Enayetullah Khan, back from Italy, explains how this year’s Venice Biennale will tell the story of Bangladesh by upholding its culture and artistic riches for the world to see. “La Biennale di Venezia is one of the most prestigious events in the international cultural landscape,” Khan says passionately. “It is vital to leverage this platform to connect with the artists and visitors from different cultures, and to tell the stories of Bangladesh through art.” “We want to highlight the distinct narratives that are both universal, as well as specific to the region,” he concludes. So goes the inspiration behind an audacious attempt to present the tale of Bangladesh, on arguably the biggest platform the world of art has to offer.
It all started from a conversation in the Rome apartment of Bangladeshi expatriate artist Uttam Karmaker, where he was hosting his countryman and fellow artist Bishwajit Goswami. Eventually the conversation drifted to the Venice Biennale, often described as “the Olympics of the art world” - which serves to capture the sheer international spirit of the event. It is also regarded by many as simply “the art world’s greatest show”, while the most grandiose and possibly most telling description we came across was probably in the New York Times, which termed it “the world’s biggest and most influential survey of what artists currently make of the times we live in.”
The Biennale proper consists of three parts: (1) a central exhibition organized by an artistic director in the Central pavilion in the public gardens known as the Giardini and the cavernous former dockyards known as the Arsenale, (2) national pavilions organized by dozens of countries, each offering a show of one or more artists, and (3) independently organized exhibitions tagged by the Biennale as official Collateral Events.
Karmaker had previously participated in the 2013 edition as part of the Bangladesh pavilion. That was only the second time a team from Bangladesh had taken part in this mega-event of the art world, held every two years and enjoying top billing for over six months as one of the must-visit attractions in the famed and no less romanticised Italian city of Venice. The first time was in 2011, but for some reason, the 2015 and 2017 editions came and went with no representation from Bangladesh, even though the then-Italian Ambassador in Dhaka tried to coax his hosts into participating, invoking an Italian proverb in a newspaper article that says “there is no two without three”.
Now with the 2019 edition looming in the horizon, Karmaker desperately wanted to bring back the Bangladesh pavilion, and floated the idea to his friend, who was down with it immediately. Eventually they settled on an Italian curator to anchor their fledgling ship, and for good measure, roped in Mukhlesur Rahman, another one of the artists who had participated with their own works in 2013, to act as co-curator with his more intimate knowledge of the art and artists of the land they sought to represent.
The group of artists that was put together to enrich the Bangladesh pavilion with their works consisted of 6 Bangladeshis, including Karmaker and Goswami. They were joined by Dilara Begum Jolly, Gazi Nafis Ahmed, Preema Nazia Andaleeb, and Ra Kajol. Four foreign artists - Heidi Fosli, Franco Marrocco, Domenico Pellegrino and Sandro Varagnolo - would also be part of the Bangladesh Pavilion. Interestingly, national pavilions aren’t restricted to participation by their respective citizens only at the Venice Biennale. It would seem to be one of the ways in which the festival pays tribute to the fact that art and nationalism aren’t usually easy bedfellows.
Bangladesh’s participation at the 58th Venice Biennale was confirmed “sometime before the last election”, as Mukhlesur Rahman recalls it, that is December 2018. Over the next 5 months till May, the artists all worked diligently on putting their ‘best art forward’, so to speak. Each pavilion is curated according to a theme, and the theme chosen by the Bangladesh team was ‘Thirst’. This was contributed by Syed Manzoorul Islam, the former professor of Dhaka University who is widely acknowledged as a cultural authority. The team had initially hoped to have him as their commissioner, in view of the universal admiration in which they held him and thus his ability to inspire them, but that didn’t quite work out in the end. Once the government’s buy-in was ensured through Cultural Minister Asaduzzaman Noor, that position went to Liaquat Ali Lucky, the director general of the Shilpakala Academy. Nevertheless, even in the limited role he was able to perform in the end, Dr Islam left his mark.
This year’s Biennale dates were pencilled in from May 11 to November 24. Like everything else, the Bangladesh Pavilion too would flag off on the opening day. The team arrived in Venice on May 2nd, and from then on, it was a hectic yet memorable eight days that they toiled to set up the Bangladesh Pavilion, and achieving the aesthetic they wanted. The venue for the Bangladesh Pavilion had been set as the Palazzio Zenobio at the Collegio Armeno Moorat-Raphael.
