In 2004, Dhali Al Mamoon built 'Water is innocent', the first large-scale installation work I have seen that mourned state aggression against Adivasis: the mega-development project of Kaptai Hydroelectric Dam (pop quiz: how much of our electricity is provided today by this dam that drowned hundreds of Adivasi villages?). In the years since, there has been very little work by Bengali or Adivasi artists on the continuing crisis in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Artists need to break the state's chokehold on our ways of seeing ourselves, and urgently as well. Jog has not yet built a new paradigm, but Roaja's work is at least a visible marker.
Installation and performance art is not included in the syllabi of any Bangladeshi Charukala, and Chittagong is no exception. But the city's position in the periphery has made it more open to experimentation.
'Rajdhanite khub antorikota'r obhab (there is lack of sincerity in the capital)' is an overused complaint, but somewhat true. At many Dhaka shows, we sense a loss of the sense of wonder. People are increasingly there not to lose themselves in a sensory experience, but to figure out 'the angles': 'Is this the new thing?' 'Who is funding this?', 'What's in it for me?' Brains are on overdrive with little time for contemplation.
The port city has its own character, expressed, for example, in the private dialect bond among Chittagonians. Prof Nisar Hossain of Dhaka University describes Chittagong's self-contained character as ancholikota'r taan (the pull of regionalism), which allows fluid dialogue between generations. Rashid Chowdhury and Murtaza Basheer's shilpa andolon of the 1970s, transmitted to Faizul Azim Jacob, Alok Roy and Abul Mansur, and then a half decade later to Dhali Al Mamoon, and finally to Cheragee Pahar today. The first MA in fine arts started in Chittagong, and a quiet lineage continues of theoretical practice alongside honing of craft.
Chittagong is not a hinterland by any stretch of the imagination (hello, cargo supertankers!). But the art scene retains essential breathing space. Experiments like Jog are part of a tradition of experimental art collectives– when asked about the link with Porapara, I was told about artists crossing between the two organisations. But being off the grid has helped the scene tremendously; whatever has developed has been organic– comfortable confidence without arrogance. The longer they can resist the siren call of Euro-American or Dhaka curators on 'discovery' safari, the better the space can develop.
Far from the madding crowd.
NAEEM MOHAIEMEN works in essay, photography and film (shobak.org). His photography was shown most recently at Dhaka Art Summit 2012, at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.
PHOTOS BY NAEEM MOHAIEMEN and ZIHAN KARIM