When the visual arts are considered an appendage—a luxury, or shokh—the underrepresentation of minority communities becomes even more pronounced.
“Eta ki . . . oshudh naki? (Is this medicine?)”
Mid-purchase of Acme water, I turned. A young shopper was pointing to a wall of swollen polythene bags. Satabdi Shome’s installation, Reality.
“Oshudh naki?” he asked again.
“It’s installation art,” I interjected, helpfully (I thought). “The whole street has been taken over by these projects.”
“Charukala (fine art) students?”
“Yes, probably. Jog, an artists’ collective.”
He pointed at the only “traditional” work on the street, a painting with a multipronged figure. Juncture by Fahima Binte Zahed.
“I understand that work. I know that one is shilpa (art). But, polythene bags?”
“Arre bhai (listen brother),” his companion interrupted, “did your father think there would be something called a mobile phone? Everything changes, why not shilpa?”
He seemed to like this explanation, turning away from me and launching into a discussion with his friend. This was healthy. Not dismissal, just questioning.
Throughout the day, I observed similar viewers—puzzled, curious, and eventually engaged with the work. They were not only—as is common in many Dhaka openings—friends of the artists or invited guests, but people just passing through. Cheragee Pahar is a crucial walkway because of the presence of Batighar bookshop and various newspaper offices (one of the papers, Shuprobhat, gently lampooned in Afsana Sharmin Jhuma’s installation Don’t Worry, Shuprobhat). Batighor was one of two shops in the area carrying a book I had been involved with co-editing, Chittagong Hill Tracts in the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism, and this had been my entry point into local cultural nodes.
As the crowds swelled in the street, each installation attracted a cluster. Each work faced the same question: Eta ki (what is this)? Only a performance by shaggy-maned Mishuk Ehsan—announced by a loudspeaker mimicking a movie trailer in a mohashomarohe shubhomukti (“coming soon”) voice—drew a less-than-capacity crowd (it was, by design, too loud to approach). A corner dab-wala (green coconut seller) did roaring business and created a mountain of trash, an involuntary conscript into the show.
Load-shedding of electricity ended on the hour and the lights of Cheragee came back on. It was early evening, so I had not noticed the absent lights. Now as the circuits reconnected, I realized that some of the works had been sitting as if half-blind, waiting for electricity. The spot lighting for Sohrab Jahan’s . . . & Zoo, Ripon Saha’s Third Law of Emotion, and Shaela Sharmin’s Spicy Story were ceremonial, not essential. But for other works, including Bivol Shaha’s We are Fine, Palash Bhattacharjee’s Horn, Sharad Das’s My Father’s Chair, Arup Barua’s Stress, and Zihan Karim’s A Simple Death, electric circuits brought the machine to life. The crowd swelled further.
People surged and followed, creating a thick, enthusiastic cordon around the interactive works and performances. I could still make out the essentials of what was happening in Aloptogin Tushar’s Banana 5 (live drawing), Smita Purakayostho’s Don’t Try this at Home (a suspended carrom game board), Mehrun Akter Sumi’s Onushoron (a blind man’s guide meeting a tug of war), Zesika Tasnim’s Floating Wish (a flotilla of paper boats) and Farah Naz Moon’s Ami Jani Tui . . . Tumi (a ludo board as body drapery). But the crowds were too dense to allow a clear sightline. Full house!
I fell back and talked with Dhali al Mamoon and Dilara Jolly. Many of the artists here were either current or former students of theirs, and both seemed exhilarated at how their interventions were now yielding such diverse results.
While the Bengali Muslim domination of the Bangladeshi art scene is slightly lessened in Chittagong, performance artist Joydeb Roaja (Khelaram khele ja, Dekharam dekhe ja [Player play on, Audience look on]) is one of the very few indigenous Jumma artists in the district, and certainly the only one at the Cheragee show. Here also, I was disappointed not to see Adivasi audiences at Cheragee—perhaps Jog’s dependence on their own networks kept the audience strictly Bengali, a major lapse in the home district of the gradual erasure of Adivasi identity by the Bangladeshi state. (The term Adivasi refers to the indigenous peoples of the subcontinent.)