For all their enthusiasm and effort, the artists did feel the lack of patronage they are forced to deal with as Bangladeshi artists even more acutely during the preparations for the lack of patronage they are forced to deal with as Bangladeshi artists even more acutely during the preparations for the Biennale. Talking to Bishwajit Goswami and Mukhlesur Rahman upon their return from Venice, it is remarkable to learn about the number of added responsibilities and tasks that they had to take on (in addition to the main one, which should be the only one, of producing quality art works) in order to try and ensure the Pavilion’s success. Limited resources also mean limited ambitions. The government did come forward with a token amount to support the venture, but that fell far short of adequate. In the end, the Cosmos Foundation came forward as the sole private sponsor of the Bangladesh Pavilion. While nursing gripes over the government’s lack of interest in something that flies the country’s flag, and insisting it wake up to the need to nurture the artistic tendency in a citizenry, Bishwajit was grateful for the initiative shown by Cosmos Foundation (full disclosure: the foundation is the philanthropic arm of Dhaka Courier’s parent company), and in particular its chairman, Enayetullah Khan.
“One must appreciate not only the sponsorship, but also the fact that he flew there to be present at the inauguration, and had the good sense to bring his friend Sundaram Tagore, the renowned gallerist, whose presence added gravitas to the event,” Bishwajit said.
The Bangladesh Pavilion’s kick off on May 11, by all accounts, was a resounding success. A clever move by the team of artists in the build up to the day was to engage the substantial Bangladeshi immigrant community in Venice, most of whom were only too glad to participate in something that flew the Bangladeshi flag in their adopted homes. It all made for a superb, colourful reception on the day of the kick off.
According to Goswami and Mukhlesur Rahman, the pavilion itself was making a good impression in the first few weeks, punching above its weight. A surprising number of visitors were dropping in, partly drawn by the novelty of getting to sample art from Bangladesh. Many of them though are indeed drawn by the art put together by the team, and word on the street in Venice (or maybe on the canals) is that the Bangladeshi Pavilion, while perhaps not all-conquering, is worth an art aficionado’s time, with some surprisingly original works. For the time-being, the team have had to return home, leaving their labour of love in the care of some (relatively cheaply) hired help. But over the course of the next six months, they do plan to take turns going back. Till November 24 at least, they’ll make sure the flag is flying high.
The 58th Venice Biennale will continue till November 24. The theme for this year’s event is ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’, and it is curated by Ralph Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery.
The graphic story presented in the pavilion unfolds along a path consisting of five stages: crisis, intuition, hope, knowledge, and purification. The thirst for water thus begins with a crisis phase in which the works displayed represent the hardship and suffering of a thirsty society that is subjected to the consequences of drought or pollution. The exhibition continues with a section in which the meaning of the works alludes to the ‘intuition of water’, that is, the mental perception of redemption from the initial suffering, and the chance for salvation. The following stage involves hope that is translated into a quest: a boat in search of water. In the fourth stage the discovery of water becomes knowledge. In the last part of the exhibition the source symbolises the satisfaction that comes with being able to quench one’s thirst and thrive.
Bishwajit Goswami (b. 1981)
Bishwajit is a Bangladeshi artist and educator. He is a lecturer at the Drawing & Painting Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Over the last few years, Bishwajit has been experimenting with various spaces and subjects in his artwork. His extensive interest in art has led him to direct a handful of projects during this time.
At the 58th Venice Biennale: “Ma Mati Manush Bhasha Swadesh Prokriti”
In his art making, Bishwajit accepted as true, “this is more important for him, how he is belonging; what he is; what he can see; what he imagines and is continuously watching, listening …rather than imitating any images…”
He has been working for a few years with font, text, typography, and calligraphy in different contemporary approaches. Sometimes he is using traditional natural ink, pigment for writing, making calligraphy. Other times, he is using neon light lettering against art-object, where neon itself becomes artwork. In this project, Bishwajit performed with a universal notion of life; where the innate Bengali female portrait is cast as a surface of his artwork, and characters carry different concepts of spirit. Bengali women’s portrait and Bengali writing on the face represented the artwork itself as a statue of spirituality. The movements and connection among the portraits created the visual oomph and vivacity on the artwork.
The artist played here six interconnected characters - “Ma (Mother), Mati (earth), Manush (people), Bhasha (Language), Swadesh (Motherland) and Prokriti (Nature) for this artwork. The artworks denoted too, how a conceptual spirit transformed and devoted one to another, with constructing connections.
He attempts to portray the universal situation of society through the six forms, where artist signifies the sense of spirituality; Eyes are expressive, symbolic and represent perception.
Bishwajit wisely depicts the connection between one concept to another on video, where movement executes direction amongst conceptual dialogues.