62 Flash Art ‡ J A N U A R Y F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 3

State of Emergency
Ebadur Rahman
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J A N U A R Y F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 3 ‡ Flash Art 63
IT WAS THE early ’70s when Henry Kissinger
referred to Bangladesh as an “international
basket case,” which in turn was misunder-
stood by Bengali hacks and was mistranslated
as “a bottomless basket” — shorthand for a
black hole of international aid and a land of
disaster visibly ridden with dark, smelly, lazy
and corrupt Wogs waiting for Yankee goodies
to be dumped on them.
As Walter Benjamin notes, the tradition
of the oppressed teaches us that the “state
of emergency” in which we live is not an
exception but the rule. The trope of bot-
tomless basket-ness highlighted the constant
state of emergency that had been a part of
Bangladeshi DNA and, at the same time, a
wound and a trauma that birthed a national
From what Benjamin calls the “homog-
enous, empty time” of Western history,
the modern Bengali Muslim identity was
C-sectioned, and the trauma of bottomless
basket-ness was an important ingredient
of that empty, homogenous time, without
which contemporary Bangladesh’s history and
Our inability to produce a coherent historical
narrative seems to be located in the inward-
looking, traumatic complexity that also de-
stabilizes the ideals of the “Bengal School
of Arts” that was fomented and midwifed by
Ernest Francisco Fenollosa’s most prominent
Okakura had been to Bengal at least twice
by 1905, and had written The Ideals of the East
(1904) in which he postulated — on the eve
of Sino-Russian war — a previously unheard
of Pan-Asianism. Around the same time, the
exchanges between Bengali artists and the
in 1896 — translated into Abanindranath
Tagore’s trademark wash technique and a new
way of invoking Bengali reality that became
a makeshift template and a launching point
for Indian artists of the later generations,
Ramkinkar Baij, K.G. Subramanyan and, in
a more diffused way, S.H. Raza, M.F. Husain
and Francis Newton Souza, among others. It
was a crucial time throughout the empire, and
in this remote corner of Bengal there were
great enunciations of practical, artistic and
ideological imperatives to set out an anti-
colonial and anti-imperial project.
These relations were clearly formulated
as a resistance, which is also evident in the
contact and contamination that Rabindranath
Tagore initiated through his incessant travels
to the West and in his effort to bring in foreign
scholars like Leonard Knight Elmhirst, Stella
Kramrisch or Sylvia Levy. Tagore’s brother
Gaganendranath exhibited his typically native
Cubist works at a Bauhaus show at the Indian
Society of Oriental Art in Calcutta, in 1922,
at which both Kandinsky and Klee were on
display among 250 other artists. Kandinsky’s
watercolors attracted reverent reviews.
Contemporary art in Bangladesh locates
its lineage in this alternative vernacular mod-
ernism that has never been part of the great
modernistic project; Bangladeshi artists take
sustenance and construct meaning from a
euro-eccentric art history.
The following discourse looks at six con-
temporary artists from Bangladesh: Monirul
Islam, Naeem Mohaiemen, Ruhul Amin
Kajol, Munem Wasif, Atiqul Islam and
Shumon Ahmed.
Monirul Islam is a veteran printmaker
of 30 years whose latest solo exhibition —
“Of Rupture and Continuity” at Bengal
Foundation in 2011 — makes use of innova-
tive techniques and unusual local materials:
wood shavings, crushed temple brick dust,
NAEEM MOHAIEMEN, United Red Army (The Young Man Was,
Part 1), 2012. Video, 70 mins. Courtesy the artist. Opposite:
SHUMON AHMED, Land of the Free, 2009. Photo montage
on digital print, 49 x 76 cm. Courtesy Chobi Mela VI, Goethe
Institute Dhaka, 2011.
Bangladesh_cg_ug.indd 63 12/8/12 1:24 PM
64 Flash Art ‡ J A N U A R Y F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 3
is part of human essence, but then our essence
is against philosophy. Philosophy stages truth,
philosophy invcstigatcs ofğcial tfuths, which
constitutc conscnsual fcality; ! wonłt ğnd tfuc
tfuth in that Ńtfuthń; could lcgitimatc and pcf-
functofy lics tcll thc tfuth? Can you pfcdict
thc pfoccss whcfc thc gfccd-csscncc and thc
lcgitimatc lics can showcasc clabofatc and
figofous staging of ccftain idcas that ! am
using as vchiclcs to manifcst my inncf wofld?
