Naeem Mohaiemen’s project ‘What Was Chobi Mela and What Happens Next’ looks at the last nine editions of the Chobi Mela festival through its dramatically diverse catalogues. This project is now on display at Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Bidyapeeth in Dhanmondi, Dhaka as a part of the 10th edition of Chobi Mela, which concludes today. The artist speaks with the Dhaka Tribune Showtime’s Sadia Khalid about his project and the prestigious Turner Prize for which he was nominated last year
Your project “What Was Chobi Mela and What Happens Next” looks at the last nine editions of the Chobi Mela festival. It is shown as a new project in this, the tenth edition. Why look at the festival itself, within the festival?
It started last fall from a conversation I had about how much Chobi Mela has changed. Eighteen years is a long time, when measured by the tectonic changes in what is expected, accepted, or challenged in the space of photography. Chobi Mela played a role in all this, creating a robust Global South photography context over two decades. The early years contain a fever of fighting inequality through the camera. By the second decade, works had also turned toward autobiography, abstraction, and surrealism. Looking at one festival over two decades seemed a way to chart changes in Bangladeshi photography. Along with Chobi Mela, older organizations such as Beg Art, BPS, BPI, contemporaries such as Map, PRISM, and newer ones such as Counter Foto, Through The Lense – also need to be researched to stitch together an expansive story of the field of images.
What inspired you to choose photographs of the catalogues themselves to tell your story?
The one consistent object at the end of each festival is the catalogue, which visitors and participants take home. The design of the catalogue changed dramatically over twenty years, through shifts in technologies of production, changes in aesthetic choices, and a focus on the book as object. I selected ten to fifteen pages per catalogue, and then Pranabesh Das and Debashish Chakrabarty photographed them. Sayed Asif Mahmud was the coordinator of the project, and we designed how the pages would appear on the walls. There is some subtle play in the way each year’s images are displayed– in symmetry and inverse. Re-photographing these pages produces frames within frame. The patient viewer can glean back-story, evolution and rupture– and always, a commitment to the camera eye.
What were the findings in terms of how the festival evolved and where it is headed?
If you scan all nine editions together, you start seeing dramatic shifts – a vertiginous shift from austere black and white (Sebastiao Salgado) to baroque color (Igor Pisuk), the prevalence of dense photo grain (Sayed Asif Mahmud, Sohrab Hura), blown out images (Debasish Chakrabarty), and deliberately washed out prints (Sarker Protick). In the earlier years, there’s a focus on images of working class communities of the world. Shipbreakers (Claudio Cambon), yard workers (Sebastiao Salgado), circus workers (Saibal Das), migrant labor (Shahidul Alam), and sex workers (Shehzad Noorani). In the later years, the focus shifts to the newly dominant economies, such as garments factories (Taslima Akhter). Another consistent focus is the dispossessed– railway station population (Hasan Safiuddin Chandan), crippled war veterans (Abir Abdullah), child soldiers (Clarence Williams), AIDS patients (Dayanita Singh), and refugees. Rohingya are a global media focus now, but in the Chobi Mela they appear in 2006 (Mahbub Alam Khan), alongside Bihari refugees from the Geneva camps (Greg Constantine). The other big change is a progression from the purely documentary (World Press Photo) to ornately staged photographs (Momena Jalil, Tushikur Rahman, Jannatul Mawa).
There was so much more, you need an entire day of conversations to chart the progression.
What about the 30-year timeline on the entry wall? How did all those pieces come together?
Habiba Nowrose and I interviewed photographers, to compile information about what was going on in the ecosystem of visual images, in parallel with Chobi Mela. The timeline starts from 1989, a decade before the first Chobi Mela– in fact there was an earlier attempt to start the festival in 1995, which was cancelled due to hartal. So when you start looking at what else was going on around the festival, you find many other projects and institutions, which must have had an influence, direct and indirect, on Chobi Mela. Golam Kasem Daddy, Onno Chokhe Dekha, BPS and BPI, MAP, Britto, Bengal Gallery, Chobir Haat, Dhaka Art Centre, Kala Kendra– they all intersect with this ecosystem.
Because the printed photograph and catalogue page is the focus of the other half of the project, we decided the thirty year timeline would reproduce photographs with pencil drawings (the simplest tool, the software that never crashes!). I first saw the collective King Kortobbyo (Mehedi Hasan, Suborna Morsheada, Khairul Alam, Pijush Talukder, Rakib Anwar) when they were installing wall drawings at architect Salauddin Ahmed’s Cafe Mango, and they also did wall graffiti style paintings on garbage containers for Shohornama, a Britto project with the Dhaka City Corporation. Their work is usually wild and colorful, but this time they went back to pencil drawings on white wall, using only shades and cross-hatches. The most “meta” moment was probably when they were drawing the cover of the Bangla translation of Susan Sontag’s “On Photography.” It was a drawing from a photograph of Sontag, done by Shishir Bhattacharjee, who was the professor of all King Kortobbyo’s members, when they were students at Charukala. When I called Shishir-da to ask for permission to reproduce his drawing onto the wall, complete with a replica of his signature, he agreed and reminded me that Zainul’s paintings have been reproduced by students on Charu Kala walls.
You were shortlisted for the 2018 Turner Prize, one of the best known visual arts prizes in the world. How do you feel now that the process has ended?
Well, I began working on the “What was Chobi Mela” project right after the Turner process ended, so I suppose you can make a link between the end of one cycle, and the beginning of another. I am glad the shortlisting resulted in a lot of people being able to see my films– especially since the Turner exhibition was held at Tate Britain in London, the quieter of the two Tate museums, with a large student and retiree visitor base. But the media hype around the prize, especially in England, was a bit excessive, and I am glad that part is over. There are four nominees each year, and the press tends to treat it like a sharp competition; that’s not healthy for the viewing of the work. We should all be in dialogue, not competition, with each other. The 2018 Turner Prize went to Charlotte Prodger of Scotland, and I am very fond of her film. That work is storytelling on a personal scale– her own experience of hospital recovery rooms and the experience of anaesthetic is woven into a very quiet piece of mythology. After all the media hype about technology and budgets and location, there is something very beautiful about the fact that the winning film took place in quiet Scottish locations, and is shot entirely on an iPhone– a technology widely available to many by now. I hope some people take inspiration from Charlotte Prodger that you don’t need to be living in a central metropolis, or getting huge budgets, in order to make work. I think we are marking a return to privileging story over the means of production.