Growing up, Bangladesh was a place that had for me only one meaning: a place in need, a place so desperate that it became the focus of George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. It was a place far away, a country I associated with places like Biafra, where (my grandmother repeatedly informed me) children were starving so I should finish up my dinner.
But that was long ago, and the world is smaller now, and Bangladesh is a very different country. Yet to talk to most Americans, you probably wouldn’t know that. You wouldn’t know that, besides its sweat shops, climate crises, rocky government and poverty, Bangladesh, according to the Economist , has over the past 20 years “made some of the biggest gains in the basic condition of people’s lives ever seen anywhere.” And you probably would not know that Bangladesh is home to a burgeoning art scene, populated by artist collectives, galleries, and serious collectors.
Starting October 15, and running until February 14, 2016, however, some of
those artists will be showing their work in New York, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. “Transitions: New Photography From Bangladesh” features nine Bangladeshi photographers whose work addresses everything from the political conditions of the country to pure artistic concerns – and combinations of the two. Curated by Ayesha Akhtar, an artist-curator born in Bangladesh and raised in New York City, the exhibition aims, according to a statement, “to open important discussions around the meaning of changes, shifts, and transitions across generations and communities.”
Akhtar, who also serves as the director of the Bangladeshi American Creative Collective, generously took the time (only days before her own wedding) to answer several questions via e-mail about the exhibition.
Abigail R. Esman: This is your second exhibition of Bangladeshi photography. What started you on this journey initially?
Ayesha Akhtar: This exhibition is an evolution of a previous exhibition I co-curated with Nabil Rahman called “Eyes on Bangladesh,” in Queens at Soundview Broadcasting. It was through my friend Nabil, a Bangladeshi- American artist himself, that I was first introduced to the extensive photography and art scene in Bangladesh. Through this introduction I became increasingly aware of how strong American/Western stereotypes of “third – world/ majority world” countries are, and little we know about the progress in the arts in Bangladesh, and countries similar to it.
After “Eyes on Bangladesh” ended, Nabil took off to Bangladesh to create a documentary about his grandfather and then to work at Drik, leaving me to to do whatever I wanted with “Eyes on Bangladesh.” This led me to Chobi Mela VIII, a two week photography exhibition where I met many of the new photographers that are exhibited in “Transitions.”
ARE: There is a growing awareness (though still very small) of art coming from Bangladesh. Are there many photographers, or is it a more diverse scene?
AA: There are many photographers, and many, many, artists. However, photography is really being cultivated in Bangladesh by one person — his name is Shahidul Alam. He is the founder of Drik picture library, a photo agency in Dhaka and Pathshala, the South Asian Media Institute, where many of the artists that are in Transitions have learned their trade, or currently teach.
ARE: Are these artists all living in America? In Bangladesh? Both?
All the artists are from Bangladesh and live there now. We did this strategically. We’re trying to do two things with this exhibition: (1) Create a platform for Bangladeshi artists in the NYC art scene, thus, creating a platform for Bangladeshi arts and culture, and a way for Bangladeshi Americans to see a part themselves reflected in the arts; and (2) Bridge this generational gap that exists between Bangladeshi immigrants and their Bangladeshi-American children who grow up with a very stilted view of what it means to be Bangladeshi.
ARE: Are there differences between the works by Bangladeshi-American artists and those in Bangladesh? What do they also have in common, if anything?
AA: I don’t think that there is a marked difference between the work of Bangladeshi-American artists and Bangladeshi artists. What doing all this work has shown me is that we have a lot more in common than what you would think. But not in the ways that you would think. The similarities don’t come from themes of the works, or mediums, or anything like that. The commonality is simply both are artists, and as artists they have what artists would have in common — they’re trying to navigate the world through their own perspectives and their own unique or collective circumstance.
As a Bangladeshi – American, knowing that is quite liberating. That is, knowing that there are people in your country of origin turning out great work, and having artistic role models that are from the same place as you is really important. Many diaspora kids, Bangladeshi-Americans, are lost between two cultures. And, though there is a growing population of Bangladeshi Americans all across the US, they’re still a minority. Being connected to Bangladeshi artists alleviates the pressure of having to represent all of Bangladesh or speak for a country or a people.
There’s another thing that this exhibition reveals: it’s that culture is something that is constantly in flux. Especially now that we’re all so connected to each other.
