New Developments: How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices

How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices

Rasel Chowdhury, winner of the 3rd Samdani Art Award, People on low incomes living in slums beside the railway station at Khilgaon, Kamalapur, Dhaka, 2012, (from the series "Railway Longings", 2011-15)

Rasel Chowdhury, winner of the 3rd Samdani Art Award, People on low incomes living in slums beside the railway station at Khilgaon, Kamalapur, Dhaka, 2012, (from the series “Railway Longings”, 2011-15). Courtesy the artist

I just got back from the third Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) in the Bangladeshi capital. DAS is the brainchild of Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, a young collector couple based in the city; it’s not a biennial, nor an art fair or a festival, but an intense four-day summit. For it’s third edition, the Chief Curator of DAS, Mumbai-based Diana Campbell Betancourt, decided not to focus on a particular theme per se but on the South Asia region as a whole, which in itself is a contradictory concept. (What exactly is South Asia? Is Australia a part of it? Sri Lanka? Iran?) She engaged several curators, including me; I was invited to organize an exhibition for the Samdani Art Award, which is given to a Bangladeshi artist between the ages of 20 and 40. Back in October 2015, I had spent a week in Dhaka meeting the 20 artists who had been shortlisted for this award by Aaron Cezar, director of the London-based Delfina Foundation. From my very first conversation with the artists, I sensed that we were at the beginning of an extremely interesting week.
I learned a lot about Bangladesh – the local scene, art education, religion and why, for instance, art works about love do matter. Some artists I met mentioned that their partner was either Hindu or Muslim and that they could not tell their respective families. As the week went on, I became increasingly enthusiastic about the obvious sense of urgency with which all of the nominated artists work: Bangladesh is rapidly changing on all levels, and these artists are all embracing the challenge to get involved, to have their voices heard and to find appropriate forms of expression for that.
This seemed particularly true for many of the photographers on the shortlist. As it turned out, they all came from a single school: Dhaka’s Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. Set up in 1998 by the Bangladeshi photographer, writer, curator and activist Shahidul Alam, this private school has been dedicated to documentary photography and reportage from the beginning. Located in the central Dhanmondi/Panthapath area of Dhaka, it is a small institute for about 90 students who follow the three-year professional programme, and for about 600 students enrolled in the short, one-semester course. Initially funded by international organisations, Pathshala now is entirely supported through tuition fees. (Though relatively modest at US$460 per semester for the professional programme, inevitably, as in Europe or the US, students are likely to come from more affluent backgrounds, while there are scholarships allowing five students per year to study for free.) Continue reading “New Developments: How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices”

Photography in Bangladesh: a medium on the move

F’ted internationally, the country’s photographers have struggled for status at home. Could that be about to change?

Water reservoir is for the Komolapur Railway station. It’s the main station in Bangladesh. Dhaka.

From the series “Railway Longings” (2011-2015) by Rasel Chowdhury

The eerie moonscape of Munem Wasif’s new photographic series, “Land of Undefined Territory”, appears empty. On closer inspection, it reveals the scars of industrial activity, from vehicle tracks to stone crushing. The sense of menace and alienation is compounded by a three-channel video with a grating soundtrack.
These digital black-and-white shots were taken along an indefinite border between Bangladesh and India, disputed land that is now home to unregulated mining but which also soaked up the blood of past upheavals, from the first, temporary partition of Bengal under the viceroy in 1905, to Partition in 1947 and the Liberation war of 1971. Ostensible documentary veers into questioning in Wasif’s deeply unsettling yet distanced probing of history, territory, ownership and exploitation. Continue reading “Photography in Bangladesh: a medium on the move”