Unpeopled and formal
Ghost City in Bangladeshi paintings
Roaming around Dhaka one cannot but notice the endless series of billboards vying for attention. Among them there are many put up by property developers; they are massive, they are above our heads aspiring to be above everything else around them; they provoke you till you decide that you are not one with enough dough to even contemplate buying what is on offer. These image-based messages that cast their spell through digitally designed buildings – architectural drawings turned into a computer manipulated photograph-like symbols of comfort and certainty – are an adobe photoshop fantasy we buy into on a regular basis.
The serenity that they attempt to project against the backdrop of overpopulated Dhaka, its gorged streets as well as the social chaos that break through the surface from time to time, is part of the urban reality constructed around money, class and culture.
Still, in any hierarchized society, which is divided along the lines of power, possession and money, the fantasy of one man is always the reality of another. Considering the whole spectrum of realities/fantasies against which the horizon lies for such extravagant adverts, one never ceases to be amused.
The modern sense of beauty, including its continuous flux or enhancement, is related to the technological developments that have taken place over the last few decades. And the more technologically equipped the urbanites become the more distance is attained from what is perceived as the 'human' vis-à-vis our physical environment.
Within the frame of knowledge that makes cities possible there are talks of freedom, fraternity, democracy and even emancipation, however, what is represented within the frame of a billboard is far removed from that humanistic approach – they are mostly clinical and austere in their appearances, and they clearly challenge humanity with their scale.
The fact that they hardly ever acknowledge human presence is an affirmation that they are the signs and symbols of opulence seen as ultimate achievements; thus, they are everywhere to dwarf human existence (as well as achievements).
If human forms appear at all, they do so in twos or threes in the guise of corporate representatives – in garb that sartorially links them to a particular class, and are usually male of the species.
The themes of these images are symptomatic of the male virility and sophistication defined by our image-saturated age. They are repetitively used across different billboards installed by different builders, and in the end are puzzling for their reluctance to deal with the human form.
That Bangladesh is an overpopulated country is at the heart of any discussion unless that is replaced by some specific reference to flood, or Islam in its extreme political hues. The necessary impulsion comes in the form of disengagement with the realities against the urban imaginary or 'fantasy' – a construction of the media, movies and most of all gossip.
Yet, the problematics of urban life/lifestyle and its inner dynamics are manifested in roundabout ways, in city architecture, urban planning and other socio-ontological propositions. The builders may have good reasons to make their advertisements look effete by excluding the core issues that trouble today's cities as the living space they propose is just a 'timeless, neutral and buyable space' that should match their perceived taste and culture.
But one who would populate these secularly defined sacred spaces, can they afford to see them as 'neuter reality.' What happens to the painters who reside here? Are they troubled by time in its social-historical dimension; do they willingly draw on the very culture that goes to build the adverts and hoardings in the city?
But, why do artists find no other way to represent the city they populate without people, as if the issues of political, onto-social or even ethical dimensions have little room in their midst? And do these two parties – the ad makers and the artists – have anything in common in their attempt at interfacing their personal desire with the perceived reality called the city? Perhaps, the problem arises in the context of the position one takes; perhaps it is a matter of how one envisions the future.
In Bangladesh, the city has never been a major theme for the arts. Ironically, if we consider the literary legacy seriously, city has often cropped up as a theme, though it has been manifested as the diametrical opposite of the 'rural', 'local', or 'indigenous.' The narratives are constructed in such a way that the rural to urban drift appears as a testimony to dislocation.
On one hand, this journey from the rural to the urban refers to those specific negative emotions. Images of a city, on the other hand, entail a series of indexes related to prosperity within the structure of the dominant narrative. The city, thus, connotes a double meaning. 'Rural' refers to the ideas of 'scarcity', 'homeliness', 'familial values', and to some extent 'the morals'; whereas 'city' refers to the ideas of 'affluence and wastage', 'emptiness', 'manipulation' and 'lack of morals.'
I would like to refer to the literary legacy of mainstream films that seems to appropriate this framework more effectively; and the literary method works almost like a handbook as far as practitioners of other modes of expressions are concerned. One major aspect of the making of the city has to do with the association of the word 'foreign' with it. In mainstream films, this 'particular' is represented by making an appeal to the consciousness of the deprived class along with their urban counterparts.
Regardless of the differences in genres and their interpretations within the respective fields, the city can only be perceived in relation to the discourses of the rural. The rural provides the necessary meaning to engage the imaginary past, making nostalgia a crucial issue in artistic expression.
But it is not adequate for one to explain these paintings if we see the painter as an essential borrower of literary rhetoric. First of all, literary expressions and the visual arts, including paintings, may share a common ground, yet it is problematic for us to draw an immediate conclusion by comparing one with the other since the practitioners are significantly different in terms of their social classes and respective training.
