Chobi Mela IX voice-changed to the tune of crossmedia art
A biennale, or annual art fair for that matter, once placed on the global circuit, appears as a double-headed beast. Packed in equal measures with reality and fiction that follow from the construction or remaking of the consecrated/sacrosanct space, the remade space secures a special niche in the cotemporary cultural constellation. That in turn is the result of a successful enshrining of what is trending across the globe. To clarify the fictional aspect of exhibition-making, one needs to look at the size of the ambition and the nature of staging. With competing and creolized artistic cadences, a space of cultural influx is usually rendered into a space of veneration. Once the works of the globetrotting artists enter the site(s) to be placed among equally ambitious groups of local artists who are ahead of the herd in the regional context, the myth surfaces as a natural outcome of that created/hybrid symphony.
The fiction undoubtedly unfolds at the limits of our expectation/imagination prefiguring a future for the site/event. To define Chobi Mela IX (to be pronounced as Chhobi Mela) in light of the double status straddling the line between reality and fiction, making and staging, one can easily home in on some 'defining moments' in the exhibition that ran its course from 3 to 16 February, 2017.
The current edition, themed on and around the concept of transition, used formal and informal spaces across Old Dhaka to disperse some of the most interesting projects in equally interesting formats besides the revamped Shilpakala Academy galleries housing the bigger chunk of art projects. Shilpakala served as the main venue and the smell of global ambition was most palpable there.
In its relative grandeur and a level-headed alignment with the logic of cross-disciplinary mediatized art, the recently folded photo festival clearly suggests a departure from the documentary genres that were once the 'staple' at Pathshala and Drik premises, of which the festival is an extension. One must also begin to wonder whether the nomenclature 'photo festival' would seem fitting any more if new media as well as cross-media installations remain its chief interest.
Though variously reconfigured in light of global developments, the documentary genre continually haunts the two most important platforms (Pathshala as a school and Drik as an agency), both of which flourished as Shahidul Alam's labor of love. There were graduates from Pathshala, aka South Asian Media Institute, who veered away from the generic. However, it remained clearly anchored in the evolving formats of photojournalism and documentary photography. No doubt, the drift towards cross-media and multimedia had begun much earlier, since aesthetically there were a number of imaginative detours scripted by photographers nurtured in Pathshala, who played an important role in the emergence of new art forms. Primarily, the art-photography duets were hatched by some Drik or Pathshala-initiated collaborative projects in the last five or so years and they apparently signaled a departure from the set game. The art-photography combines finally culminated into a large-scale exhibition cast around the Rana Plaza tragedy or a poorly designed building serving as a garment factory. With cross-disciplinary artist Mahbubur Rahman enlisted as a curator, the show facilitated the staging of both small and large installations where photography's presence was crucial and its role inflectional.
The new species that is Chobi Mela IX leaps out of its past identities and lands on a novel ground where one had the opportunity to come upon some original installations in view. Artists of international stature shared space with ten Bangladeshi exponents of contemporary art who are all Chobi Mela Fellows and whose works were partly commissioned to 'investigate the theme Transitions.' These artists were 'from different backgrounds of painting, drawing, animation, sculpture, photography, video, sound and installations.'
The current edition can be seen as a logical extension of the two or more previous editions where artists such as Shirin Neshat, Maria Kapajeva, Luis González Palma, Sandra Vitaljić, Maïmouna Guerresi, and others, showed projects that had made the customary rounds in the global artistic circuits. Most are multimedia artists, and their presence preceded the arrival of the current edition. With Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian's posed photography series Returning the Gaze, during Chobi Mela III, the biannual event opened its doors for the first time to what one could term as conceptual art that used photography as its medium. The corresponding development in documentary photography aside, which helps us appreciate the presence of such realists as Stanly Green (USA), Thomas van Houtryve (Belgium), or for that matter, Gohar Dashti (Iran), whose psychodramatic reconstruction of social groups are carefully choreographed and breaks the mould to become an imaginary documentary of a place and its people – this edition almost seems like a free fall into multimedia explored in its diverse forms as they are conceived in today's technologically advanced environment.
