After I set foot in the precincts of Abdur Razzaque Gyantaposh Bidyapith in Dhanmondi, what caught my attention first was a portrait of Ishrat Akhond, put up at the entrance, with that signature smile painted all over the face that takes you in and tells you there’s a woman who put her heart into what she did. But life runs faster than ever in this city, leaving you no time for reflection on the last conversation you had with her, or on the last time you saw her, running to and fro with an enthusiasm that was rare and genuine, to make an art event a success, or on how you felt when you heard she was brutally killed by a group of fanatics for no reason at all.
The collections were as varied in medium as in temper. Works ranged from video to performance to photography to printmaking to installation to sculpture. They were installed in five rooms. Performance and video works occupied three rooms while the other mediums took two. The emphasis on video and performance was evident from the allocation of space for different mediums.
The lithographs were the first ones to strike me. Being the irretrievably modern that I am, I could instantly relate to the man in a cloak sitting alone with a guitar. Palash Baran Biswas did the lithographs. Rupam Roy’s conical sculptures had meticulous textures and they caught my eyes. Shamsul Alam Helal’s photographs brought to the fore the life of the hijra community -- a courageous and commendable approach because these are the people who are persecuted and pushed to the margins due to the choice they have made, defying the heterosexual norms of identity formation. Salma Abedin Prithi’s photographs, too, played with the politics of identity, especially with how women are forced to internalise patriarchal values.
Palash Bhattacharjee’s video had a prolonged image of a dark skyline with clouds menacingly piling over. It struck me as an excellent, symbolic portrayal of the alienation that city life is plagued with. Rafiqul Islam Shuvo’s video was elaborate and it moved between the drudgeries of city life, with flashbacks of swimming in the river as children. One of the winners of the award, Shuvo’s work was a testament to the crises that city life breeds in the form of inequality and alienation and he executed it in a much broader panorama than Palash’s.
Razib Dutta, the other winner, experimented with form, juxtaposing text with what seemed like a deliberate departure from modern and abstract art. He was basically trying to develop a story through a series a works, all of them having a character named Ramiz and an accompanying text purportedly explaining Ramiz’s actions or thoughts.
Then I walked into another room to take a look at one of the performances. It was a performance by Ali Asgar, I learnt. It’s quite long, going on for about two hours. When I stepped inside the room, I saw a psychotic man hitting himself forcefully on the back with a belt. The whipping went on for several minutes at a stretch. Then he ate a banana before he squirted a blob of shaving gel and daubed it all over his face which, apparently, was already clean-shaven. Then he started shaving. While he was shaving, I walked out to take another look at Shuvo’s video. When I went back in, I saw him wearing a brassiere. He was trying to unbuckle it, slowly, very slowly, stealing mischievous looks at the camera sometimes. I left the room at this point. It must have gone on, with the performer taking up other quirky actions. The potential of this piece was not lost on me. Someone with homosexual desire may any time find himself or herself in such psychotic situations as the society s/he lives in has no tolerance for such people.
To me some of these works were commendable, aesthetically as well as politically, while some -- those by the likes of Dutta and Asgar – did experimentations that I would not vouch for. True breaking new grounds takes a lot of work and experimentations. Having said that, I intend to question a few trends, evident in Dutta and Asgar’s works, that deliberately seek to distance themselves from the audience. The abstract painters, with their esoteric nature, took an elitist turn, going closer to the highly educated and cultured, and away from the people at large. But the proponents of these new trends seem to have gone several notches up. In their effort to save art from esotericism and make it a vehicle for self-assertion or bring it to the masses, they seem to have trapped themselves in what is known as the post-modern situation. While the moderns distanced meaning, these post-moderns are determined to destroy it altogether.
The tide of modernism is ebbing. Now is the time for carving out new avenues, true. While building newer avenues, the young generation always responds with a tremor in their effort to eliminate the father figures from the earlier generations, true. This is why the realism of Jainul simply disappeared into the hands of Aminul Islam, Safiuddin Ahmed -- true. But were they -- whether the realistic or the abstract school -- an alienated bunch? Did they have no audience? Or the likes of Sahabuddin who stand somewhere uniquely between the realistic and the abstract, did they fail to build a bridge between their works and the audience?
Despite all their limitations, the masters of the earlier generations which include Jainul Abedin, Quamrul Islam, SM Sultan, Aminul Islam, Murtaza Basheer, Sahabuddin -- they never failed to build that bridge of communication, a bridge without which art has no meaning. The signs and norms of meaning in an era may gather rust over time. But they never disappear from the locus of an artwork. The postmodern tendency to create nonsensical works and challenge communication and meaning is as much European in origin and nature as any modern notions. These artistic traits of the postmodern may produce some real meaning and solid ways of communication when put in the context of the west where they were born and now are growing up. But when we try to translate them unthinkingly in our culture, I am not quite sure how it will be received and interpreted by our audience. Maybe this explains why the brochures and media coverage of such works are full of heavy jargons and high-sounding words that make no sense at all.
Before concluding, I want to thank Bengal Foundation for hosting this exhibition and the family of Aminul Islam for initiating this award. We hope this award will give young artists a platform to showcase their experimental works.
Ranjan Banerjee is an art critic and commentator on culture and politics.