When the visual arts are considered an appendage—a luxury or shokh—the underrepresentation of minority communities becomes even more pronounced. At a talk given by the Jog artists, Roaja claimed that performance art gave him freedom because it allowed him to work in raw, confrontational formats, with minimal expenses (not for him, perhaps, a “sponsored by Robbialac” banner).
Jog curator Yuvraj (a.k.a. Zahed A. Chowdhury, an associate professor of painting at Charukala) talks about the challenges of finding Adivasi artists. Even a few years ago, Charukala Institute would only see a rare Adivasi, and always from the dominant Chakma or Marma communities that had some family presence in Bandarban or Rangamati. Only in the last few years had he seen any students from Bawm and Chak communities. Expanded Adivasi quotas in admissions would constitute affirmative action, but can traumatized public universities ever take such a visionary step? When I asked Joydeb who the other young Adivasi artists were (the post-Kanak Chapa Chakma generation), he named Udoy Sonkor Chakma, Bimol Chakma, Vobesh Chakma, Bablu Chakma, Doyal Mohan Chakma, Obonti Chakma and Jigmun Bom in Chittagong; and in Dhaka, Shapu Tripura and Milon Tripura. Parsing the names alone, I could see that the majority was from the Chakma indigenous group, with a much smaller segment being from the Tripura and Bom groups. This reflected the Adivasi communities’ own internal lines of hegemony. Overall, the community was under Bengali settler and military domination, but internally, at least for such limited things as university admissions, Chakma groups usually dominated. Chakma dominated or not, as a list of indigenous artists, this was much too short!
In 2004, Dhali al Mamoon completed Water is Innocent!, probably the first large-scale installation mourning the act of state aggression against Adivasis that was development of Kaptai Hydroelectric Dam. In the years since, there has been very little work by Bengali or Adivasi artists on the continuing crisis in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. There is an urgent need for artists to break with the state’s chokehold on our ways of seeing ourselves. Jog has not yet built a new paradigm, but Roaja’s work is at least a visible marker.
Installation and performance art are not included in the syllabus of any Bangladeshi Charukala, and Chittagong is no exception. But the city’s position in the periphery has made it more open to experimentation. Rajdhanite khub antorikota’r obhab (there is a lack of sincerity in the capital). It’s an overused complaint, but somewhat true. At many Dhaka shows, a sense of wonder has been lost. People are increasingly present not to lose themselves in a sensory experience, but to figure out the angles: Is this the new thing? Who is funding this? What’s in it for me? Brains on overdrive with no time for contemplation.
The port city has its own character, expressed, for example, in the bond of private dialect among Chittagonians. Professor Nisar Hossain of Dhaka University describes Chittagong’s self-contained character as ancholikota’r taan (the pull of regionalism), which allows fluid dialogue between generations. Rashid Chowdhury and Murtaza Bashir’s shilpa andolon (arts movement) of the 1970s, transmitted to Faizul Azim Jacob, Alok Roy, and Abul Mansur, then five years later to Dhali Al Mamoon, and finally today to Cheragee Pahar. The first master’s degree in fine arts started in Chittagong, and a quiet tradition of theoretical practice continues alongside the honing of craft.
Chittagong is not a hinterland by any stretch of the imagination (hello, cargo supertankers!), but its art scene retains essential breathing space. Experimental collectives like Jog are still limited and when asked about the link with Porapara, I learned that some artists crossed between the two organizations. But being off the grid has helped the scene tremendously; whatever has developed has been organic, resulting in a confidence that feels comfortable and without arrogance. The longer it can resist the siren call of Euro-American or Dhaka curators on “discovery” safari, the better the space can develop.
Far from the madding crowd.
Naeem Mohaiemen is a writer and artist.