To embrace or not to embrace the new aesthetic paradigm(s)
Freights from the 20th National Art Exhibition
Before we confront a tangle of issues that the current art scene compels one to delve into- only a tip of which has been visible in the recently concluded National art exhibition- recalling a disturbing episode from the time of the British Raj seems pertinent. This may help understand better the mindset that continues its efforts at recasting the art scene in the fashion of a 'mind' with an appetite for perpetuating a curriculum that had lost its currency long ago. Following the carnage at Jallianwallah Bag, Amritsar, Dyar, the man responsible for giving the order to open fire at a defenseless political gathering came up with his own dodgy rationale: 'It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect' (my italics). The arrogant trope 'moral effect' can easily be superimposed onto the very tapestry of our art scene where aesthetic obscurantism has gained some grounds in recent years and has pitted a moral position against time, historical reality and most of all, the refusal of a new generation of artists to overturn the purity of disciplines.
To create an 'effect', moral or otherwise, one needs to manipulate, manhandle the sites of art – the openly accessible registers from where new artistic trends and languages make their appearance to impact both the present and the coming eras. The latest instance of such administrative puppetry was uncovered at the venue of the National Art Exhibition where one sensed a regressive retracting towards a double-barreled academic art practice – one that hinges on realism (read naturalism) as the main academic bulwark and a conceptually vacuous form that adheres to the idea of the Orient, both expressed in the most sterile of idioms. To ensure that such an orientation of a major national-level exhibition does not go unnoticed, the committees (two in all – one in charge of selection and another in awarding the artworks) seemed to have acknowledged the drift towards the academia. It is apparent that they did not interpret it as a 'backward movement'.
While cavorting with the art crowd one often overhears artists lamenting that academic art is in decline, the current show only but further testifies to its state of stasis. One senses that the revivalist effort of academic learning is now on the card, but the practice must be taken up with the foreknowledge that the effort will have to take place in the terra proper – the learning institutions. Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy is an avenue for post-learning activities where one places one's achievements for appraisal; here, at any national-level art event one is only prepared to face the best of our cultural achievements.
If art is to be judged by its 'lack', that lack will have to be centered on the originality of language. One should never pinpoint the lack of skill without having a clear understating of the language through which the individual artist is trying to form a voice. Linguistic or semiotic reading, thus, is based on a reading of the visible signs and symptoms of an 'authentic' expression. And to use the word authenticity is to reinforce the fact that art has less to do with the skill to imitate nature, or the skill of infesting the surface with various kinds of textures, a trend of the 1880s-1990s; it is to do with the ability to speak, to articulate – that too in a language that carries one's own spirituality, individuality and even psychosis, or a social condition, or even the experience of life lost in an accelerated pace or by living in complete seclusion. To give shape to one's artistic diction, it is lived experience one draws on, and one must realize that thoughts too are part of lived reality.
Therefore, artists displaying a preference for verisimilitude must have a discourse, or a project of one's own that is founded on his/her lived experiences. This very idea seemed to have been absent in many an artwork where skill is the only raison d'être. The belief that realism/naturalism must remain a mainstay in Bangladesh's art scene have certainly moulded the psyche of some of the artists of the younger generation, about which one has no reason to be upset. This art scene, or any art scene for that matter, must have a fare share of all the genres that may one day mature into full-blown dictions. Additionally, one must acknowledge that realism/naturalism has not yet seen any viable creative conduit in the last ten years. However, by defying time and context some young exponents are producing artworks complicit with ideas that have time and again proved to be nothing but a sham – leading only to expressions that strongly smack of class-room-logging cookie points- antics. To those who rely on the stream of artistic activities to provide a deconstructive reading of the goings-on in the aesthetic arena(s), images seem to appear with an imprint of rote learning. What finally led to the indiscriminate selection of an array of sterile academic realist art and the awarding of a number of artworks that do not measure up even by the criterion of standard academic realism at a national-level exhibition, remains a mystery.
Oscar Wilde had once quipped in a letter: 'It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearance. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.' Standing vis-à-vis an abundance of artworks, mostly from the new breed, one feels mystified, if not lost in total darkness, as to how the culling has been done and what categories and criteria had been set to allow this national-level event to look like a site for artists freshly out of the art academies to paradoxically run into a bog. Perhaps, the answer lies in the fact that in the academies, at present, the curriculum is overburdened with the colonial legacy of verisimilitude and a lame nationalist passion for social realism (read empirical evidence of poverty and despondency). It seems that what is visible, reads like an improbable admixture of art and semi-art alongside exercises that art students embark upon without having the slightest clue about their potential as a future language.