Looking at thc aftists of thc ł7Os Ō who wcfc
dcpcndcnt on and fcacting to what happcncd
abfoad, who happily contfactcd inĠucnccs
likc discascs Ō stfuggling to cxpfcss my inncf
fcality, ! fcalizcd that it is mofc impoftant to
say what ! nccdcd to say than making pfctty
aft. Cfcating dccofativc and bcautiful ob|ccts
was not fof mc. Bcauty has to adhcfc to thc
gcncfal laws of acsthctics. ! chuckcd away thc
gfammaf book and intcndcd to cxpfcss my
inncf tfuth. And as my inncf wofld staftcd to
manifcst outsidc, it cfcatcd its own gfammaf
and bccamc bcautiful by its own cfitcfia.ń
Muncm Wasif has conffontcd and mcdiatcd
thc complicity bctwccn thc fcpfcscntation of
thc systcmic violcncc of povcfty and thc fc-
gimc of imagcs with scfiousncss and thcofcti-
cal rigor. Salt Water Tears (2OO9), his doom-
MUNEM WASIF, In God We Trust, 2009. Digital pigment print,
46 x 31 cm. Courtesy Visa pour l’Image 2010, Perpignan (FR).
somctimcs cxplofcs thc contfadictions bc-
twccn Bcngalis with mafginal migfant status
and thosc with authofitafian folcs in thcif
own countfy. As paft of this modus opcfan-
di, Muslims or Heretics: My Camera Can Lie
(2OO4) is a documcntafy about such ovcflap-
ping multiplc fcalitics and pcfccptions. !n I
Have Killed Pharaoh (2O1O), a chaptcf of his
ongoing pfo|cct The Young Man Was (2OO6),
Naccm stagcs thc loosc histofical shafds of
two assassinations Ō Igyptłs thifd pfcsidcnt
Anwaf Sadat and Bangladcshłs pfimc minis-
tcf Shcikh Mu|ib Rahman Ō as a contcsting
stfata of fcalitics and fclationships as con-
tcmplatcd thfough thc cfitical lcns of an aftist
who is constantly and incluctably mafginal-
izcd and disavowcd by hcgcmonic idcologics.
Naccm builds complcx scqucntial sccnafios
that progress across emotional space; he at-
tcmpts a cafnivalcsquc invcfsion of idcology
and a fcasscssmcnt of thc attitudcs that fc-
imaginc an antcfiof tfuth of thc founding
ğction of thc Bcngali nation, thfcading a ncw
vision along thc |aggcd fault lincs of national-
ism and idcntity politics.
Likc a hip-hop poct, Ruhul Amin Ka|olłs
public aft pfo|ccts mix pop, politics, spifit
and a stfangc sadncss. Çucstioncd about his
fctfospcctivc at Bcngal Gallcfy of !inc Aft in
Dhaka (2O11), hc statcs: ŃThis is a show pfc-
miscd on illcgitimatc tfuth. ! always fclt gfccd
misshapcn coffugatcd cafdboafd soufccd
ffom uscd packing boxcs, handmadc papcf.
Monifulłs invcstigation of abstfaction Ō as
clcgant, stfippcd down and dc-skillcd as it
has bccomc Ō fofgcts fofmality and pufity
and vccfs ffom voluptuousncss to austcfity,
ffom thc moodincss of monochfomc to thc
scnsual toncs of spfingtimc in fufal Bcngal.
His |oufncy stations him in an unfcal statc
of indctcfminacy Ō a Ġuid and ffcc statc
bctwccn void and thc tfuc cmptincss of con-
ccpts. Though his Ġaif fof handling matcfials
and colofs can bc obscfvcd thfoughout his
wofks, thc fofmations and motifs hc has bccn
using thfoughout his lifc, such as thc stick ğg-
ufc matadof, thc |aggcd and zigzagging lincs
and pattcfns, havc mofc fcccntly bccn libcf-
atcd ffom thc satufatcd cmotional contcnt
that Moniful is famous fof tfafğcking. !nstcad,
|oyful mandalas invokc thc tfansitions and
unccftaintics of homclcssncss wc all havc
bccn cxpcficncing ovcf thc past fcw ycafs.
