Aesthetic meditation on violence
Paradoxically titled Celebrated Violence was a collateral show framed by its curators Wakilur Rahman and Kehkasha Sabah and staged at Dhaka Art Center as a critical negotiation of art that banks on visuality and languages that are conceptually bound compassing the political artistic genre of the 1980s and its multivocal extensions as well as counterpart(s), that emerged in the new millennium. This curation was an attempt at cutting a fissure on the very membrane of a culture burdened with the recent spates of political violence which brought the nation to a stand-still. The participants Nisar Hossain, Shishir Bhattacharjee,
Abdul Halim Chanchal, Mustafa Zaman, Javed Jalil, Farzana Ahmed Urmi, Sharad Das, Ripon Saha, Jihan Karim and Moon Rahman constitute a motley crew – who are given to divergent practices, though most of their works are immersed in the current social-political phenomena. The exhibition served as a conduit for the unveiling of a nationist perspective on terror that assails the public sphere and an indexing of a host of symbolic responses to it. Nisar Hossain's Dairy of Hell, Shishir Bhattacharjee's Daag Tamaasha (Farce in Linearity, in literal translation), Javed Jalil's Union of Free Radicals, Jihan Karim's Corporate Fantasy, seem unanimous in the articulation of the current mayhem, but are hinged on distinct valences of language as each is seeking a respective way to vent discontentment. If chaos of a political origin and vengefulness of the quislings of the 1971 war are intentionally fetishized in the first two artists, Nisar Hossain in particular seems to thrive in a formal logic that does not discount the power of expressiveness and subjective anxiety, while Shishir is restrained in his expression as he attempts to freight his fragmentary political narrative following a well thought-out schema based on multiple motifs developed through slow, restive lines.
If 'reality' is read in order to decipher the signs of decay and degeneration, then the artists mentioned above can be categorized as the purveyors of peace and harmony who, in order to advance their respective points of view, are trying to dislodge the politics that leads to gratuitous violence. And to zero in on their motivation, one may say they do so by drawing on the liberal semantics. Their art with its borrowing from the modernist canon, never gives much thought to what Homi Bhaba once declared as 'desovereignisation of the primary position', as they are unconcerned about the possibilities unearthed by someone who moves away from a static and singular subject position vis-à-vis the political, social and the aesthetic.
Desovereignization as well as the dialectic of sublimation and desublimation is to be found in works of Abdul Halim Chanchal who, through his CMG Inhaler Campaign, produces tongue-in-cheek critique of the violence of modernization; Mustafa Zaman whose photo installation Art Sentenced enshrines trauma with an eye on intertextuality; Sharod Das whose The Red Stripes is a mirror to the social-political violence; and Ripon Saha whose Black Magic is a bricolage of sourced and tempered images. If with the last two artists one encounters direct responses to the immediate reality, others are given to a synecdochical stratagem. All four artists are given to appropriation and the last two being overly concerned with bodies being plunged into an abyss of absurdity where position/opposition remains blurred. Together the two produce near-pop imagery where the question of authorship remains deemphasized. Alongside the fairly known contingent whose work advances a heady brew, the curators introduce a new artist named Moon Rahman who brings in a streak of flamboyance to this exhibition. She is a young housewife turned painter, whose technique of dematerialization recalls American action painting.
The issue of violence, in the clime of the educated minority, often becomes enveloped in the simplistic idea of 'universal peace' – a concept formed by sublating the social processes through which conflicts are played out in real life situations, be that of political or social origin and nature. In the same so-called liberal democratic semantic field, 'power' and its ancillaries such as juridical-economical structures are often perceived as harmless conduits for the mass who wants to live in peace. But if we analyze a quote from one of the most revered leaders of the subcontinent, we will discover that the relationship between cause and effect is not as simple as most humanists would have us believe. Gandhi, a renowned humanist, once famously said: Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humility, worship without sacrifice, politics without principle are the seven deadly sins.
Not that all of the participants are willing to align with Gandhi's moral position, and we are sure that no one has mined the mysterious locus of his ascetic life governed by the ethos of non-violence as restraint has not played any part in their strategies. Two strands of thought become visible in this agglomeration of divergent art practices that invest the forms with the putative object – violence. With that in view, an ambivalence is also palpable in some of the artists' productions regarding the function of art and its capacity to represent the real. When many would agree that the 'real is unrepresentable', artists are often enticed by the possibilities of such ostensibly futile attempts. And perhaps, the performance by Nisar Hossain where the gory details of human burning, a direct reference to the opposition political party's (purportedly) rampant burning of vehicles on Dhaka road which killed and maimed innocent people, one wakes up to the fact that when fragmentary narration such as nationist narrative feed the imagination, state-sponsored killing, be that hidden under a veil of the very same ideology, remains invisible to the eye. It is through such follies out in the real world that the root of violence is mystified and events leading to such calamities become a way to spur more such calamities, be that in real life or in representation. In contrast, the desublimation which rescues any ideologically informed image from the ivory-tower estrangement is present in Nisar's paintings. They (one big and another small work on canvas) dredge the psychic terrain to excavate a deep sense of the uncanny alongside the fierceness of violence that besieges us in our attempt to look violence in the eye.
David Schmid asserts, '[t]he passion for the real is also, of necessity, suspicion' (Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, Glamorama, Lunar Park, ed Naomi Mandel). But this element of suspicion used to question one's own stratagem as well as own one's perception of reality is something of an alien phenomenon in our clime where artists working to cut fissure in the fabric of the consensual reality are few and far between.
One last reflection: if criticality is to be the answer to the conformism that pervades the social-cultural climate in the region, any potent symbol, be that staged as part of a political programme or an aesthetic reflection, becomes a means to enter into a dialogue with the world at large. Perhaps, the works of these artists, no matter whether linear in proposition, or non-linear in syntax, while dealing with the putative object, which is violence, to voice the unvoicable, make elastic the bounds of knowledge – making way for subjective possibilities of interpretation.
Celebrated Violence was staged at Dhaka Art Center, between February 7 and 14, 2014 as a collateral exhibition during the Dhaka Art Summit.