More important, however, is the fact that there is no comprehensible reason to exclude people from the frame even to portray a city that may in the end be comparable to the village to invoke nostalgia. The tendency has become symptomatic, and the presence or absence of the human form carries no specific meaning – affecting a sense of remoteness in the viewers. That crows can easily find a place into the canvas of urban artists representing urban reality, and the humans are not even considered – not even for their potential to address the urban chaos, or its opposite – urbanity, is a fact that seems puzzling.
To understand the cause behind it all, one must go back to the issue of formalism – a mode of art where form supersedes, and even replaces content; and that is the European story of twentieth-century audacity and innovation. Here, in Bangladesh, the same mode of language is appropriated only to turn it into an exercise in composition. This kind of work that we have had the opportunity to see burgeoning in the last two decades or so since the artists started finding sponsors from the corporate as well as diplomatic agencies has gained enough strength not only to stay the course but also to thrive.
How this form of art gained ground in this region and has successfully attracted patrons are issues that merit serious examination and analysis and also a separate article. For now we may focus on the fact that architectural sites and the grand design of the city play a central role in these works.
Consider human figures in their anatomical details, they can only disrupt the harmony of the geometrically conceived lines and shapes. And the artist's preference to stick to the synchronization of the elements is also pivotal in making them more in harmony with the structural discipline modern-day architecture enforces on the environment.
Modern architecture fits neatly into the pattern of modern lifestyle. One may say that today's architecture is of transnational design as is the case with the life one constructs in the city. And there are designs identical to that of the regions which Bangladeshi painters have never experienced – for example, the sloppy rooftop found in the countries of heavy snowfall.
Within the modernist culture, legacies are built around 'visual schooling.' However, reducing human figures into 'scenic' elements is something that is accepted in theatre, and not much experimented with in the paintings. The reduction of human form to structural composition is a method that the cubist introduced, so, from the anthropocentric point of view we assume that it degrades the human and lends primacy to the overall composition of the picture we will be at loggerheads with the visual tactics of modernism. And along that line of argument this reduction may look ridiculous, whereas rejection of human form may be seen as the 'saviour' attempt towards humanity.
Another way of dealing with the human as a bunch of creatures – tedious and trivial in nature – is to portray them from a distant viewpoint as if they are the shadow of themselves. They merely play the role of a component of the theme, part of the picture framed as a visual stimulus. Humans devoid of humanity put together in homogeneous fashion come in handy as a solution to the overall concept of representation. The distance provides an easy escape from concerns of being and existence.
Homogeneity, here, must not be considered as ignorance towards diversity, but as a solution to the political questions that arises from within the city establishment. It is thus an attempt to minimize 'anxiety.' Far from being apolitical, this can be seen as a premeditated political act, unconscious though most of the times. Both the method of putting distant, foggy representation of human figures and excluding them from the venue of the artistic act where the artist meets the canvas to reinterpret/recreate/recompose their artwork are just cultural-political acts.
The population discourse (which often means concern for overpopulation), the obsession with compositional concerns, the anticipation of human as homogeneous beings – all these issues are intertwined and together they define the very fabric of our artistic culture.
Work of art in its social function as a source of visual stimuli has often provided the ground for the exclusion of the demographic truth in this region. Though it is also true that human figures are not the primary concern in any artistic product, except of course the female models meticulously depicted by male artists, or the ones coming from pagan legacies, which only prove that it is not the lived reality that mostly inspire artists, rather the world of representation.
Considering the merits of each of the propositions, I would like to underline the cultural-political tension as the most crucial factor behind it. If the artists lack experience in the study of human figures and in representation of human actions, it is only a fraction of the problem. If the artist is embroiled in city life, the inability to represent human form simply remains a technical issue. And what comes out it is the reluctance to relate to human existence.
The amalgam that is a city – the affluence, the derelictions, unbelievable involvement of the proletariat in the creative/building processes of the urban dream, the scope for a wide range of livelihood for the educated middle class, the dialectical nature of the relationship of the individual with the site and its ethos, the negotiations that goes on among all these, especially between human interest with the money culture – is something that lay the ground for true artistic intervention.
For me it is a wonder how one finds a simple way to complete a canvas.
The easier option is to paint a ghost city. There are suggestive display of bricks and parks, lobbies and paved yards, pictorially pleasing gardens, water bodies, vehicles and poles, also maybe traffic to justify the ongoing developmental activities, or maybe the environmental impact of such activities, but there is no public to live in their midst, or references to time and history, turning the site into a seemingly self-contained interior cut off from its exterior.