A multimcdia aftist, ğlmmakcf, cssayist,
activist, cditof and pfoliğc wfitcf, Naccm
Mohaicmcn uscs tcxts, photos, vidcos and
afchival matcfials to cxplofc thc histofy of
thc intcfnational lcft, utopia/distopia slip-
pagc, post-paftition South Asia and issucs
of global security.
Wofking bctwccn two countfics Ō
Bangladcsh and thc \nitcd Statcs Ō Naccm
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J A N U A R Y F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 3 ‡ Flash Art 65
laden reportage of Bangladeshi “miserabilia,”
was not activated within a political vacuum;
it inaugurated a refusal of neo-Oriental poli-
tics and eschewed dominant ways of thinking
about an emerging reality that should not be
processed in idealized, settled, schematic and
totalized codes and industrial conventions.
In God We Trust (2009), Munem utilized the
languages of both documentary and photo
reportage. It is best understood within the
framework of a broader documentarian
impulse that bears witness and responds to
a complex, low-intensity war situation fac-
ing Islam. On the contrary, his foci oscillate
from empirical accuracy to storytelling of
events as they were encountered by active
subjects. He distrusts language and seems
deeply ambivalent about the veracity of what
it describes. Unlike some of his colleagues,
he is uncomfortable with the current market
demand for depoliticizing the documentary
in favor of a pictorial tendency in the service
of consumption.
Atiqul Islam’s mutable sculptures seem to
havc a stfong conccptual afğnity with Richafd
Long’s work and with Land Art in general.
His sculptural appropriations of traditional
systems of reckoning can be seen as refrac-
tions/representations of the desire to subdue
and master the staging of the ideological pa-
rameters that brutally curtail the disposition
of nature. Modernist sculpture, the label with
which Atiqul dialogically and shyly engages,
asserts an inherent lack of roots that, in the
hands of a modernist like Brancusi, makes
claims to being self-referential and culturally
non-spcciğc; Atiqul, not unlikc many of his
Western counterparts, refuses to experience
the more recent phenomenon of self-refer-
ential forms, reverting to regressive antidotes
of folksy simplicity and rural archaism within
thc safc camouĠagc of tfaditional postufing.
Shumon Ahmed has been an iconic non-
presence in the Bengali art scene. Neither a
typical ğnc aftist nof comfoftablc undcf thc
auspices of the strong documentary photogra-
phy conventions of Bangladesh, for Shumon,
thc camcfa is a tool to ncgatc ofğcial Ńfcal-
ity”; the camera is a prosthetic eye to process
and to cope with a world of hostile and weird
images. These images appear almost as care-
fully staged studies of the tensions and power
fclations afĠicting thc livcs of thc Bcngali
among whom he grew up but feels increas-
ingly alienated. His photographic tableaux
The Land of the Free (2009) documents the
daily life of a former Guantanemo Bay inmate
from Dhaka. It initiates an open-ended and
anti-documentary narrative that forms a mass
of information without lineage or hierarchy;
he short-circuits our understanding of the war
on terror and our understanding of sanity and
masculinity through the lens of the uncon-
scious libidinal economy; such a reading is
not a simple de-sublimation, a reduction and
unpacking of an ideological formation to its
lower economic or libidinal cause. The aim of
such an approach is the inherent de-centering
of the status of a certain reality, which brings
to light its un-thought, its disavowed presup-
positions and consequences, which offers a
praxis of change and redemption by revising
the power’s grand narrative by proposing at
least two things: on one hand that historical
moments should be pluralistic micro-narra-
tives plotted as confrontations rather than
transition; and on the other hand that such
confrontations with power are signaled by a
functional change in the system of signs. „
Ebadur Rahman is an independent curator, writer and
NAEEM MOHAIEMEN, Kazi in Nomansland, 2009. Stamps,
9 x 6 x 2 cm. Courtesy Green Cardamom, London.
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