How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices
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, artworks 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 ofDhaka, 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 organizations, 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.) The school is artist-run, something that shows, for example, in the practical and unpretentious design of their two small campuses and in the fact that many former students become teachers, creating a natural and continuous flow of new ideas. More recently, this led to a change in the curriculum, as some of the young teachers, among them Munem Wasif and Tanzim Wahab, started to expand the idea of reportage and broaden the concept of photography. These new impulses are particularly clear in the work of Shumon Ahmed, Rasel Chowdhury, Samsul Alam Helal, Salma Abedin Prithi and Atish Saha (all of whom were included in the Samdani Art Award exhibition). While it is true that these artists are committed to a strong documentary approach rooted in an acknowledgement of the many challenges that still face Bangladesh, they are nevertheless searching for ways to go beyond reportage. Beside this large group of photographic works, the selection also included painting (Farzana Ahmed Urmi), sculpture (Rupam Roy and Shimul Shaha), film and photography (Rafiqul Shuvo), film and performance (Palash Bhattacharjee) and printmaking (Ashit Mitra). I was asked to shortlist ten but, given the high quality of the work, I could only get my list down to 13.
The self-confident attitudes that the Pathshala artists project mask a more fragile context for their work. The school operates without any officially recognized degrees, has precarious finances and staff members have received death threats from Bangladeshi proponents of Islamic law. Furthermore, as a number of the photographers told me, some local artists laugh at them for using photography – a practice that is generally still not considered to be art in the region. On 5 February 2016, when Chowdhury, a photographer and former student of Pathshala, was announced as the winner of the 3rd Samdani Art Award, a gang of about 10 ‘Pathsalas’ erupted into applause – some began to cry, while others jumped around. And then the dance party started. The decision by the international jury was not only seen as the recognition of a single artistic achievement, but of an entire institution.
First published in Issue 178