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 follows 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 group 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 works/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 such 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.
As has become the norm, 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 a gamut of 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 crossdisciplinary 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 crossmedia 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 labour 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 crossmedia-multimedia began 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 way of 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 crossdisciplinary 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 presaged 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 star realist as Stanly Green (USA), Thomas van Houtryve (Belgium),,as well as Gohar Dashti (Iran), whose psychodramic/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 conceivable in today's technologically advanced environment.
Though the classic forms mentioned above appear to have held the fort, the rising tide of crosspollination or hypergeneric art seems to have stolen the show. Multimedia appeared in many faces, including an otherworldly personality. It was evidenced in the overload of spectral and spectacular imageries set forth by Boris Eldagsen (Germany); the deconstructive and campy social commentaries of Pushpamala (India); the supramythic storytelling of Cristina de Middel (Spain); and in neo-objective mode in 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 of '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 had been 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 where sound, image and light-boxes combined to create a whole seemed like an effort in restitution of the '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 together presented 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 enframed to a didactic end. Taufiqur Rahman (Bangladesh), on the other hand, pushes 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, marks, blood stains into a project where 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 either an archeology of memory, where the social easily overlaps the personal. The human or posthuman condition, is one theme that re-appears in many a project, sometimes the motive has been to navigate the seamy sides of life, at others, to see through a lexicon of hope. If the Algerian-French photographer Bruno Boudjelel's Algeria, Scrapebook, unearth 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 freight a coherent narrative in the series entitled Deceitful Reverence. In opposition to such subjective take on one's memory and current encounters, Bangladesh's Salma Abidin Prithi earnestly stands close to her subjects to know who they are. Women and men irrespective of their class and creed fraternize with one another in the spirit of child-like abandon in the series entitled Translucent. Posed yet candid, in this series the connection is reemphasized, rebuilt, even through trivial objects and gestures. Linguistically, among the three, Bruno sets sail across an unknown region, since his images are blown-up pages of diaries he began 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 is pushed to the limits in Gohar Dashti's Untitled series where jostling, cavorting bodies embark on pointless actions forming illegible signs but seeking 'harmonic balance with nature', to use his own word. One can also read into these groups in action and the resultant formal cryptograms signs of disenchantment. But the narrative of pathos simply cannot hold sway over one's mind for long. As the more one spends time with these images propped like huge banners at Old Dhaka's heritage premises that is Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts, one comes to realize that this project is playfully conceived to transcend the 'conundrum' that Iran has become after the Islamic revolution by creating a detour to focus our gaze on 'people' rather than '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 the Life Time Achievement Award at Chobi Mela XI, Mamun's portraitures 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 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.’
Portraiture, adds Mamun, is seen with some degree of reservation in the country. The sixty-plus photographer feels that 'its directness' is what he likes and has nurtured all his life. 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.
At present 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, who once sparkled in the cultural constellation of Bangladesh.
— DEPART DESK
The artist talks and panel discussions drew large audiences at Shilpakala Academy seminar where the large projection at the back added a visual dimension to the relays from the panelists and artists. Particularly enjoyable was the session by artist such as Lois Patiño (Spain) whose durational oeuvre of films prompted the audience to revisit his entry Night Without Distance.
Any account of the current edition will remain incomplete if the works from the Dhaka's burgeoning art scene are not mentioned. Hardcore installations by Abir Shome, Najmun Nahar Keya, Minhaz Marzu, showcased at Shilpakala Aacdemy are 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 the contemporary society. Dhaka, a city on the verge of being lost in its own maze, now proves to be a fertile ground for wry humour, and its current mahajan or master is Abir who delivers a tongue-in-cheek installation where texts-objects-photographs-drawings together are 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 remains suspect 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 view are multimedia pieces that speak from the entanglements of a fiber-optics as well as satellite-driven communication age. The sense of sight no longer senses, this Levinasian disbelief raises an alarm in the electronically mediated ecology where hyper-communication or transmission of art, reality, and virtuality are 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, the misinterpretations percolate down to the level of praxes. These reservations aside, Chobi Mela IX does what its conceiver Shahidul Alam appropriately notes in his preface to the catalogue – stretch boundaries. Capturing the drift in art and society the preface ends with what looks 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.'