Branded and brain-dead in Dhaka : Sumon's reexamination of the consumer culture
Brand Culture, the unromantically entitled sculpture exhibition by Imam Hossain Sumon, with its deterministic social goal and its subservient aesthetic position deflects the entire gamut of local pre-mordern cultural traits and postmodern, post-postmodern and other ancillary development in the west to ground its discourse in the 'reality' of the 'third world' market situation and the condition of the 'being' within that matrix. The being – the human subject, in this exhibition of singular meditation, is represented by flattened out, distorted doll-like creatures shown in awkward postures of listlessness exhibiting relevant moods – passive, pensive and even perplexed – with outsized products in hands.
The series, completed as part of the artist's Master's 'experimentation', rests its case on the thematic rigour to ensure communicability.
'Experimental' is a tentative category that stands for works that consciously circumvent academic constrictions, and is brought into existence to voice not only the artist's personal discontentment with the goings on in the social lithosphere but also as an indictment of the culture of branding and the concomitant proliferation of products as 'fetish objects'.
The concept of fetishization, transported into the modern discursive space by Marx, remains restricted to the commercial products in Sumon's themed exhibition. He shuns any kind of commentary on the expanding horizon of fetishization which has already encroached on the cultural, artistic and political spaces of this region. The bane, thus, lies in not being able to explore the approximate areas of interest, while the boon lies in that that the artist consciously defetishizes his sculptural pieces by returning to a mode of expression vaguely recalling the archaic architecture of the rural clay dolls and the works produced in the past by some Bangladeshi modernist sculptors, a strategy that enables him to articulate his theme. The artist's use of papier-mâché figures of near-human scale, coloured with thinned out acrylic paint, lends them a unique surface quality, and in turn, brings into play the established modernist ethos of 'truth to materials'.
In the preface to the catalogue, the artist advances an honest admission, and in turn, reveals his work process: 'The works exhibited are not the final results. Rather, they can be considered as the current/last step in the sum total of […] continuous studies.' Yet, one is hard put to locate his own acknowledgement of the deterministic strain that exerts its power on his articulation(s), which is recognized in his unwillingness to go beyond the ambit/effect of his message put forth to make aware the citizenry of the successful transformation of social relations through astute marketing/branding of products by big companies.
By not allowing the exhibition space to determine the scheme of the final display, and by attaching importance to a single, isolated motif, the artist stays within the strategy of the modernist practice of the last thirty or so years. Sumon stands at a fair distance from Novera Islam's method of inflecting modern subjectivity with the pre-modern spirit that brings to the fore the ungovernability of the material world, which we often want to administer in absolute human terms. If this 'impossibility' had crept into Novera's world from the works of Henry Moore it escapes the notice of many an art writer and historian in this clime. However, it is comforting for us that Novera is often lionized for successfully melding the modernist structural principle with the indigenous ones. For this, at least, she is now revered as the most important exponent of the 'vernacular modernism'.
Leaving many a stone unturned, which would have been efficacious for him to lend basis to his anti-capitalist consumerist stance, Sumon's message remains stationed in a single frame of reference – which is cast around man and women with products in hands. Amidst the cultural superfluity of branding and advertising, Sumon's narrative seems target-oriented. Yet, it convincingly hovers over the human subjectivity couched in the compulsion of buying products – one that is packaged and sexed up for mass consumption.
The hedonism, the irrationality of the mental and social processes involving selling and buying are all sidelined to home in on the consumers subjected to the magnetism of fetishized products. This is exactly the premise through which the artist wants to project his understanding of the social reality, though the contours of the sculpted figures are a far cry from what can be referred to as 'realistic'. While each slightly enlarged product sits cozily between the palms of every humanoid turned consumer, the very individual is also subjected to a dehumanizing schema – as if to make them look like 'industry ready'. Thus, Brand Culture reads into the chaotic postindustrial social matrices (where companies spend less on product making than on advertising campaigns) the most important pathological trait – selling and buying, one that is foundational to the modern acquisitive culture.
Brand Culture was staged at Zainul Gallery-1, Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, between June 27 and July 1, 2013.