River Bloom

By Ranjit Hoskote.

Art in America Column: Atlas Bombay (extract)

If you think of South Asian art today, you likely focus on the subcontinent?s metropolitan centers; on the gallery scenes in Bombay, New Delhi and Bangalore in India, and on artists? circles in Karachi and Lahore in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, it?s the artists who work in these populous, kaleidoscopic hubs of activity, transiting between there and West Europe and North America, who are most often selected by curators to embody the specificity of their place and time.
But where, I suspect, many curators are not yet looking is several thousand miles away from South Asia?s metropolitan centers, in the northeast of India and in Bangladesh, at the geographical edge where the South Asian subcontinent shades away into the Himalayan foothills of Tibet to the north and the tropical lushness of Burma and Thailand to the south.
Bangladesh has been bitterly contested by supporters of liberal democracy and those who prefer conservative military rule; democracy and dictatorship have alternated with one another since the country was born from the ashes of the former East Pakistan in 1971. Artists in these two situations, adjacent but divided, confront very similar questions of identity, belonging and choice.
Across the border in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the Drik organization acts as an umbrella for an impressive array of initiatives ranging from the archival to the activist. Among these is the Drik Picture Agency, an archive and visual information distribution system that does not simply preserve a nation?s traumatic memories but actively asserts their value against private amnesia and official suppression. Other projects include Chobi Mela, an annual international photography festival; Pathshala, one of South Asia?s leading academies for photojournalists; the Drik Gallery, which presents the work of young photographers; and, crucially, the Bangladesh Human Rights Network, which documents and investigates violations of civil and cultural freedoms.
The Drik Gailery was founded in 1989 by Shahidul Alam, a photographer, writer and activist, who was sensitized to the political and cultural problems menacing his country as a student in the UK in the 1970s. He returned and dedicated himself to confronting them, and to nurturing the fragile public sphere in Bangladesh. 
DMC/Periferry, Drik and Britto are protean, tactically flexible and versatile; they can act variously as collaborative programs, information agencies, archives, curatorial missions, production stages, schools or pressure groups. In each case, the project was born from the desire of artists from a marginalized and disenfranchised region to participate in a sphere beyond their birth country or the region to which their citizenship assigns them. Importantly, though, these are not vehicles of careerist aspiration. They are heroic and pioneering efforts to create cultural infrastructure where none exists, to resurrect the technical and intellectual capacities for citizenship where these have been aborted through the abuse of power, and to bear testimony to a predicament in which the gesture of autonomy is threatened constantly by eclipse and erasure.
Atlas is a rotating series of columns filed from different cities around the world.
RANJIT HOSKOTE is a Bombay-based poet, cultural theorist and curator.
Ranjit Hoskote-Art in America column-October 2012

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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