The battle lines appear to have been drawn. Guimet is a respected museum, and there has been natural interest in a show that should be very special. Why then such resistance from art lovers of Bangladesh? Surely art is to be appreciated? It is part of our identity and an important part of the image we portray. Why on the other hand, the secrecy? The organisers should be taking credit for arranging such an event and not trying to sneak away under police protection. If there is nothing to cover up, why the covert operation?
The emotions are high. I’ve seen people weeping because something very special to them has been taken away. I have seen people angry because they feel violated. I have seen people frustrated, because they feel helpless against the power of the establishment.
As a journalist I need to be wary. It is important to separate the emotions from the facts. To not let friendships sway one’s judgement. To apply journalistic rigour in one’s analysis regardless of whether one agrees with the outcome of one’s research.
So let’s separate the facts from the opinions.
The Guimet is a respected museum known and admired. The protesters are respected citizens with a high level of credibility. Questions have been raised about both entities, which we need to address further, but there appears to be a gap in the puzzle, which no one so far has discussed. The answer could perhaps provide a vital clue.
What was the motive behind the exhibition and who initiated it? Who are the stakeholders? The interest of Guimet is understandable. Leaving aside the accusations for the moment, an important museum specialising in non western art would surely have an interest in such a prized exhibit. But would a museum, knowing there is so much resistance, and bad press, insist upon such an exhibit coming, when so many other options are available? Major museums are usually booked way in advance. The opening dates for this one is also well past. We have Christmas and New Year coming up. Setting up the show, once the entire shipment has arrived, will take another three weeks by the director’s own admission.
We have been repeatedly told that the event is in the interest of promoting the image of Bangladesh abroad. Having put in the huge amount of work and expense that has gone into the curatorial process, does it really make sense for the French Government and Musee Guimet to take on such flak? Does it make sense for the French Government and the Museum officials to demonstrate their love for Bangladesh, when Bangladeshis themselves are opposing the event so vociferously?
While exploring these options I have come across several opinions. One states “The truth is that that some quarters in Bangladesh are upset that the items to be shown are Hindu art artifacts and that this exhibition is going to send the wrong image of Bangladesh to the French public: that Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country, has a strong Hindu culture and art history. This is the real story not the bullshit that has been published. How come knowledgeable sources in Dhaka write to me to tell me what they know for sure and not to you?”
Another friend said “The majority of the works are fakes, and taking the show to the Guimet would reveal this fact, exposing the perpetrators. Hence the resistance.” This too is attributed to knowledgeable sources. None of the people who tell me these stories will reveal who these knowledgeable people are.
Sitting in the comfort of the French Ambassador’s residence we heard him say, “Some people who wanted a good image of Bangladesh had promoted the exhibition.” By implication, this was something the protesters were not inclined towards. So the love of the nation, or lack of it was his criterion for determining which side of the divide one would stay. And who are they? He too was reluctant to reveal who these good people were. I suppose good people are by nature modest, and unwilling to take credit for their virtue.
It doesn’t take deep analysis to see that none of the accusations hold. So we are still grappling with the motive. Not of Guimet itself, but of the ‘some’ people that the French Ambassador has repeatedly alluded to.
There was another event “Sonar Bangla Fair” which was planned as a conjunct to the Guimet exhibition. While both the government and the French embassy have denied direct ties to this event, it is clear from the many circulars and press releases that have gone out, that the Guimet exhibition was part of a package. The extensive lobbying, the pressure applied to media houses, and the behind the scenes manoeuvres through which people have been told to ‘drop’ the case, has come not so much from the French, but from highly placed Bangladeshis. Is it their love of Bangladesh that is the driving force? Is love for their country something they should be so secretive about?
The protesters have been very open about their position and have stated so through their physical actions and their statements. Independent bloggers from both sides of the camp have expressed their opinions openly. Why have the promoters of this exhibition, with access to both the government and the embassy, chosen to work strictly under cover? The planning for this exhibition has been going on for a long time. As in many a Bangla romance, the promoters’ unrequited love has been a well kept secret, but it has survived a change of government.
The recent statement by prominent citizens to the French Government, shows a disturbing turn in the position taken by the protesters. “While we were originally open to the idea of showing the work at Musee Guimet provided the transparency issues were addressed, the recent actions of the museum has removed any semblance of trust in the organisation, and we are no longer willing to loan our prized possessions to an organisation with such standards of behaviour. The incident, originally restricted to the issue of an exhibition now appears to have created a general distrust in the French government amongst the Bangladeshi public.”
How come these well wishers of Bangladesh risk alienating the very public that they love so dearly, but are still shy about declaring the love for their country?
I believe one important word that has so far not been uttered is ‘money’. What is the ‘package’ that the Guimet exhibition falls under? How much money is involved? Who are the beneficiaries, and how were they chosen? Who are they affiliated to?
The government in power has made corruption their number one target. Business people, prominent politicians and even ordinary citizens have been asked to declare their assets and their links to financial ventures. Perhaps it is time for the government to ask all the people who are linked with Masterpieces of the Ganges Delta exhibition, the Sonar Bangla Fair and all the ancillary events to declare the extent of their association and the monetary value that such association brings. Citizens have been asked to help the government by reporting any suspected cases of corruption. With activities of the Ministry of Culture itself in question. With the government appointed committee complaining of non-cooperation by Culture ministry officials. With people chanting chor chor (thief, thief) in the streets outside a public institution, why has the government suddenly gone blind? Have the sniffer dogs of corruption, who bark at the slightest whiff of a nexus, suddenly lost their sense of smell? Or would that be a same side (own goal)?
Perhaps this piece of the jigsaw will help us see the full picture.
12:40 am 3rd Dec. The Government has finally responded. Press conference called by the Ministry of Culture at 12:00 pm. Building 9. Bangladesh Secretariat.