Contemporary Art in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Optimism and Confusion

The city of Dhaka suffers under the burdens of poverty, chaotic traffic, frequent flooding, corruption, and social conflicts. How can contemporary art thrive where criminality, brutality and anarchy are the order of the day? By Simone Wille

photo: Abir Abdullah
The late Golam Kasem, Bangladesh's senior-most photographer at that time, at a Drik Network exhibition - Drik's goal is to give local photographers a chance to present their work

​​Of all the big cities in South Asia, Dhaka is probably one of the most chaotic. The millions of people who reside here conduct their everyday lives and struggle to survive publicly, in the streets: this is where people eat, pray, sleep, nurse their babies, undergo primitive dental treatments and even relieve themselves.

The poorhouse of South Asia, as Bangladesh is popularly known, is still reeling from the aftermath of its war of independence from Pakistan in 1971, which opened the gates for corruption and the emergence of fundamentalist forces.

Contemporary art in Bangladesh has been in a transitional phase since the 1990s, one marked in equal measures by optimism and confusion. Artworks reflect the difficult state of affairs using the mediums of installation, photography, painting, video and performance. Political issues, cultural tensions, socioeconomic problems – the artists address all of these aspects with an unabashed directness.

Vital community of artist

Overall, it can be discerned that the young arts scene in Dhaka has evolved under difficult circumstances into a vital community of artists with newfound self-confidence and their own identity that distinguishes them from the rest of South Asia.

Relative to the region as a whole, Dhaka offers an impressive selection of exhibition spaces. Joining the commercial galleries and state-run organizations are a number of private initiatives.

Since 1994, for example, Mahbubur Rahman and Tayeba Begum Lipi have been organizing enterprising exhibitions touring Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh. They founded the Britto International Artists' Workshop in 2003 based on their experiences. As part of this initiative, artists and creative talents from all over the world are invited each year to Dhaka in an effort to boost cultural exchange and dialogue in the city as well as outlying areas.

A generation of angry young artists

In addition to the city galleries, the cultural institutions run by various foreign offices offer a changing program of films, theater, exhibitions and literary events. Especially popular among Dhaka's artists are the rooms of the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Française. Thanks to its large gallery, the latter frequently plays host to ambitious installation projects and performances.

The Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy in Dhaka has regularly been the site of the Asian Biennial. Not only artists from Asian countries are invited to participate, but also contributors from the Pacific region and even Africa.

It is unfortunate, however, that this state-sponsored undertaking, already held eleven times, has not yet succeeded in setting well-defined curatorial aims. The Asian Biennial is thus lacking all the significant features of an international event for contemporary art, which in turn means that it has not attracted much attention from the international media.

Photojournalists against sensationalist reporting

Also of interest in Dhaka is the work of Drik – an agency for local photojournalists established in 1989. The organization's goal is to respond to the one-sided, sensationalist photo reports on Bangladesh that often appear in the international press by giving local photographers a chance to present their region – including, of course, famines, flooding and other catastrophes – in a more personal, finely differentiated manner.

In 1998, Drik founded "Pathshala – The South Asian Institute of Photography," its own photojournalism school. Since 2000, the agency has been collaborating with partners to put on a biannual festival called "Chobi Mela," the first major photography festival in Asia.

The young artists of Dhaka call into question conventional representations of their region, and in their own work bring historical experiences to bear on the events of the day.

More local and regional means of expression

At the same time, they are moving away from an international artistic language and toward a more local and regional means of expression, one that contains a large admixture of political satire. The artists focus on the corruption around them, on inappropriate idealism, religious bigotry and the discrimination of women in society.

Works by Niloofar Chaman, Atia Islam Anne and Tayeba Begum Lipi are testaments to a newly awakening consciousness among the female artists of Bangladesh. Atia Islam Anne's "Women and Society" series is a satire on the dominant, male myth and simultaneously an attack on the patriarchal system, in which women are viewed solely as sex objects.

Social injustice and discrimination against women are also the prevailing themes in the work of Niloofar Chaman. She addresses the general imbalances and absurdities in a society in which a growing army of poor people lives side by side with the relatively small circle of the wealthy.

Subcultures as everyday myth

Shishir Bhattacherjee made a name for himself in the 1980s with his political caricatures. The appeal of his pictures stems from a strong social engagement, expressed with sarcasm and wit. Comics often take a more critical stance toward situations that are regarded as politically unjust than does official art. Particularly in the Third World, a number of examples can be found of this tendency, for example in Algeria, Turkey or Allende's Chile.

The military dictatorship of the 1980s is given a tragicomic spin in Bhattacherjee's picture series "Come and See the Game," which features demons disguised as humans, power-hungry politicians with guns, and jackals feeding on the bodies of innocent girls.

A country molded by migration

Bangladesh is a country that has been molded by migration. In 1947, it was the Muslims of India who moved to the newly founded East Pakistan, and in 1971 no less than ten million people sought refuge in nearby India during the ten-month war of independence with West Pakistan.

Farhana Syeda, a graduate of the Pathshala Institute, reports in her documentary multimedia works on the lives of Bengali immigrants in Singapore or, as in her "Dilliwao Project," on Bengali Muslim refugees living in the slums of Calcutta and Delhi. The stories are similar. They tell of uprooting through migration, of non-belonging, rejection and false hopes. By training her camera on her subjects almost timidly, Syeda invites us to see the dignity and strength in their abject misery.

Religion exerts control

No matter where one goes in South Asia, one encounters everywhere the naked struggle for existence played out day by day on the streets and in the bazaars.

Just like the extreme weather, religion exerts a degree of control over the lives of the region's people that has perhaps not been witnessed in the West since the Renaissance.

Artists in Bangladesh are thus confronted on a daily basis with a high concentration of conflicts crowded into a small area. Far from the eye of the international public, the country's young artists have been able to incorporate historical, linguistic and cultural resources into their process of development and to work together against the prevailing cultural vacuum.

Simone Wille

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/Qantara.de 2005

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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