Venice Biennale - Bangladesh Pavilion

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Pavilion of Bangladesh

54th International Art Exhibition la Biennale di Venezia

- Five Bangladeshi artists interpret contemporary cultural differences -

Gervasuti Foundation, Fondamenta S. Ana (Via Garibaldi) Castello 993 A, between Giardini & Arsenale

Opening to the Public:  June 4 - Nov. 27, 2011. 10am - 6 pm daily (except Mondays).

Inauguration of the Pavilion of Bangladesh on 3rd June at Venice

Poster published on the occasion of the Pavilion of Bangladesh, Biennale Arte 2011.


Links of Videos and Newspapers:



Views of the Pavilion of Bangladesh at La Biennale di Venezia 2011:

Tayeba Begum Lipi: Bizarre and the Beautiful

I wed Myself 2010

2 channel video projection

3.02 min

Mahbubur Rahman: I was told to say these words

Promotesh Das Pulak: Echoed moments  in time


Kabir Ahmed Masum Chisty: Quandary

Imran Hossain Piplu: The Utopian Museum



Prolegomena: Contemporary Art of Bangladesh

The land that is today Bangladesh has a history going back millennia and a culture that has roots in pre-history. Successive political changes have influenced the life and life-style of communities here which, in turn, is reflected in the creative genius of contemporary times. There is an organic time-line in the evolution of Bangladesh art all the way through into the modern mainstream. Contemporary art in Bangladesh, therefore, draws as much from heritage as from global trends.

Archaeological relics indicate a rich tradition in terracotta - and therefore, a tradition in figurative details, astounding control over lines, and a capacity to work with plastic media. Be it the portrayal of everyday contemporary experience or mythological icons and deities in temples and monasteries, or floral arabesques in mosques, many would consider terracotta embellishments as a distinctive trait of architecture of this land. Another major trait dates back to the Pala era (8th-12th Century AD) illustrations on clothing, palm leaves and hand-made papers. These were characterized by harmony and delicate decorative lines that are today considered among the signature characters of Bangladesh art. Alpanas (stylised geometric and floral designs or folk motifs) for festive occasions and pato-chitra (depicting lores and legends on folded screens) are notable elements of Bengali folk art that have become internalised into the mainstream “urban” tradition of today.

The roots of modern art in Bangladesh are traced, as indeed, also the beginnings of modern Indian art, to the Calcutta Government School of Art, established by the British Raj in 1864. The Bengal School, spearheaded  by Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), was instrumental in re-introducing the ancient and medieval Indian styles in art. Outside the Bengal School, Jamini Roy's (1887-1972) works have defined some of the permanent elements of Bangladesh art.

The modern art movement in Bangladesh was pioneered by Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin (1914-1976), Anwarul Huq (1918-1980), Qamrul Hassan (1921-1988), Safiuddin Ahmed (b.1922), Khwaja Shafiq Ahmed (1925-1972), and a few others who  all studied and trained at the Calcutta Art School. They moved to Dhaka after the partition of India in 1947; and the following year, established what is popularly known as the Dhaka Art College (presently, the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka).

The influence of the Bengal Renaissance notwithstanding, these masters brought a distinctive accent in the art of Bangladesh. From the very beginning, their works were shorn of mythological themes, and although they retained a fascination for folk art forms and motifs, it was more a celebration of the rural rather than nostalgia for some by-gone folk. Modern art in Bangladesh was also very secular - for two reasons. One, the reinvention of the ancient and the mythological in the context of Indian nationalism was quite pertinent in British India, but had little relevance in post-Partition eastern Bengal. On the other hand, the appeal of folk art forms and indigenous traditions worked as a tool against religious inhibitions concerning art in general in post-partition Pakistan. Works by this first generation of artists, therefore, celebrated rural subjects and themes passionately, for their worth stand alone - with bold stokes and bright colours.

Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin, the doyen of the movement is best known for his famous famine sketches and his masterful scrolls that convey a vibrant epic character. In his later days, Zainul took to figurative abstractions accentuated again by the power and value of design in his compositions. Qamrul Hasan found his pulse in the native style and the powerful expression of the patuas. Sensuality of the female figure has featured in many of his major works. He has also done inimitable landscapes (and skyscapes!) that bring to life this monsoon country. Safiuddin Ahmed initially worked in woodcut and etchings. After his sojourn in the UK, he concentrated on pure geometric abstractions. One other major artist of the 1940s was S.M. Sultan, whose early works are not readily available. However, after a long reclusive spell, he reappeared in the 1980s, working with natural dyes and colours. He celebrates the peasantry and depicts them on his canvas as the powerful protagonists of human civilization.

