“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” —Toni Morrison, Beloved
Bangladeshi visual artist Naeem Mohaiemen is well known in the Indian art world, having shown at Kolkatta’s Experimenter and having been exhibited internationally. While comfortable with showing his art in West Bengal, he has expressed his exhaustion with the audiences reminiscing over their abandoned homes in East Bengal, which became East Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971. This chequered history of a country coming into being is referenced frequently in the show “Barbed Floss” curated by Veerangana Solanki at The Guild.
In a recent New York Times essay, Mohaiemen remembers that while writing for Juktakkhor (a magazine published from Kolkatta and Dhaka), he noted that West Bengal still treated Bangladesh as a lesser partner in cultural production. This was in the 1990s. Since then, Bangladesh has seen its first Art Summit in 2012, and is readying itself for the second; organized by the Samdani Art Foundation, it is scheduled for February 7-9, 2014. The Chobi Mela, a photography biennial festival under the helm of photographer Shahidul Alam, is the largest and most highly regarded photography festival in South Asia and is well attended by visitors from across the border.
Molla Sagar, Bichchhedi Gaan (Songs of Estrangement), 2013, video, HDV PAL, 8 min., singers: Emdad Hossain, Tungipara, Gopalgonj Sohel, Morolgonj, Bagerhat; courtesy of the artist and The Guild.
Which is why it is a pity that the show does not include any contemporary photographers. Showcasing four artists, it’s the wall text that is encountered as one enters, even as the sounds of Molla Sagar’s video – a song of lament so pervasive, even without the words being understood. Sung in a language that viewers may not understand, it is a simple yet evocative comment, a common refrain of all the works in the show – the division of a common land and culture by forces of history played out beyond the control of its people. The baleful lilt of the loss of one’s home that is enunciated in “Borders, the name of politics”, tells of the tale of Bijoy Sircar, tripped by history, caught on the wrong side and his anguish of leaving his home. Played out from the confines of a brothel on the border, at once the marginalized both political and social is made poignant.
"Barbed" in the title refers to the "3,406km barbed wire fence that was recently completed to prevent immigration" between India and Bangladesh. Illegal immigration of Bangladeshis to urban centres in India, once accepted sympathetically, has increasingly come under Hindu right wing ire. Yet, despite increased patrolling of the borders, there seems to be an increase in cultural exchange between the two countries. In 2014, at the second Dhaka Art Summit, New Delhi based Raqs Media Collective, will mark their presence in the city through a public art project, curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt, director Creative India, that will be spread over 160 billboards and road signs.
Tayeba Begum Lipi, in From 1.7 million mi2 To 55,598 million mi2 alludes directly to the history of the subcontinent; tracing it through cartography – etchings on stainless steel of changing borders and the voiceless lives caught between the tracings – the four maps make for bewildering readings. In their meandering lines, they render memories and homes adrift on the shifting sands of history, the use of stainless steel as opposed to paper, marks permanence in history’s impermanence.
Promotesh Das Pulak, Twin, 2013, acrylic box, wooden table, towel, shoal flowers and electric machine, 50" x 30" x 25"; courtesy of the artist and The Guild.
There are other artists in the show: Promotesh Das Pulak’s Twin is a rather direct representation of a country divided yet conjoined by a breathing, living culture that goes back centuries; Anisuzzaman Sohel’s mixed media works are more introspective, dealing with the affect of partition, yet the effect is not particularly achieved. Mahbubar Rahman’s armour-like installation does invoke the claustrophobia borders bring; a performance artist, the scissor crafted works, when worn, at once talk of cutting up of lands even as the form constructs defences.
What does one make of this representation of works? For a first showing of contemporary art from Bangladesh in the city, does one glean that contemporary artists are still obsessed with partition twice over? Or is it a response to the curatorial brief? The “barbed” is alluded to in all, yet what exactly is "floss" or to be "flossed" over is puzzling. If at all, each artist seems to emphasise the prickly nature of divisions. One would have liked to see the "claiming of ownership of the freed self" of contemporary art from Bangladesh to take flight from past history – perhaps a follow up show will showcase the true contemporariness of Bangladeshi art, both artistically and curatorially. “Freeing yourself is one thing” – but history shows what one does with the freedom is another; here it seems tough to shake of the shackles of the past and the repeated.
(All Images: Barbed Floss, installation view, The Guild Art Gallery, 2013 ; Courtesy of the artists and The Guild.)