Of fragility and human follies
Chobi Mela VII at a glance
Framed on and around the concept of 'fragility', the current edition of Chobi Mela (read chhobi mela) evidences a change in 'photographic thinking' – a way of making thoughtfully explicit an endangered world through traces of the pathologies of our time – those with clear psychological-social-political implications. A site where images were released to bring home to the viewers the precarious human existential realities, Chobi Mela VII pegged its hope on clearly defined projects freighted in an artified language.
Fragility – the theme under which photographs from all around the world are amassed – is clearly personified by a golden-locked maiden in eternal slumber. She becomes (atypically) the mascot representing the predicament of the unsung, the marginalized who had been charitably accorded the limelight which, otherwise, allegedly privilege the elitist scopic interpretation of the human territory. As a distinguished feature of this particular exhibition wo/man predominates as the hero of her/his own 'site' and 'situation'. Nature appears as a subsidiary element celebrating the apotheosis of the mortal kind just as urbanity with its accompanying tendencies subsumed its last remaining traces on the topographies where the city looms large.
The human body straddles across the entire oeuvre on view as a vehicle for the concurrent poetics of freedom and oppression, foregrounding a paradoxically passive, mute agency locked in a struggle for self-determination. Stylized or spontaneous, these portraitures of human condition have been rehashed time and again in their numerous variety yet at every instance of its reappearance it tends to strike a chord, resonating an acknowledgment of our deep-rooted fear and prejudice and amounts to no mean a feat because it offers to make way for a new way of seeing.
From Sandra Vitaljic's visceral excavation of her exposure to the archeological site of a murdered female body, in which one is confronted with the forensic details of fatal injuries inflicted in a private family space to Sarker Pratik's frozen moments of disembodied quietness in a family environment, to Eiffel Chong's found trove of photographs at an abandoned police station – the current edition of Chobi Mela allows the viewer to chart a gamut of (in)human conditions – those that flow from the sites of contemporary life.
The Royal Malaysian Police by Chong is an archeological mapping of a mnemonic journey that explores time and its effect on photographs from the police archive left unattended. The entire presentation speaks volumes about the alleged corruption and excesses perpetrated by the department which has long been the subject of public debate in Malaysia.
Sarker Protick's What Remains is a documentation of domesticity which lends the most mundane of all settings a sense of faux-grandeur. In fact, it is rather an air of cosmicity which this series brings into view through the depiction of the object world where household appliances and amenities are made to lose their objecthood to reveal a new matrix of intimate relationship with the humans they serve within that sanctified given space. Protik casts a disinterested eye on the domestic scenes often forgotten in the symptomatic hyperspeed and trains the gaze to the clinically washed visual field that nestles the familial cosmos hovering between a threadbare everyday existence and our search for eternity. Freed of signs of sentimentality, this oeuvre resumes the relay on the mystery of the everydayness of life.
Festival director Shaidul Alam, whose novel efforts have so far resulted in the two-fold intervention – one that had shaped into Pathsala, a school of photography, and the other into Drik, a platform for launching Bangladeshi talents into the international arena, writes in his preface that Fragility 'let[s] light through the crack' through a series of encounters with the human subjects 'being trampled'. Additionally, it also attempts to capture 'the fragility of the tortured earth.' The current edition of Chobi Mela, thus, covers a vast topography of sensibilities and our collective existential instabilities that are linked to modern-day choreographies of capital dissemination and imperial (il)logic.
It is interesting how the world can be translated into myriad different languages by employing a handy device that has been subjected to rapid mutation in the last ten years. This year the prestigious line-up of award winning exhibiting artists include Eugene Richards from US; Gideon Mendel from UK; J D Okhai Ojeikere from Nigeria; Lu Guang, Muge and Zhang Hai from China; Graciela Iturbide from Mexico; Max Pam from Australia; Pablo Bartholomew and Richard Bartholomew from India; Ziyah Gafic from Bosnia and Sandra Vitaljic from Croatia.