The first batch of the Dhaka Art College formed the next crop of artists. This generation was predictably varied and diverse - in the choice of figurative expression, the breadth of imagination and the potential of plastic value in their works. Muhammad Kibria had a natural inclination for semi abstract composition, which was transformed after his Japan phase into the wholly abstract. In Hamidur Rahman, we find the add-on of extraneous elements for effect. Aminul Islam studied mosaics and murals and worked principally in semi-abstract expressionistic mode. Murtaja Baseer has moved from paintings to murals and stained glass and again back to painting. Rashid Chowdhury's paintings had surrealistic overtones, but his training in tapestry in France shifted his focus to simple decorative designs. Others of the same generation, working predominantly with abstract and semi-abstract forms, include Qayyum Chowdhury, Abdur Razzaque, Syed Jahangir, Debdas Chakraborty, Kazi Abdul Baset, Samarjit Roy Choudhury and Abu Taher. Qayyum Chowdhury celebrates the Bangladesh landscape in an inimitable blend of the intense and the sublime. The War of Liberation also comes alive in his works. Samarjit Roy Choudhury delves in the abstract, shepherding our visual sensibility towards subtle discoveries.

Coming after them, but predating the War of Liberation, we have a good number of prolific artists who have created their own individual style and vocabulary. This group includes Hashem Khan, Rafiqun Nabi, Monirul Islam, Mahmudul Huq, Anwar Jahan, Abul Barq Alvi and Hamiduzzaman Khan. Hashem Khan has a magic touch with illustrations. Rafiqun Nabi,  although a celebrated artist with facility in most media, is best known as the creator of Tokai, a popular cartoon character that has for the last four decades provided a perceptive commentary on our society. Monirul Islam is nostalgic in his themes and brinks on the romantic. He is pronouncedly ingenious in technique, and excels in etching in aquatint. Mahmudul Huq draws extensively from personal insight. He has engaged in the potentials of the abstract, employing different methods and techniques.

After the independence of Bangladesh, there was a new surge of creativity. There was a natural rediscovery of tradition and the indigenous. A new generation of artists emerged - they adopted a more figurative vocabulary and tried enthusiastically to create an interface between the traditional and the contemporary. As artists of a new, independent country, they also had a new kind of exposure that facilitated their creative pursuit. This group of the 1970s included a good number of sculptors and printmakers. Kalidas Karmakar, Shahid Kabir, Abdus Shakoor, Kazi Ghiyas, Monsur-Ul Karim, Chandra Shekhar Dey, Alakesh Ghosh, Shahabuddin, Nazlee Laila Mansur, Alak Roy, K.M.A. Quayyum, Farida Zaman, Ranjit Das and Mohammad Eunus  are among the notables. Kalidas Karmakar is prolific as an artist, works with mixed media and has an inexhaustible repertoire. Shahid Kabir is reflective and finds inspiration in the mystic bauls of Bengal, Lalon in particular. His works are expressionistic, brinking on the realistic – powerful, with a youthful vigour. Kazi Ghyas is pristine. He is immersed in a constant play with colours, bringing out breathtaking images and superb texture. Shahabuddin is intense in his celebration of raw energy. In forceful strokes, he creates a hypnotic narrative of his protagonists - forceful, untiring and invested with the power to move the world. Farida Zaman responds intensely to social realities. Her abstract themes, like many of her contemporaries, reflect a plebeian social consciousness, as opposed to the intellectual.

Artists of the 1980s tried to use tradition and heritage in a more subtle way. There was greater contact with global genres and  trends. They have tended towards non-figurative, semi abstract modes of expression. Some have even acquired a post-modern vocabulary- there is infusion of fantasy, humour and the absurd. The 1990s have been hectic. Possibilities became endless as synergies were established between technology and art. Painting and sculpture and even the performing arts, appeared to lose their distinctiveness and became complementary. The same trend continued into the opening years of the new century. If break-up of form described the 1980s and the early 1990s, for the latter 1990s and the beginning of the new century, the mantra is reconstruction.

Today, Bangladesh art is characterized by tremendous creative surge, diversity and vitality. Artists have rediscovered themselves and invented newer individual forte. There is a discernibly increased activity in sculpture and murals. Sculptors have also begun to move on in the choice of material and in the execution of their work. Print making continues to draw prolific artists. Installations and digital art, not to speak of multimedia, have offered artists newer directions for fuller expression of their creative genius. There is constant infusion of interesting and refreshing works that testify to the ease and facility of our new artists as much as the capacity of others to constantly evolve. Opening of private galleries and the numerous exhibitions that are on at any point in time have seen an enhanced interest in the arts and a general increase in both corporate and individual patronage. Institutional contacts between artists at home and abroad, and participation in exhibitions, workshops and residencies constantly impact contemporary trends and define directions for tomorrow.