Though the classic forms mentioned above appear to have held the fort, the rising tide of cross-pollination or hypergeneric art seems to have stolen the show. Multimedia appeared in many faces. It was evident in the overload of spectral and spectacular imageries set forth by Boris Eldagsen (Germany); the deconstructive and campy social commentaries of Pushpamala (India); the supra-mythic storytelling of Cristina de Middel (Spain); and in the neo-objective mode of Susanta Mandal (India).
Additionally, many photographers used an assortment of objects of psycho-social interest, natural and/or man-made, used as a window onto the otherworldly to return to an 'origin' in its many fictional iterations. Bangladesh's Sarker Protik had an elaborate presentation entitled Origin – the multifaceted installation that verged on the cosmic as it hovered 'between the corporeal and the metaphysical.' Reetu A Sattar, primarily known for her performances, mounted a carefully sequenced installation entitled A Bird of Stone, which was her take on Lalon's frame of praan/prana or lifeforce, metaphorically rendered as a bird in a cage that is the human body. If Sattar's question: 'who we are', besets us at this penultimate stage of capital-driven global societies, the metaphorical inscriptions seem to evoke a post-social ontology of 'being', since the photographs are from durational performances in which the body was pushed beyond its limits – similar to several other works in their otherworldly visions and visualizations in this edition of the festival. Protik's multilayered installation wherein sound, image and light-boxes combined to create a whole seemed like an effort in the restitution of 'primal space' lost in the chaos of development and state/nation building, whereas Sattar's bore clear signs of a retrospective vision. She revved up her curiosity and let some of the ontological inquiries traverse a series of genre-defying acts and finally archived them in an array of representational gambits – objects, pictures that operated as sites of remembrance.
On the relational frame, where art-life enters a new affiliation or 'transitivity', some photographers and curators placed their images across a combination of stratagems of digital image manipulation as well as interlaces of found objects. The Red String by Yoshikatsu (Japan) was a case in point where old family photos were interspersed with newer ones and were presented together in an installation format. Whereas Singapore-based artist Robert Zhao Renhui's clinical presentation Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, first showcased in Singapore Biennale in 2013, had the feel of a science project framed toward a didactic end. Taufiqur Rahman (Bangladesh), on the other hand, pushed the clinical to the edge of our unconscious craving for unknown and unknowable spaces. A dentist, Rahman plays up his forensic expertise to turn teeth or blood stains into a project wherein accidents turn into a set of images of double, or even, multiple meanings. In the segmented display the most interesting vistas were those he developed by blowing up micro-images of teeth to create a mountain range.
On the field of metonyms and metaphors, some works simply unfold as an archeology of memory, where the social easily overlaps the personal. The human or post-human condition, is one theme that re-appeared in many projects: the motive ranging from navigating the seamy sides of life to seeing through a lexicon of hope. If the Algerian-French photographer Bruno Boudjelel's Algeria, Scrapebook unearthed the socio-political fallouts in a country where a people have been and still are subject to colonial and postcolonial political excesses, Poland's Igor Pisuk returns to wounded selves while simultaneously breaking free of the responsibility to maintain a coherent narrative in the series entitled Deceitful Reverence. Away from such subjective takes on one's memory and current encounters, Bangladesh's Salma Abidin Prithi earnestly stood close to her subjects to know who they were. Women and men irrespective of their class and creed fraternize with one another in a spirit of child-like abandon in the series entitled Translucent. Posed yet candid, in this series the connection was re-emphasized, rebuilt, even through trivial objects and gestures. Linguistically, among the three, Bruno set sail across an unknown region, since his images were blown-up pages of diaries he had begun to develop to randomly record his visits to his motherland – a process of archiving his own encounters as an outsider intermittently looking at the state of polity. The genre of group portraiture was pushed to the limits in Gohar Dashti's Untitled series where jostling, cavorting bodies embarked on pointless actions, forming illegible signs but seeking 'harmonic balance with nature,’ to use his own words. One could also decipher the resultant, formal (cryptogram) signs of disenchantment. But the narrative of pathos simply could not hold sway over one's mind for long. As the more one spent time with these images propped up like huge banners at Old Dhaka's heritage premises that is Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts, one came to realize that this project was playfully conceived to transcend the 'conundrum' that Iran has become after the Islamic revolution by creating a detour to focus our gaze on 'the people' rather than 'the state'.
