Chobi Mela VIII
Chobi Mela, the biannual international photography festival, begins its eighth edition at venues all across Dhaka from tomorrow. South Asia's largest photography exhibition, coined as 'the world's most culturally inclusive photo festival', Chobi Mela has become a global platform for upcoming photographers from regions such as Latin America, Africa and Asia. This year saw an increased number of entries from the Soviet Union region and the Middle East. Aside from galleries, audiences have workshops, artist talks (following the exhibition) and video art to look forward to. Like with any major international festival, its curators played a vital role in transforming the public space of the exhibition into a multi-dimensional and fluid experience, enriching the exhibition with their unique interpretation of photographs in the process of production, classification and display. The five curators of the festival share with The Daily Star their curatorial vision and the impact they hope to have on the audience as well as the medium of photography at large.
[From January 23 to February 5, Chobi Mela VIII is the place to be for photography and visual arts enthusiasts, connoisseurs and practitioners. ]
We're dealing with some of the best photographers from all over the world - curating works of photographers who have spent years trying to master their art. We are responsible for putting up their work in a well-presented way and making sure the context within their work comes through. There are a lot of logistical and technical things to worry about. We've also had to focus on the philosophical and creative dimensions of each piece of work.
In creative terms, we've invited two very talented and fascinating artists into our curators' panel this time - Mahbubur Rahman, who is an artist from Britto Arts Trust and Salauddin Ahmed, who is an architect. With their help, we're trying to create a different vision for ChobiMela VIII's curatorial process and not be restricted within the technical aspects of photography alone. We believe that photography is a contemporary art form. We're coming up with different structures and ways of looking at the same work, which make things much more challenging, but at the same time, a lot more exciting for the audience.
As a curator, I personally think that the exhibition by Anwar Hossain, this Chobi Mela, is going be significant not only because he's the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award but also because he's one of the most important photographers in the history of Bangladeshi photography. No other photographer has such a dynamic range of work as his. The way he has dealt with the human body, sexuality, still-life, the countryman with the humanist soul all through his work is truly remarkable. As his life is separated between Paris and Dhaka, his files are all scattered. I've spent days talking to him, researching his work while working very hard to compile his photographs and incorporate his work in cinematography as well. We've decided to put the show up in Alliance Francaise de Dhaka because of his connection with France, and we're really excited about what we're putting together.
ASM Rezaur Rahman
The biggest strength of Chobi Mela is its relationship with the mass people. It is usually taken for granted that art exhibitions be organised in dazzling, lucent art galleries where people dressed in formal wear come to visit. Chobi Mela is exceptional. In every festival it is a priority to engage people from every social aspect. The exhibitions are even brought to people's doorstep.
Once, during an informal gathering of photographers in 2004, one of my friends almost rebuked me by asking why we always organise the exhibitions inside of a gallery. Why can't any hawker or rickshaw-puller see the exhibition right on the street? How will the housewife from Kamrangir Chor, who remains busy all the time, come to know about Chobi Mela? Indeed, if people from all social aspects cannot be a part of it then what is the fruition of our whole arrangement? That is how we started to think about alternative spaces. We brought the exhibition to Abahoni Field in Dhanmondi. We put up a huge shed. We organised the photographs in 10 rickshaw vans which then roamed around in the alleys of Old Dhaka, Keranigonj, Kamrangir Chor and Karail slums. This idea of ours has become a trademark of Chobi Mela which many have started to follow.
Old Dhaka is neglected in a lot of ways which are sometimes reflected in the canvas of the artists. During Chobi Mela V, while Munem Wasif was exhibiting his work on “Jute” at the Kolpona boarding in Shankhari Bazar, we were stunned by the response of the local people. People were peeping at the exhibition while offering prayers during morning Puja. In the evening, hundreds of young and old people alike came with their family members to visit. That particular exhibition remains our inspiration forever.