This briefly is a tour de horizon of modern art in Bangladesh. If there is one predominant element to be noted, it is this that there is a constant rediscovery of   the creative potential of successive generations of artists. While the contemporary draws from and builds on the past, nascent trends offer trajectories that could very well be on way to creating their own rhetoric.


The Bangladesh Pavillion

At La Biennale di Venezia, Bangladesh’s maiden venture is a morceau of  cutting edge creativity from Bangladesh. We present five talented artists whose respective fortes draw from their forbearers, but who are at the same time,  engaged in building defining pathways from here to  the beyond. Imran Hossain Piplu, Kabir Ahmed Masum Chisty, Mahbubur Rahman, Promotesh Das Pulak and Tayeba Begum Lipi all celebrate their contemporary experience in, perhaps not the sublime, but in refreshingly evocative expressions.

We call this selection “Parables” – principally because of the capacity of each of the artist to pack in experience and meaning – alluding, challenging and opening eyes; and hence parables. The angst, the yearning and an interesting capacity to blend the autobiographical with the collective provide a distinctive narrative of our times. My role in the following segments is to walk you through the creative profile of the five artists as I know them, and to provide a window into the works they bring to La Biennale di Venezia.

I have known Mahbub since when he was literally an artist in the making. He was spontaneous, boldly expressive - even irreverent. Because he was young and unabashed about what moved him and how he responded to these impulses from within and without, it was possible for someone who engaged with him to “read” him, so to speak. Over the last close to two decades, he has retained his refreshing disposition and vibrancy, principally because he has continued to explore, challenge and assimilate; and in the process, to reinvent his creative space. Initially, while his work focused on the potential of the visual form, his creative output today is shaped by intellection, and is presented in unpredictable, often shockingly bizarre forms.

Mahbub impressed me from the beginning as what I would call the Bacchic. Despite his solid grounding in academic work, especially in drawing, he exhibited a natural tendency to focus his creative élan on the not so ordered, not so predictable, not the delicate. Many could find his work difficult to categorise – he moves from painting to sculpture, or simply to impart value to space or to objects and how they are ordered. His aesthetic immersion has been in the apparently disorderly, connecting with and creating meaning from the unexpected and the unusual, through breathtaking images and installations; and more importantly, leading us through that intense process of intellection.

Mahbub, even in his very early days, had begun to make a mark in sculpture. He was already demonstrating an absolute control over the human form, and was capable of reading nuances of remarkable depth into shapes and composition. Even then, one could see how the dark and the light fascinated him. His drawing skill was exceptionally good and there was a maturity in his use of colours. His magnum opus, I remember, was his Time in a Limbo series. His fascination was in the decadence and frustrations of the age, which he captured with ease. He demonstrated, however, a capacity for inexhaustible optimism and managed to infuse a positive note in his works. His use of jaundiced shades breaks into vital shades of rouge and interesting tones of blue and green.

Mahbub brings for the Venice Biennale an installation project, complex in its conceptualisation but quite simple in its presentation. The rather innocent looking project uses the form of a pig, draped in the hide of a cow and teases the limits of social taboo. Whether it is the exterior (cow’s hide) or the figure (pig), the image brinks on social sensitivities with heterogenous appeal, considered on an axis of the sacred and the profane. Mahbub goes beyond the taboo theme to explore if a new hybrid product such as the one he fashions can be positioned on a new equation of trust. He establıshes very credible credentials as a powerful post-modernist.

For Tayeba Begum Lipi, I could say broadly the same that I said about Mahbub at the beginning. However, Lipi, unlike Mahbub  has been more reflective, expressive in a quiet manner – more the Apollonian to Mahbub’s Bacchic. In her early days, Lipi celebrated the eyes, and her paintings looked beyond the obvious, tracing hidden meanings and messages in delicate and subtle undertones. Her treatment of the canvas, her exploration of the potential of the human form and a very creative use of colours, especially its remarkable tonality and how she treats them, give her works a very personalized stamp.

I particularly recall her autographical, but superbly dispassionate work that my juror colleagues for the Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh had awarded the Grand Prize in 2001. In juxtaposing images of the playthings of her childhood over her own image, she harked back to those bygone days, but presented a many-nuanced reality delicately crafted. One can read the ambivalence in the images, both of nostalgia and of muted protest of her own experience in the journey from girlhood through adolescence and into womanhood. The execution of this brilliant piece was done with extraordinary ease and attention to little details that are not apparent at first sight. Her style endeavours and draws the outsider visually, and then engages, more importantly, intellectually.