It also gives you a greater sense of perspective — as, you’re one of 140 million people — you feel less looped into this “minority” role, and you realize you have no business trying to represent everyone, and you can explore what you want to explore.
ARE: The works in your previous exhibition were largely documentary. These are mostly art photography. Isn’t there some crossover, though? So often documentary photography becomes art; I can point even in this exhibition to Death of A Thousand Dreams, for instance.
AA: Certainly there is crossover, and I love that about photography. This exhibition explores the role of photography/documentary as art.
ARE: As a Bangladeshi-American artist yourself, how do you characterize your own work? Is your Bangladeshi heritage important to what you do? Is your American upbringing?
AA: Yes, both cultures are incredibly important to my own work, and I’m so
glad to have both perspectives. I would characterize myself as a Bangladeshi- American artist.
ARE: Can you elaborate? How is your own work influenced by Bengali and/or American cultures? Has it changed since meeting Nabil and becoming more aware of Bangladeshi art/photography?
AA: The influence come from the context in which I grew up. My parents raised me culturally to be a Bangladeshi woman, emphasizing things like modest dress, and of course taught me the language, and about what it means to be from Bangladesh– to hold your family in the highest esteem, etc.
But of course, growing up in the US there’s a huge juxtaposition with what I was being taught at home and what I was learning or taking in through day-to-day interactions and American literature.
I think being Bangladeshi is a very collective experience– there’s so much emphasis that you are part of this community, your represent your family, your village, etc. But being American means more that your represent yourself and this individual experiences — it’s a more self assertive culture.
ARE: Talk to me about the Bangladeshi-American Creative Collective. What is it, exactly?
AA: BACC was started by four Bangladeshi creatives, and we all work in differentmediums: Nadia is a writer, Bashma is a singer and actor, and Mahfuzul is a entrepreneur,and I’m an artist. Nadia and I founded it when we realized that no such thing really exists like this for Bangladeshis. There are so many collectives — there is the South Asian Creative Collective, an e”Indian American collective, a for ourselves, and to encourage other Bangladeshi creatives that are interested in pursuing the arts and humanities to go for it, and try to be an example for them.
ARE: What further plans do you have for the Collective, and for future exhibitions?
AA: My next idea is to have an exhibition by Bangladeshi artists from various diaspora communities all over the world in Bangladesh. But, the rest of the collective may want to take a break from working on another exhibition. We don’t want to limit ourselves to just photography or art. Bangladesh has a very rich history in literature, music, and dance. We may also want to branch out outside the arts and explore the creative work that’s being done through entrepreneurship, medicine, etc.
ARE: Recently there have been disturbing reports of Growing Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. Are the artists affected?
AA: Yes, this is definitely something with should talk about. None of these artists are directly in danger at the moment, but a lot of the work here would definitely would not rub noses with any of the Islamic militants.
The collection of works in the exhibition don’t directly confront the political situation, but all are situated in this context, and it’s the backdrop in which they do their work– Most of these artists live in Dhaka — and there are always protests, and blockades going on . That was also part of my experience visiting at “Chobi Mela,” was trying to travel in a country where sometimes roads would be blocked off. And there were silent protests going on in front of universities all over Dhaka.
The climate there is such, that it is scary being an artist and activist (like Taslima Akhter). Some of these artists are not Muslim, they’re Hindus, and that’s also a point of contention.
The only work [in the exhibition] that in my opinion that grapples with this a little by really making fun of it, is Olympia Burka, which is a very strange, fantastical piece that is a reworking of Edouard Monet’s Olympia.
ARE: Earlier, you mentioned stereotypes. What sorts of stereotypes do you come across?
AA: Most Americans have absolutely no idea, absolutely no clue what it means to live and be from a third world/majority world country. Not a “true” sense anyway, and that’s as a result of mainstream media. So there’s this stereotype that there’s no progress in countries like Bangladesh — the image is always: repression, poverty, regression, and this idea that we need to help these poor people.
Which is not true at all.
In fact, there’s so much progress that has happened since ’71, and Bangladesh has always been a very forward thinking country. Many of my friends were shocked to discover that Bangladesh has so many strong woman leaders in politics, etc. Ideologically, intellectually, spiritually, culturally Bangladesh is a place where there’s a lot of depth.
This exhibition seeks to combat these sort of stereotypes.
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