Amid the mapping exercise of the international biennials for AAA's online project, I was preparing my trip to the latest edition of the Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh (12th AABB), held in the country's capital, Dhaka. Although the Biennial has a comparatively long history of 25 years, it goes rather unnoticed – people raised their eyebrows when I mentioned it. What will the contemporary art scene be like in a country whose 'poverty is deep and pervasive'?*
The 12th AABB opened on 5 March 2006. Thanks to the hospitality of the organiser Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, I was received as an overseas delegate. Featuring 532 artworks by 348 artists from 31 countries, including Bangladesh, the Biennale was mounted at three venues, namely Osmani Memorial Hall, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy National Art Gallery and Bangladesh National Museum Gallery. The sea of exhibits was predominately paintings, peppered with a dozen sculptures and a handful of installations, with only two sets of photographic work (from Australia) on display. In short, a lot of that and a bit of this.
Though the Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia graced the occasion by inaugurating the exhibition, it did not grab much media attention. It was said that the event was eclipsed by headlines concerning current terrorism in the country. I wasn't convinced, not seeing any immediate connection - notwithstanding that government buildings, museums, hotels and business centres were under strict security control, with armed guards, bag checks, and explosive and weapons detection routine.
It is indeed a bit out of context to comment on the 12th AABB without much prior knowledge of where contemporary Bangladeshi art stands. Nor am I entirely happy to make rash comparisons with other biennials in Asia and the West. I had better listen!
Apart from the desire to capitalise on the occasion by creating an infrastructure to sell the works exhibited, an art dealer in Dhaka was quick to point out that the title of the Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh, as such, failed to reflect its transformation. Today, the artists included in the Biennale extend to those from countries outside Asia. Renaming was quested to fit its international profile. On the contrary, a young critic from Chittagong, a fast-emerging centre of art in Bangladesh, was concerned about the issue of Asian identity, especially for an ex-colony like Bangladesh, and cherished the former Biennale's perimeters as a platform for Asian art. Inaugurated by the government in 1981, a decade after Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971, the AABB was introduced, after all, to reinstate Bangladesh's cultural position in Asia. The critic I mention above was not impressed by the overseas works this year. This view was shared by a participating artist, who found the past editions had showcased more sophisticated works as far as the overseas exhibits were concerned. 'This is due to the contacts and process of the selection', the artist added. Both of them were in favour of a biennial with curatorial orientation.
Indeed, the urges for stronger curatorial consideration rather than the staging of a survey show are increasingly frantic in the Bangladesh art community. In a review in the art magazine Jamini (published in Dhaka) of the annual Bangladesh national exhibition held in Spring 2005, I noticed the Bangladeshi exhibits at the 12th AABB often overlapped with those in the annual show. The review ends with this line: 'The organisers will do Bangladesh art a world of good if they concentrate on quality rather than quantity in future exhibitions.'
My days in Dhaka were largely filled by the 12th AABB exhibitions, seminars and associated functions. I also seized the opportunity to acquaint myself with the art scene in Dhaka.
The gallery scene in Dhaka is relatively indolent, with the exception of the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts. With a team of 12 people, headed by Subir Choudhury, the Bengal Gallery stages around 20 exhibitions a year, and has showcased the work of over 200 local and international artists since its establishment in 2000. It occupies a well-managed premise located in the Dhanmondi area, which is also home to a number of small galleries such as Gallery Chitrak, Shipangan Gallery, and Le Gallerie of the Alliance Francse de Dacca. Under the umbrella of the Bengal Foundation, Bengal Gallery, together with Jamini, aims to raise an international outlook for Bangladeshi art, and both are vigorous forces in shaping the Bangladeshi art scene.
Britto Arts Trust, an artist-led, not-for-profit, art space founded in 2002 by Imran Hossain Piplu, Tayeba Begum Lipi, Mahbubur Rahman, Salahuddin Khan Srabon, Kabir Ahmed Masum Chisty and Shishir Bhattacharjee, is a part of the dynamic international Triangle Arts Trust workshop and residency network. Britto is committed to promoting exchanges and dialogues among artist communities active internationally and within the region. Two international artist workshops have taken place in the past few years. Recent residencies for young artists include Hong Kong-based sculptress Jaffa Lam (November 2005), British artist Jessica Rost and Bangladeshi artist Masum Chisty (February–March 2006).
The Britto is also a partner of the South Asian Network formed in 2000 - other affiliates include Khoj (India), Vasl (Pakistan), Theertha (Sri Lanka) and Sutra (Nepal). Cooperation among countries of and around the India sub-continent is multifold. On a governmental level, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), including seven countries in the region - India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives - aims to accelerate the process of economic and social development in member States. In this context, the absence of India at the 12th AABB, the first time since its inception, is indeed highly visible. One critic said, ‘I missed India’.
On my last evening in Dhaka, I arranged to interview Britto's Lipi. I however didn't have much luck, for the three-storey block that Britto was occupying suffered a suspension of electricity -something that is not uncommon in Dhaka.
* UNICEF's website states 'Poverty is deep and pervasive in Bangladesh, with 44 per cent of the population living in absolute poverty, defined as having an income of less than US$1 per day.'
Bengal Foundation and Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts: http://www.bengalfoundation.com
Britto Arts Trust: http://www.brittoarts.org
- Sat, 1 Apr 2006