The 9th edition Chobi Mela, Asia's first and largest photo festival, is in town, offering a rare opportunity to experience photography (and contemporary photographic arts) from around the world. This year's festival, unlike the previous edition, is mostly concentrated at the National Art Gallery of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, a few exhibits are placed in three historic establishments of Old Dhaka – Northbrook Hall, Beauty Boarding and Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts (BAFA).
The ambiance that these settings organically offer is a curator's dream, and when used properly, the setting can be as powerful as the art itself. Whoever braves the dingy, chaotic lanes of Old Dhaka to get to these venues, the exhibits offer an 'experience' instead of just photographs hung on a wall. Here are impressions from two of the three venues, in the first of this two-part story:
The Northbrook Hall auditorium, standing at about 136 years old, is a bit of a time machine. The steep gallery, bulky old-timey stage lights and the stairs on the side feels like a different century. Bangladeshi documentary photographer Debashish Chakrabarty's “Stardust” is on display there …but they are not documentary photos. They can barely be called photos. The large, backlit graphically-manipulated works of pure abstraction are spread across the darkened auditorium, reflecting the artist's interest with astrophysics, neuroscience and the likes. The images are mostly just forms, shapes and light paintings on textured backgrounds, in what can be interpreted as time and timelessness of the universe and conscience.
Just behind the stage, Polish photographer Igor Pisuk's “Deceitful Reverence” is a series of photography that's hard to connect at the first glance. But know the back-story and all the dots line up to create an artist's struggle and looking deep into self. Igor suffered from alcohol addiction in high school and spent time in a closed institution for treatment. His suggestive portraits and bizarre images give a glimpse not into the life inside such a rehab centre, but of introspection and a battle with self to be set free.
No more than a 10-minute walk from Northbrook Hall is Beauty Boarding, an icon of the romantic past of Bangladesh's artistic intellect. This small boarding house used to be a common gathering space for writers, artists and creative minds of all kinds, where luminaries across generations would come together to chill out and open up their brilliant minds. Nasir Ali Mamun, who was felicitated with a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's festival, has a small section of his exhibit “The Poet with the Camera” at Beauty Boarding. Mamun, early in his career days, spent time here with literary greats like Shamsur Rahman, Syed Shamsul Haq, Shahid Qadri, Belal Chowdhury and Abu Hena Mustafa Kamal, and the portraits of them come full circle at the exhibit, placed on the same walls where these men once breathed, laughed and probably wrote. Mamun's signature use of light and shadow in his black-and-white portraits bring out candid, intimate moments that not just show the men, but their personalities as well.
The other exhibit at the venue is German photographer Katrin Koenning's “Dear Chris” (2010-2013). It's a personal, touching work focusing on Chris, her cousin's husband, who killed himself at age 29. He was a patient of depression and had previously tried to commit suicide too, and the photos seem to look for answers of that deep, dark struggle. The photos are somewhat divided in three 'chapters': photos from Chris' childhood, photos of some of his possessions, and of places that were important to him. The large negative spaces in the photographs speak of emptiness, the soft-tone monochromes bringing a sense of melancholy, and some of the images, in circular frames, offer a sort of a 'telescopic' view into his life.
[The second installment of the story will feature exhibits “Iran, Untitled” by Gohar Dashti and Pushpamala N's “Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs”, both at BAFA.]