Cheragi bears its torch yet again
Cheragi Pahar in Chittagong has been the go-to for, well one may be tempted to call it 'street art' (in a very literal sense) since 2012, that iterates itself annually along a thoroughfare opening at Cheragir Mor, snaking its way through myriad buildings, offices, eateries and other commercial outlets, and culturally (local) iconic printing presses. Jog Art Space organizes the Cheragi Art Show(CAS) designed to intercept the grid of everyday life with art events, which by its very nature proves both compelling and confounding, by bestowing on the (at times unsuspecting) viewer the role of an active interlocutor, or at a tangent, a mediator between art and life.
The sight of shops morphed into a peculiar locus where art meets commerce or the presumably banal kindles further curiosity, and the dialogue that ensues does not necessarily lend itself to easy reading. If life is to step out of its regimen to embrace the higher sensibility of art in an harmonizing interflow, then an inadvertent chance encounter did very little to atone for what went amiss: At the end where the street forked out and right beside the commercially successful tea-stall stood a tong, a makeshift tea-stall; in response to a simple question, 'Did the organizers talk to you?' the owner was obliged to related his version of Cheragi's slow transformation over the years from what was once a place for gangs of so-called social outlaws into one frequented by 'educated gentlemen' who come here to discuss 'ideas', only recently to be intervened by people who 'make art'. But despite his presence that predated this transformation, he remained on the fringes, hovering on the outskirts of 'spectatorship', whose 'ideas/opinions' went pretty much unsolicited during the preparation of the art event that by default stake a claim to the overarching narrative of the quotidian, which is, to all intents and purposes, performatively inclusive. On a different note, when we speak of 'art of living' ( a new agey coinage!),we put forward the 'idea' that these aspects of human existence are inseparable from each other. One needs the sleight of labour/knowledge/ownership as much as one does the sleight of imagination (and, of course much more) to be placed higher in the ladder of existential evolution , one that propels him to create rather than simply procreate and emulate. One of the participating artists pointedly voiced her disappointment saying that it was just as important to bring the local bread-maker's skill to bear on one of the artistic projects, or else art instead of being 'woven into the ambience of the locale' (as mentioned in a CAS handout) would hang out like something alienable, objectified. The vectors of the vernacular were to be prioritized above all else, (though not entirely to the exclusion of all 'outside' imports) in such a stringently and perpetually specified site. When the gaze runs up against an off-putting pseudo-scientific diagram (Body Organs and Endless Mind, Shahinur Rahman, an installation) representing our dietary and spiritual ill/wellbeing rendered in English one can only swallow hard and move on. Abir Shome's, an absentee artist, video installation (Lunar Landing 2) depicted a surreal apocalyptic moonlanding, which could raise storms in the cup of 'rong cha' held habitually in the artist-visitors' hands but how much of a storm would it stir in the common pedestrian's mind?
Zihan Karim was everywhere all at the same time, a man of few words he was coordinating, trouble-shooting yet remained as evasive as possible. However, his video (Audience Are Present) projected on a recessed wall seemed to have made a mark with the audience. His work mimicked studio-portraiture with quite a handful of people taking turns sitting on a chair, people from around Cheragi who would often come to stand respectfully at a distance from the installation. They seemed bemused, while boys traipsed about casting their tall shadows over the screen and breaking out in uncontrollable laughter, pulling faces when a known face popped up onscreen. The five-seconds-of-fame continued in a loop throughout the evening, unassuming, undaunted, playfully compressing the arc between art and life and viewed in suspension of awe, this piece truly upheld the spirit of the event. Another screen showed (Shakhawat Hossen, Maizbhander) scenes from a shrine of an awlia (a spiritual leader), the various rituals were captured in stark colours, almost hyperreal, each expressed the photographer's unreserved submission to the faith in question, which brought to mind the naming of Cheragi - lamp, or by extension a city founded upon the ideal of enlightenment with the lighting of a (symbolic) lamp by Badar awlia. These tales that grow out of the soil nourishes our souls even though we stand hundreds of years apart. The appeal of the oral tradition has found new expressions in audio-visual representations/interpretations. The point is, body's immediate, rooted experience is sustained in collective memory, all else fritters away. Hence, artistic practices that grow organically out of an awareness secure with a sense of belonging and one which keeps evolving/ 'becoming', resonate with us, titillate the faculty of re-cognition, drives our desire to the higher still. The multidisciplinary practices in circulation around the globe are prescriptive, guided by the market principles of the West, where locales are mashed into a single lump of global, as a result we witness a lot of inbreeding rather than vital diversity emerging out of a poly-mix (polemics ?). Even modern takes on culturally connotative expressions appear like chronicles of deaths (read finality) foretold. Farzana Hossen's Ballad was a play on Shongshar Shukher hoi romonir gune (a virtous wife makes a happy home), which is re-inscribed with all the familiar paraphernalia that yokes women to thankless domestic labour, the dourness of the installation was not recouped by denigration of the valorized shongshar as the shar of the shong, the essence of the clown. On a different note Dilara Begum Jolly's video, Eye, presented a wall with numerous eyes staring out at viewers. These eyes implanted themselves on their clothings to stroll about watching, blinking, imputing from a reversed ethical standpoint of the female gaze, thus challenging any attempt at erasure of the feminine anima. Cataloging all the works would be futile, suffice is to mention in brief a few more, without casting any doubt over the power of the other works.
