Art Fest In Bangladesh


“Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls, into that beaver of freedom into that heaven of freedom, my father let as all awake”

With these lines from Tagore, Mijasul Qayes, the keynote speaker at the 6th Asian Art Biennale at Dhaka concluded his paper on The impact of globalisation on Asian and traditions. The speaker from Bangladesh was the first of many at the seminar, which accompanied the massive exhibition of paintings, prints and sculpture from 29 Asian countries. The five-day event, held from November 2-6 this year and attended by over 50 delegates from countries as diverse as Bhutan and Bahrain, is becoming one of Asias largest and most important at events.

The first Bangladesh Asian Art Biennale held in 1981 was steered by Syed jehangir, an artist well known in Pakistan. The Shilpakala Academy, the Bangladeshi equivalent of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, is the organising body which has overseen the biennale from its modest beginnings with only six or seven participating countries to the gala it has now become.

For Pakistan, which held its one and only Asian Biennale in 1989, the Bangladeshi model warrants special attention. While our PNCA couldnt hold a second biennale, and has been unable to hold national exhibitions annually, the Shilpakala Academy manages to accomplish a reasonably efficient programme in all of the arts. It has also issued a number of modest yet adequate publications on artists and exhibitions.

Like any government body it has its quota of bureaucratic bottlenecks and irritating regulations, but during the biennale the glitches were minimal and the kudos well-earned. The only major glitch occurred at the inaugural at which Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia was the chief guest. Security was rigorous but not oppressive. However, the renowned septuagenarian painter S. M. Sultan, who was a few minutes late, was stopped at the gate by an over-zealous police officer, leading artists and art students to demonstrate and raise slogans in the exhibition halls. The episode added a rather endearing touch of anarchy to what had been an overly sedate inauguration.

The five-member jury was headed by Ali Imam from Pakistan with other judges from japan, Thailand and Bangladesh. The two gold medals, which carried cash awards of 50,000 takas each, went to Kazunori Sadahiro from Japan and Mansoor-ul-Harim from Bangladesh. Pakistani painter Mehr Afroze won an honourable mention as did eight other artists from China, Korea, Philippines, Bangladesh, Iraq, UAE, Thailand and Iraq. The exhibition was split up into three venues; the Bangladesh exhibition at the National Museum was the largest with over a hundred paintings, prints and sculptures on show. An exciting aspect of this exhibit was the work of the younger painters and sculptors including Sadhana Islam Nazlee, Naima Haque, Halimul Islam Khokhar, Mahbubur Rahman, Lalarukh Selim and Shishir Bhatachaijee. Alok Roy from Chittagong is one of Bangladeshs most dynamic young sculptors, working mainly in terracotta. He created a stir at the seminar with his outspoken criticism of the bureaucratic aspects of the biennale.

Pakistans exhibition had the works of painters Mehr Afroze, Qudsia Nisar, Nahid Raza, Quddus Mirza and sculptor Shahid Sajjad. Sculpture from Pakistan and Bangladesh was outstanding, although the UAE had a surprisingly inventive installation in painted paper. Indias show was disappointingly pedestrian and not reflective of the good work being produced there, especially in the realm of sculpture.

The two-day seminar (squeezed into a day and a half to enable the delegates to go on a river cruise) consisted of papers on the problems of contemporary art in Asia. Speakers dwelt on the common concerns of Asian artists, the question of artistic identity, the colonial legacy, the evolving of an indigenous vocabulary and the hegemony of Western contemporary conventions. The papers indicated a variety of responses to the “transnationalisation” of art. These ranged from a total acceptance of the western expression to a tentative rejection. In between were a number of approaches which developed into lively discussions at the end of each session.

The opportunity to interact with artists from so many Asian countries is a rare experience for visual artists, unlike writers, journalists, scholars, and scientists who are regular seminar-goers the world over. The Shilpakala Academy (founded by Zainul Abedin, now revered as Shilapacharya) did the Bangladeshis proud both in terms of hospitality and in the sheer magnitude of artistic and intellectual exposure, crammed into five eventful days. Apart from official receptions there was a visit to the Institute of Fine Arts in Dhaka and enthusiastic dialogues with Dhaka students and visiting axtists from Chittagong. Sheer nostalgia took over in meetings with Kibria, Razzak, Qayyum Chaudhxy, Aminul Islam and Debdas Chakrabony who reminisced about their Alhamra days in the Lahore of the 60s.

Ali Imams long association with Zainul Abedin and the other local artists made him, as one artist put it, “the Imam of artists at the biennale!” As Pakistani delegates, Mehr Afroze and myself were also the recipients of a great deal of affection and were also participants in an intense and fruitful exchange of views with women artists from Dhaka and Chittagong. There was a consensus about the need for exchange of exhibitions on a bilateral basis. Subbir Chaudhry, Director Fine Arts, Shilpakala Academy mentioned his attempts to arrange a large exhibition of art from Bangladesh in Pakistan with a reciprocal exhibition in Dhaka. His efforts have not yet elicited a reply or even acknowledgement from our ministry of culture. One can only hope that the Asian Art Biennale acts as a catalyst for interchange at other levels. The Dhaka Institute of Fine Arts is interested in an exchange of faculty and students. Private galleries and institutions may well be more efficient at establishing contact for what could be an exciting and long-lasting artistic encounter.