Nasir Ali Mamun's archive of icons
A portraitist, Nasir Ali Mamun has been training his lens on iconic personalities capturing rare moments in their lives. What began as an obsession since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, slowly grew into a habit of memorializing poets, artists and other luminaries.
The signature black and white lends his subjects a poetic quality for which he had once earned the epithet 'the poet of the camera', conferred by the late poet Shamsur Rahman. Today, in retrospect, Mamun's oeuvre seems like a 'time capsule' preserving glimpses of the contemporary cultural map where the national icons appear mostly at leisure and also at work with their defenses down.
Recipient of this year’s Life Time Achievement Award at Chobi Mela XI, Mamun's portraits were honoured by an extensive showcasing in two different venues. At Shilpakala Academy, the main display came under the rubric The Poet with the Camera: Photographs of Nasir Ali Mamun/Photoseum (1972-1982), and at Beauty Boarding, Old Dhaka, in the form of an exhibition entitled Portraits of Beauty Boarding which made an attempt to reminisce the literary personalities who frequented the place during their early careers.
Photographer Munem Wasif curated the works of this seasoned portraitist who self-trained himself to document the icons of Bangladesh since the day he had first picked up a camera in 1966. According to Mamun, he borrowed the camera for two hours in 1966, and 'exposed a few frames of his elder brother.’
According to Mamun, portraiture, is seen with some degree of reservation in the country. Its directness, however, is what impressed him, the sixty-plus photographer said referring to portraiture. The 'truths' he captured over the years are good enough a testimony to the vanishing literary landscape of Bangladesh: many of the stalwarts including poets, novelists and musicians are no more. Both shows foreground remembrance as a token of adulation, especially for admirers of the works of these poets and literary personalities.
Currently Mamun is contemplating a photoseum of his life's work in his native town Savar, which would be a way for him to put in one place all the luminaries who once sparkled in the cultural constellation of Bangladesh.
— DEPART DESK
Talks and panel discussions drew quite a big chunk of the audience at Shilpakala Academy where the large projection at the back added a visual dimension to the relays from panelists and artists. Particularly enjoyable was the session by artist Lois Patiño (Spain) whose durational oeuvre of films prompted the audience to revisit his entry Night Without Distance.
Any account of the current edition would remain incomplete if the works from Dhaka's burgeoning art scene were not mentioned. Hardcore installations by Abir Shome, Najmun Nahar Keya, Minhaz Marzu, among others, (showcased at Shilpakala Aacdemy) were proofs that art is in transition and its languages are being reworked to both negate and navigate the material forces that go into the making of contemporary society. Dhaka, a city on the verge of being lost in its own maze, proved to be a fertile ground for wry humor, and its current mahajan or master was Abir who delivered a tongue-in-cheek installation where texts-objects-photographs-drawings together were made to conspire against the prescribed art-revolution-society.
For many, the current edition was a treat one would remember for a long time as it offered an opportunity to recognize and enjoy contemporary staples both from home and abroad. One's map of the mutating global art becomes fuller through such encounters. In contrast, as another performance and video artist noted, the surfeit was too much to bear. Though not applicable to the young man who expressed his doubt over such ambitious assembly of contemporary art and photography projects, digital technology remained to be viewed with suspicion since many did not fully embrace its incursions into the art world. On top of that, there will always be detractors to a show of this scale and diversity especially when the works on display were multimedia pieces that spoke from the entanglements of a fiber-optics as well as satellite-driven communication age. The sense of sight no longer senseds; this disbelief raised an alarm in the electronically mediated ecology where hyper-communication or transmission of art, reality and virtuality were often rendered inseparable.
In an era when 'it's easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire,' technology is often equated with a decoy divesting the people of its so-called primordial or natural tendencies. Whether true or false, misinterpretations percolate down to the level of praxes. These reservations aside, Chobi Mela IX did what its conceiver Shahidul Alam appropriately noted in his preface to the catalogue – stretch boundaries. Capturing the drift in art and society, the preface ended with what read like a summation of the latest edition: 'Chobi Mela IX attempts to connect reactivate multiple thoughts by placing different exhibitions, arguments and questions next to each other.'