J D 'Okhai Ojeikere, a Nigerian, in his Get Your Hair Done series attempts an ethnographic indexing of the African culture. In capturing the portraitures in elaborate head-gears and hairdos which foreground the patterns of feminine psyche projected by physical transformations, using hair as the object of manipulation in this instance, Ojeikere surveys the ethnic traditions that inform lives across Africa, thus, steering the viewer into a new lexicon of diversity that has long since influenced contemporary cultural traits of the First World. In every picture a story unfolds of a grand gesture, written on the body, of an organic aspiration towards the beyond.
Bangladeshi exponents are rather young and have their eyes set mostly on two divergent turfs – one that of the social lithosphere and the other that of the psychic terrain. Russel Chowdhury's Desperate Urbanization is a reiteration of an oft-circulated pet narrative fed into the engine of the aid industry. A visual metaphor for despair and desolation clearly stamp the wide shots of sites that stand accused of devouring and ravaging a ruined river, yet, the uncritical deployment of a pedestrian economy of 'gaze' seems to perform/play out in the absence of aesthetic pleasure.
Sumon Chowdhury and Mohammad Anisul Hoque, both, in their own poetical terms, employ the empirical in the service of the subjective unraveling of the 'felt reality' resulting in the images that seek recourse to the metaphysical. Their artified takes can easily be contrasted with Samsul Alam Helal's maneuvers with the fantasy-reality nexus. As part of his novel gesture, Helal caught the human subject at sublimated kitschy dream-moments – conjuring up images of the kind not unusual to encounter at the local photo booths, and in his staged pieces the real and the imagined personae overlap to diametrically veer into a rhetorical framework that intentfully and loudly voices its proximity with the popular and the lowbrow.
Bangladeshi artist Rafiqul Shuvo, however, dwells on a completely asymmetrical theme. His Copyright vs Fragility made a belated entry into the Shilpakala Acadmy gallery which hardly takes away from its unique spatial composition traversing the angular juncture of two adjoining walls. Reminiscent of bricolage, his tongue-in-chick treatment of photographed pages of a book on world photography and an apparent re-enactment of these stock materials and their schematic assemblage to release a web of reference made out of the represented world, gives lie to artistic authorship and singularity of an act.
Conversely, it lets slip a hint of a process that unravels anew at every sighting.
Maimouna Gueressi's photographic series Inner Constellation displayed in isolation, were mounted on panels that a bird's eye view could mistake for the David's Star. A conceptual epigram aimed at creating an aura of spiritual surreality using magico-religious tools dwarfed the viewers by means of both temperament and scale.
Many an interventionist effort was rendered ineffectual and jaded by simply falling into a torpid cycle of recall; recognizable icons from the society of spectacle are hoovered up in collages falsely corroborating the prowess of the Western gaze, even in the works by acclaimed photographers. Homosexuality dominated much of the exhibit vending itself as a counter culture narrative that seemed to spawn out of known prototypes. A black and white entry from Bangladesh that proposed to map a spiritual journey ran aground by the gale of a sterilized articulation. Every show has its share of disappointment, but there is always unexpected catalytic potentials lurking beneath the surface, a novelty of technique here and taboo- breaking topic there could not have failed to inform the eyes/minds of the frothing breed of new and old hands in the trade, an exposure of this scale one can only hope would help revamp the praxis of photography on the home turf, agitating new experiments, new lines of vision.
Chobi Mela, a model created years ago, reinvigorates itself at each successive appearance with an ever widening circle that ropes in celebrated and emerging names from the circuit of photography from across the globe. Its repertoire relentlessly expands with the additions of artist talk, seminars, workshops, book launching that create an agora of prolific encounters within its milieu. A venture of this proportion, without a doubt, forges more links in the supply chain of market (in)variables, an inevitable condition that unconditionally guides the production and circulation of cultural products in the age of technology and hyper-communication. Yet, what sets it apart is that such a colossal endevour has pitched its camp on a land which is tenuously situated in the geopolitical power(capital) strata. This year's theme Fragility is an attempt to lend voice to the voiceless, an aporia which has in the main been addressed in compliance with the documentary modality. However, traces of 'play, pose, and experiment' (Winterson's expression) did flicker through the heterogeneity of gestures by way of an occasional conceptual turn inaugurating moments much awaited and pregnant, announcing the imminent -- that which will follow.
Photos courtesy of Chobi Mela.