A word about Mahbub and Lipi collectively, two artists who have shared a creative journey over these several years. They have never really become dated, because of an endless effort to constantly add value to their work. Britto and its network have decidedly helped in this through numerous residencies and workshops etc. at home and abroad. But more interestingly, they appear also to have drawn from each other’s style and aesthetic disposition. Today, we find Lipi’s works adopting, perhaps unknowingly, Mahbub’s influence - a desire to be forcefully expressive, although her particular strengths as an artist of the subtle remain. Likewise, we find that Mahbub has tried in his forthright expressiveness to borrow from the reflective forte of Lipi’s, despite his profusion of installations, his angst and use of self as art.

For the Venice Biennale, we find Lipi struggling to portray the essence of beauty in a video that approaches the issue in the duality of the feminine and the masculine. Drawing on the autobiographical, she pushes the frontiers of possibilities of gender persona in the social context of a wedding. She takes on the dual roles of bride and groom in a transformation that is most certainly to leave us wondering. It is a project that is powerful in its cerebral dimension, but very effortlessly executed. Her second project also works on the theme of beauty. She uses 3000 specially produced razor blades and shapes them into bras – drawing on the erotic appeal of lingerie and the rather foreboding line up of razor blades.

As an artist, Imran Hossain Piplu is sensitive to his environs and social realities. For the Biennale, he draws from contemporary concerns but treats then in a refreshingly original style. He is, in many ways, a romantic - intensely concerned with man’s capacity to kill wholesale. Imran has extensive international expose. Active within the Britto Trust, he has also learned from and shared experience through workshops and residencies.

With his entries for the Venice Biennale, he chooses to transport us all to a geological time-scale that he calls the “Warrasic Period” (spanning from about 1600 to 2000 AD). Needless to say, the coinage of the word “Warrasic” is indicative of the invention of weaponry, and the military industrial complex. According to his narrative, in the course of the Warrasic Period, predators (refer to killing weapons) roamed the Earth, but these ferocious creatures were destroyed and became extinct. Near the end of the Warrasic Period (1950-2000 AD), human beings learn to become more tolerant and to live peacefully. Gradually over time, weapons went out of fashion. Imran’s work takes off from here - a museum that presents archeological fossils discovered from different parts of the world belonging to the Warrasic Period. Imran presents these fossil mages in the form of sculptural relief, digital print and publications. The museum would suggest that there is no live weapon today, they only exist as fossils. That is why Imran calls his project the Utopian Museum – and the images are as pristine as they are real.

Kabir’s special niche is in the audio-visual media. He has won awards in the short film category. It is this strength that Kabir brings to his training as a fine arts graduate - the full potential of the moving image.

The Gorgon Medusa with her snake head has an alluring appeal across the centuries. In Bengal, the snake has a multiplicity of symbolic values. The snake as adornment is celebrated, most prominently, in Lord Shiva. In Kabir’s project, called “Quandary”, he resorts to animations over his own image. The snakes are not exactly Medusa-like or rooted in the head, but are playful, dashing and darting, often hissing and moving all over. They do not have the Medusa-touch and do not leave the onlooker petrified. Kabir suggests a sensory function in the undulating snakes. The human head or form is conceived as the powerhouse with the snake-head acting as a sensory tentacle assimilating the diversity of inputs one is exposed to. He places before us a complete visual experience, playing with the animation emanating from and acting on the head. There is created, in the process, an organic link with Kabir’s own head, which quite contrary to Medusa, suffers the venomous sensations of the animated snakes, absorbing the full potency.

Promotesh is the youngest in the group. His exhibits have a starkly haunting element to them. His projects for Venıce consist of tempered archival images and video and are also pronouncedly autobiographical. His ‘Lost Rhythm’ centres around the ruins of Panam Nagar, in the vicinity of the ancient capital of Bengal. There is no left overs of the grandeur that was there except the brick façade and run down buildings. His project is in some ancient rooms, including a prayer room in a palace which currently functions as of public lavatory. He allows his imagination to run and connect with the people of bygone days, their lifestyle, and the grandeur. He tries to internalise the experience. He recreates that space with archival imagery of inhabitants and locals who lived there, including pictures of gods and goddesses from those times to adorn the walls.

But his tour de force is in his simple effort to contemporanise all these images by supplanting their faces with his own. And we see how he makes the past live in the present. His other project, ‘Echoed moments in Time’ consists of identical manipulation of images. He puts his face on images from the War of Liberation – well-known shots from our national history, with his own. And he creates in these images the image of everyman.

Mohamed Mijarul Quayes

06 May 2011, Dhaka