BY HADRIEN DIEZ | January 2, 2017

Capital-Equal, Abir Shome

“Transition” is a fitting theme for the upcoming edition of Chobi Mela, one that aligns with the evolution of Bangladesh's art scene as a whole. Photography in the country has enacted a momentous evolution in recent years from a medium mainly oriented towards documentation to a much broader endeavour. The festival's past edition was pivotal for that development.  Curated by a multidisciplinary team with diverse backgrounds,[1] Chobi Mela VIII brought to the fore experimental photographic approaches which were often informed by other artistic practices. The choice to organise Chobi Mela's first ever fellowship programme during this year's edition must be read as a continuation of that drive.

Transversal approach

“Chobi Mela Fellows” has been conceived as a collaborative method of inquiry. The programme ambitions to question the status of the photographic image by fostering a compelling artistic discussion, one that is not restricted to a specific medium or genre. During its course, ten artists have been invited to work hand in hand with the curatorial team over several months. The bodies of work they develop together are specifically created for the festival. In line with Chobi Mela's interdisciplinary, transversal approach, the ten selected fellows are trained in a wide range of artistic disciplines – namely performance, sound and video art, painting, drawing, animation, sculpture, installation and, of course, photography.

In terms of practice, photography is a flexible medium that presents many opportunities. It gives access to art forms such as kinetic objects, collages, graffiti and countless othersmember of Chobi Mela's curatorial team Mahbubur Rahman reckons. But the fellowship programme goes well beyond experimenting with artistic processes, he insists. It is rather a full fledged attempt at questioning the boundaries of the image. As curators of a photography festival we have to keep an open mind and dare to have a cross-media approach. The fellowship project helps us to challenge photography and to show how far the medium can go.[2]

A Bird of Stone, 2014. A performance by Reetu Sattar.

Enlarging the scope

The fellows coming from outside photography naturally bring disruptive elements to the discussion. Their projects are not bound by the same demands for technical accuracy that photographers might face. They have significant latitude to challenge the ways one sees the photographic image and understands its content, and their intervention can have profound philosophical implication.

Najmun Nahar Keya's body of work questions the fundamental status of photography as a repository of memory. I had a long standing project dealing with autobiography, whichconstituted of drawings recalls the artist who trained in drawing and painting. When I started Chobi Mela's fellowship programme, I decided to conduct a similar research with the inclusion of photography. I always carry portraits in the ordinary ID-picture format of my loved ones, some of whom are no more. With time these photographs are decaying, some parts are scratched or erased. This raises the question of our memory, of how we remember our friends and family. As these images are very dear to me, I decided to intervene on the damaged parts, sometimes with drawings, sometimes by filling them with gold leaf.

Instead of using photography as a starting point, others consider it as an extension of their artistic endeavour, therefore contributing to enlarge the scope of the medium. Photography carries this paradox of being at once a very frozen and very performative medium explains performance artist Reetu Sattar. Of course the image does not move, but I actually see photography as a space where performances happen. It is a very different space from the “real”, 3-dimensional space in which I primarily work. So one thing that is part of my reflection when I conceive my performances is how it will be documented. How will the image look like? What story will it tell? It is this connection between the two spaces that I want to explore.

Memoirs, Najmun Nahar Keya

Connecting the dots

As for the fellows trained as photographers, they often adopt a tentative approach. Photography plays a role in their endeavour of course, but it is not an exclusive one and other disciplines are convened. Their projects contribute to the curatorial team's effort in connecting the dots between photography and other mediums.

Trained as a photographer, Minhaz Marzu is also interested in installation and object-making. My father owns a toy shop and, perhaps as a result, I have been collecting and photographing all sorts of objects for a long time. I have a genuine affection for these objects even if they have been replaced by better technology. I find a juke-box so much more interesting than a music app he explains while showing carefully composed photographs of his unlikely matches. I like to group the objects in installations, so as to play with their beautiful designs and give them a new meaning.

For Chobi Mela, Marzu has decided to explore the relationship between the three dimensional objects he creates and their two dimensional reproduction. By showing them next to each other, he wants to draw the attention on the materiality of the object. We live in a digital age, which means that most of the photographs we see will never be printed. It is just code, one-zero-one-zero... The material dimension of the image gets lost somehow, not to speak of the material dimension of the objects that are photographed. Showing three dimensional objects next to their photography is a way to break that pattern and to bring back the “real” within the image.

Drawing from Obsolete, Minhaz Marzu.

Communal Development

Over the years, Chobi Mela has played an important role of catalyst for photography in Bangladesh. It has given a platform to local photographers to bring their work to the attention of a large audience. It has brought practitioners of international stature to Bangladesh and proposed them to engage meaningfully with the local public. It has been essential in asserting the reputation of the country's buoyant photography scene. The festival's recent endeavour, of which the fellowship program is a key component, is now serving a new ambition. It wants to transcend the limits, perceived or real, of photography to assert the medium's status as an art form in the eyes of the local public.

Chobi Mela does so at an important moment for visual arts in the country. Bangladesh's arts scene is currently thriving, and several momentous “firsts” have recently occurred – for example, but not limited to, first Bangladeshi pavilion at the Venice biennial for the Arts in 2011,[3] first artwork by a local artist to enter the permanent collections of New York's Guggenheim museum in 2013,[4] first Bangladeshi artist to be included in the public programme of the key international exhibition Documenta in 2017.[5]

One distinctive feature of this local art scene is its communal development. A close-knitted group of artists, curators and educators exchange ideas and collaborate in a seemingly never-ending conversation, of which the fellowship programme is only the latest manifestation. In one recent article about the environment nurturing her artistic practice, veteran artist Tayeba Begum Lipi explained how making a long journey together with one’s contemporaries and own community is undoubtedly extremely important.[6] With “Fellows”, Chobi Mela brings an stimulating contribution to the development of the Bangladeshi art scene as a whole.

[1]See Tanzim Wahab, "Senses Beyond Vision: In Conversation with Mahbubur Rahman, Guest Curator of Chobimela VIII" and Munem Wasif, "Bridging Mediums: Conversation between an architect and a photographer", January 2015, both on this blog

[2]Interview with the author, 3 December 2016

[3]The exhibition was entitled “Parables” and showcased the works of 5 artists, for further information see reference link 
[4]It is the “Love Bed” by Tayeba Begum Lipi, for further information see reference link

[5]The “public programme” of documenta 14 is a performative structure that challenges the traditional exhibition/public program divide. Naeem Mohaiemen has been invited to engage with the programme in various ways – see reference link 

[6]Tayeba Begum Lipi, “Promises and Perils of Connectivity”, Art Asia Pacific, Issue #100, September-October 2016

Hadrien Diez is a cultural organiser with a specific interest for visual arts in Bangladesh. He has curated numerous exhibitions of living Bangladeshi artists and has written various essays on their practices. Through his research, Hadrien examines the development of contemporary Bangladeshi art in relation with the wider social, economic and political context of the country and its region