For this Chobi Mela, Old Dhaka was our highest priority. There is going to be 5 exhibitions in 3 different venues - Beauty Boarding in Bangla Bazar, Lal Kuthi in Northbrook Hall Road and Bulbul Academy for Fine Arts (BAFA) in Waisghat. Old Dhaka will be waiting for you with all these spectacular exhibitions.
Since curatorial practice is not institutionalised in Bangladesh, artists from different backgrounds have no other option but to get the curation done all by themselves. Chobi Mela's need for curation started similarly. A bunch of young curators started experimenting and pushing the limits of displaying works to overcome the monotonyof the same white cubes. Alternative spaces, mobile van exhibitions, outdoor setups, abandoned or under-construction walls, diverse gallery spaces - they're all there but the eighth edition also brings close proximity and inclusivity to the works and artists. Our collaboration with installation artists and architects has revived the possibilities of photography and created multiple dialogues.
We want to create a dialogue between a sculptor and a photographer, the city and the artworks, the curator and the artist, and so on. Most of us are new to curatorial practices but we are not afraid of experimentation. We try to optimise our limited resources where everything - budget, technical expertise, framing, construction work - lacks skills of craft and adequacy in our part of the world. Compared to the limitations, the artists we feature are always of high quality - a mix of old and contemporary - and their coming together in a photo festival is rare for any part of the world.
Some highlights in this edition: Luis González Palma's photographs exploring magic realism in the Northbrook Hall, a half-abandoned old theater; Nepal Picture Library's vintage photos and Denis Dailleux's nostalgic photos from Egypt in the Northbrook Library, a high roofed 19th century library; Anwar Hossain's retrospective in Alliance Française de Dhaka; Christina Nunez's frank and intimate photos at Drik Gallery. Many more surprises will be waiting at the Shilpakala Academy. The evening will be brought to life by talks by artists among whom my favorites are Larry Towel, Denis Dailleux and Philip Blenkinsop.
As an architect, I thought Chobi Mela was a wonderful occasion to work with photography and with photographers. It is an exciting opportunity for me, as an architect, to work with and around whatever I think is lacking in the conventional medium of viewing photographs. I want to work on stretching out the canvas and I want to bring it out to a level where the audience can actually not only look at an image from a distance, but also be involved with the image. So I took the challenge of bringing out the energy that I sense in each image given to me to work with.
I think, of course, we have our own gains through our own journey, but we need to look at it from a distance. I believe all of us in 2015 have a responsibility to leave something significant or important for those who are going to look back from 2030. In this journey, an architect or a photographer alone cannot take all the responsibility upon himself or herself; all of us have to chip in to actually express the much larger canvas of society. A photographer should do his/her share and an architect should do the same. But what we propose in the end is that, whoever we are, we must speak out on behalf of that which represents society as a whole.
Photography so far has been a media-based art form. And from that point, Chobi Mela is turning towards priming photography in a way that opens alternative doors.
There is a clear institutional gap between fine arts and photography. Chobi Mela works on transgressing gaps and genres. It concentrates on the art of installation and space, as designing has demonstrated how photographs can be installed on a wall in both two- and three-dimensional ways.
As I basically work with space and wildly believe in blends of genres, I did not find myself much in tune with static states of photographs. However, after being involved in some earlier ventures with Pathsala, I experienced a shift in myself. Chobi Mela's scale is too much! It is a very monumental and established event. Chobi Mela matures its participants intellectually and emotionally. It engages people - both viewers and organisers - intimately and physically. Those who arrange pieces, matching the temperament (of the image) with the space,wish to attract viewers without giving vocal directions.
Chobi Mela always dreamt big even though the resources were often insufficient. In a country like Bangladesh, being the host to such an event is a huge challenge - one in whichChobi Mela has never failed. We are headed to witness the festival's fruition; the executions and expectations are blossoming as the opening day approaches soon. Limitations will always be there but to find a way out of those limitations is to discover happiness.