• Saturday, August 02, 2014

To Be (there) Or Not To Be

Bangladesh's participation in 2015 Venice Biennale

Giorgio Guglielmino
“Love Bed” by Tyeba Begum Lipi.
“Love Bed” by Tyeba Begum Lipi.

In May 2015, the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale of the visual arts will open its gates. Curated by Nigerian-born American curator Okwui Enwezor, the Venice Biennale has recently been voted once again the most influential event in the world of contemporary art.
Bangladesh took part in the previous two editions of the Venice Biennale. In 2011 (the very first time Bangladesh had done so) with a group of five artists belonging to Britto, the organisation managed and led by Tayeba Begum Lipi and Mahabub Rahman, who were themselves participating artists. We have them to thank for succeeding in attracting interest in taking part in the Biennale, as well as for having managed to complete all the practical formalities (with a little thanks to my efforts too, since a substantial portion of the funding needed to participate was collected at a major art sale organised on 24-26 February, 2011 at my residence).
Bangladesh's participation drew curiosity and a degree of appreciation which above all attracted international interest in the work of Tayeba Lipi (Christie's auctioned two of her works; another work was bought by the Guggenheim in New York).
Due, in part, perhaps to the fact that the prominence and visibility of the Venice Biennale had not been particularly evident to everyone, in 2011 the Britto group had organised its participation, without any excessive external pressure, and without other artists trying to gain access to the Bangladesh Pavilion. But in 2013 things were not so simple. An excessively large, and above all heterogeneous, number of artists were invited to participate. Some tried to elbow their way in, others declined the invitation, but the end result was very mixed, and basically reflected the pattern of many exhibitions that are staged in Dhaka: 10 walls available, 20 invited artists, with 3 works each. Nothing could be more distant from the spirit of the Venice Biennale. The vast majority of the countries taking part in the Venice Biennale send one artist to their Pavilion, who is given the task of setting out the whole area. Sometimes with a collection of works, or at other times with one large installation designed specifically for the occasion bearing in mind the theme of the Biennale (in 2013 the theme was “The encyclopaedic palace”.
In 2011, the Bangladesh Pavilion, despite the presence of five artists, nevertheless worked well, because all of them came from the same group and in spite of their differences one could sense a common shared feeling and practical approach to their art. In 2011, it was also Bangladesh's first time, and the curiosity of the viewers and the artistic community turned a blind eye to any possible minor flaws in the overall selection of works on display. But in 2013 the pavilion was not a success. The worst thing about it was not the criticisms that were levelled at it, so much as the general indifference to what was on display.
Will Bangladesh be taking part in the 2015 Venice Biennale? I really hope it will. In Italian we have a proverb that says “There is no two without a three” -- 'third time lucky' -- and so Bangladesh's participation can almost be taken for granted. But in order to ensure that the 2015 exhibits are able to attract attention and appreciation a different conceptual approach must be adopted this time.
It is not for me to say who ought to represent Bangladesh, even though I admit that after having frequented Dhaka's artistic community for nearly 4 years, I do have a few ideas of my own… But my suggestion to whoever has to make the choice (and to my friend the Minister, Asaduzzaman Noor) is to stick to only one single artist, and give him or her the difficult, challenging but wonderful task of representing the whole country, powerfully and coherently through his or her own works.


The time is past when it was possible to send out a team of players who had never played together before, with a predictable result. It is now time to send just one young artist, vested with total trust and confidence.

The writer is Ambassador of Italy to Bangladesh.

Published: 12:00 am Thursday, June 12, 2014

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