Body as a phenomenal being and not as a bearer of reference was the basis of Atish Saha (Invisible Web-man) and Joydev Roaja's performance (Unnoyoner Kamor, The Bite of Progress). Amidst a lot of works that relied on sensory reception, these works could be best 'perceived through a reflective bearing' (quoted from Flesh as Communication – Body Art and Body Theory by Falk Heinrich), as self-reflexive action. In both cases the artists pushed their bodies to its outer limit of tolerance. Saha remained tied inside a sack, symbolizing human subjugation to the habits of life. Roaja externalized the pain of unrelenting state discrimination against the ethnic community by inviting the audience to clip on clothing pins over his flesh. In the flyer provided by the organizers, a popular baul song (by Ustad Allauddin) finds honour of place –Mon amar deho ghori (Dear o me, my body clock…). It is about the miracle of the body where man finds his spiritual mooring as it harbours the Maker and it is through the practices of daily rituals of living that man pays Him tribute. The barricade between the mundane and the sublime collapses, following the same vein, life and art becomes one seamless continuum. CAS was an effort to address this elusiveness or so it seemed. But the question is, if public art is social activism in a broad sense, then in its abeyance (or so claimed the organizers), is there a need to bring art to life or should it just be teased out of it?
The public and private divide kept befuddling the organizers time and again. Schedules were pushed off to improvise an outdoor screening of Yasmine Kabir's film, The Last Rites. A lyrical ballad that traced a slow, withering away of a monstrous sea-faring vessel. The suffering and inhuman toil by the puny mortals are eclipsed by its herculean presence. A thing of wonder to the eyes of a Chittagonian, one who was raised by the sea, Kabir turned away from issues of commerce and occupational hazard to foreground man's fated ties with his own creation. In close vicinity stood a life-size cutout of Kalpana Chakma, which purportedly was presented as a selfie stand. Razib Datta (Selfie With A Kidnapped Body ) stagger our imagination by this gesture of dethroning an icon(victim) of 'the game of power' by assigning her a frivolous role, it became a meme not, although, without its implicit air of menace – calling into question (misplaced?) a culture of injustice-apathy-amnesia. An added surprise was Mirza Taslima Sultana's indoor presentation on visual representation of the false promises of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). An eloquent speaker, she held the audience in rapt attention with her engaging rundown on how motherhood as a social and gender narrative impairs women's rights and pathologizes a woman's incapacity to bear a child, again body as a centerpiece is a victim of conditioning through prevalent social-cultural mores.
In keeping with the nature of the 'place', Fahad Hasan Kazmee and Nowshin Tarannum worked with found materials: paper plates were painted with recognizable 'insignia' of urban lifestyles, bags were hung in display with mock price tags, in all, their installation (Manober Karigori: Bhitor o Bahir) immersed itself in the semiosis of the atmosphere. It brought some life to the spot it occupied and one could also sense in these works a willingness to engage, to invite and to play.
The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience of lacking a place… there is only a population of passers-by… a shuffling among pretenses of the proper, a universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places.
The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau, 1984
The people of Cheragi are already conditioned to receive this annual outbreak of art, they are already confronting their own perception of its meaning, may or may not be self-consciously, but to them the dreamed-of place is still a far cry, they are still spectators, neither producers nor users of this yearly visual tonic. CAS erupts seasonally in an everyday, urban setting, with the most potent of all tools – art, creating a volatile social mix that allows, potentially, for a creative /transformative feedback loop between artist, spectator and society as such; maybe it is time the organizers took a note of that!
Cheragi Art Show 5 ran its course from December 9 to December 10 at Cheragi Mor, Chittagong.
ALL IMAGES’ COURTESY OF JOG ART SPACE