If a genealogy of the type of work discussed above as 'academic realism' is to be established based on their subsequent appearances in the public domain, one must recall its dawning in the 17th and 18th edition of Young Artists Exhibition, respectively in 2010 and 2012, as a trend which we may refer to as Despondent Social Realism made its entry into the national-level event through a few fresh agents – Md Mainuddin, Jayanta Sakar John et al.
Being the only avenue for the young artists, this phenomenon of an event was brushed aside by many as plain anomaly. The speculations and afterthoughts generated by the event were rounded off with an acknowledgement of the lack of talent and the rationale that, at this level, allowing some unripe fruition of languages may not be of any consequence. But the next year saw several entries along the line of paintings where poor men of the soil were depicted as drained of spirit. Expressed in carefully but utterly deficient academic realist mode, these works simply kept pouring in. Now, the current national exhibition compels one to reflect piercingly into the cause of the rise of this ill-informed, pseudo-social realism. Moreover, it is no less an imperative to reflect hard on the fact that between the surge for the New and the desperate protectionism around academic traditions something valuable has got lost that which will undoubtedly effect the warring squads leading to unexpected ends.
In the clash with the burgeoning new art – which certainly appears as deliberate transgression of the mores the art educational institutions have been promoting since time immemorial – the Old Guard simply has lost sight of the collective desire and concomitant striving for the future. That a 'class-study' could fetch the Shilpakala Academy Award is something which seemed impossible even in the 1980s when the entry of the new media and other form of praxis had not yet surfaced and experimentations were limited primarily to the established disciplines such as painting, printmaking, and sculpture.
Now that newer practices has made inroads into the collective psyche through continuous staging of works at both mainstream and alternative venues, one can safely conclude that the notion of working across disciplines will soon become widespread. If the academies across the nations fail to acknowledge this phenomenon, the seats of knowledge will remain stationed at a fixed locus—a fate no one desires. As for the Shilpakala Academy, it must interface with academies and intuitions across the South Asian region that have already seen a revamping of artistic techniques and strategies to accord with the changing ethos of the society marked by the new drifts in the cultural spheres. Reframing the institutional policy in accordance with the new roles that current circumstances demand of a national-level organization of the stature of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy should be an essential precondition for its embarking upon any future national-level art exhibition.
20th edition of National Art Exhibition 2013 was showcased at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, 22 June-12 July, 2013.
Under the lens
There have also been some decisive moments – aesthetic moments per se – that make one's survey of the latest cycle of National Art Exhibitions worthwhile. What deserve the attention of any informed and appreciating pair of eyes are the new fruitions of creativity that one will have to forage for on one's own in a jungle full of diversions. The works by artists who have been able to freight a strong linguistic expression palpably inscribed with the individual's desire for going beyond the dross that constitutes today's mainstream simply calls for a textual and contextual forays into them. Among the artists whose signature articulations explicate a multiplicity of voices wrought out as a result of an engagement with the same given reality from a variety of positions there are some who are looking for new stratagems and some who are trying to employ their already established diction to advance on their former discourses.
In the works of Nasima Haq Mitu, Joya Sharin Huq, Zihan Karim, Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Razib Datta, Sanjoy Chakraborti, Mohammad Hasanur Rahman, Zing Mun Lian Bawm, and Ruhul Karim Rumee one witnesses a departure from the conventional framework of linear expressivity. Whereas, entries from Atia Islam Anne, Mohammad Mojahidur Rahman Sarker,
Shimul Datta and Md Hasan Morshed have produced visually engaging works using what we may refer to as simply representational framework to forward a complex narrative.
In absence of a curatorial intervention – one which must be framed in accord with the needs of Bangladesh art scene – the encounter with each artwork by the above-mentioned artists seems inadequate, if not incomplete. The arbitrary placement of the works detracts from the experience of their presence in the grand totality.
Archimedes once boastfully said, 'Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.' If this Greek mathematician, physicist, inventor had meant to physically move the world, the artists at the 20th edition of National Art Exhibition, simply needed some breathing space around their installed sculptures or installations so as to enable to move the gazers, metaphysically speaking.
– DEPART DESK