Sanjoy Chakraborty’s journey with red
Laal Kono Rong Noy ('Red is Not a Colour'), curated by Mustafa Zaman, is displaying the works of artist Sanjoy Chakraborty from July 12 to 25 at Dwip Gallery, Lalmatia. Sanjoy Chakraborty studied History of Art at Rabindra Bharati University, India and has participated in exhibitions across Bangladesh, India, Italy, and Serbia. He is currently an assistant professor at the art history department, University of Dhaka. Star Weekend spoke to him about his intrigue with red and identity politics, and the role art plays in our socio-political landscape.
How and when did you start working on this series?
The exhibition comprises my work from the past 10 years. My instructor at Rabindra Bharati University, the famous artist Partha Pratim Deb, used to tell us that we need to produce work for at least 10 years. Then we can see if we can survive in the art world. I took this on as a challenge. So the pieces displayed in this series were created between 2009, when I completed my Masters, and 2019. Some of them were published at home and abroad separately, but I believe that a compiled display of an artist's work allows one to notice the evolution of their oeuvre.
My intrigue with red has another story. Living in Chittagong, I was forced to experience some of the micro-aggressions that minorities face in our society. I was often called by the derogatory term 'dandi' which, at that young age, really hurt me. But when I was leaving to study in India, I thought I would fit right in in the country of 'dandis'. But there they started calling me "the Bangal". This was shortly after the bomb blast in Bombay in 2008, so many classmates also referred to me in jest as "the terrorist from Bangladesh". Throughout my undergraduate years, my friends in India thought of me as a Muslim simply because I was from Bangladesh. These experiences forced me to think about how borders are established in society and about identity politics in a local, national, and global context. I started rereading the story of our subcontinent, particularly since Partition, as well as the identity politics between blacks and whites in the West, among the Chinese, Korean and Japanese in Asia, the races and castes that try to coexist in India. I realised that languages, cultures, food habits, even the colour of skin can be different among people, but what remains the same is the colour of our blood. Hence, I started painting with red. Until now, almost all of my work has been in red. It tells a story of unity and equality.
I couldn't help but notice this, how interconnected everything is—the human body with the trees, the cityscape, the outline of the country's map, in your pieces. Why this focus on connectivity?
You'll notice that none of the paintings portray the urban landscape in a positive light. It is portrayed as a suffocating space, like a noose around my neck, like a blockage in my veins. This cityscape isn't made to look beautiful in the images—it comprises buildings all crowded and huddled over one another. I've positioned nature in contrast to the city in these images. In two of the portraits, for instance, the cityscape rests on top of my face like a stifling force, and the village landscape rests beneath my face. Through these works, I seek to escape the city life I am forced to live in and the nature that I miss, which crops up in the form of leaves and flowers sprouting out of my body parts.
One of the other pieces titled Art, Politics and Me shows my body parts in fragments. It represents the way the entity is in constant flux every day. We behave a certain way with our friends, another way entirely with our colleagues and clients. We change ourselves randomly, sometimes behaving differently on different occasions with the same person. We live multiple realities each day. Cities are made up of such stories. The series explores this idea of fabricated reality.
What role can art play in bridging this imbalance between nature and the urban landscape?
We tend to seek art and nature in order to escape the suffocation of city life. By art, I mean paintings, music, theatre, literature, all of it. I think the cultural centres and museums in Dhaka offer us some comfort in the absence of natural spaces. We need even more galleries and cultural spaces in which people can spend quality time with art, not just by looking at paintings but by analysing them, by meeting people, engaging in discussions, forming relationships.
To return to the title of your exhibition—'Red is Not a Colour'—how does your work deal with the relationship between colour and identity politics? In a multi-colour image, the selection and placement of each colour is decided by what the image demands. It is often an aesthetic decision.
But in this case, it is the text, the stories I'm trying to tell that demand the presence of red. Red is therefore no longer just a colour. It becomes a narrator of political and social issues. I'm hoping to give the audience a new experience with colour, so they can come to new realisations about identity and socio-political issues, and question their understanding of colour in their dealings with the world.
The title also relies on a premise of rejection, asserting that red is NOT a colour. What ideas or issues, if any, are you trying to resist through these series?
I am intrigued by the social divides that are a legacy of the 1947 partition. Since coming back to Bangladesh in 2009, I was particularly moved by the Shahbagh movement, the trials of the liberation war criminals, the way we lost many writers and artists to religious fundamentalism, and the rape culture that still runs rampant. Directly and indirectly, these issues influence my work.
Can you tell us a bit about the series titled Maneuver and History Must Die, both of which are included in this exhibition?
That was a project on old Dhaka in collaboration with Britto Art Space. History Must Die comprises different streets and buildings of old Dhaka. It explores how we humans create history and yet it is us who forget history. I was interested in the aggression present in that process of forgetting, thus using red (bloody) thumb prints over old buildings or scenes of cultural rallies. They portray the loss of the preservation of cultural heritage, which occurs in correlation with progress and religious fundamentalism.
This brings up the question of who writes history. There's that common saying that history is written by victors. What is art's role in the way that history is recorded?
I slightly resist that saying. The study of history as we know it today came into shape after Modernism, at a time when monarchies were being challenged. The 18th and 19th centuries saw the fall of the kings, be it Henry VIII or Mughal rule. Therefore art, until that period of transition, saw a lot of depiction of royalty. But art since then has continued to portray the middle and lower classes. Now, we study history differently, focusing not just on victors.
However, artists have always depicted all classes of life in addition to the pieces they were commissioned to create by patrons. We have Mona Lisa—not a picture of a king or a queen. Similarly, we have Raphael painting a woman he sees on the street as the Virgin Mary. In our own subcontinent, we have paintings of women in temples, in rural fields, in palkis—all stories of ordinary people. The artist, therefore, has always worked in the subaltern sphere, depicting his/her own story and background.
Why did you choose to work on paper for these series?
I've used both small pieces of paper as well as large scrolls that are hung on the walls of the gallery, because I prefer to use materials produced in the East. I prefer a scroll over a canvas any day. The miniature paper drawings had another specific purpose: I wanted the audience to get close to the paintings and pay attention to their details, as opposed to larger pieces which one tends to glance at from a distance. I wanted this proximity to create a personal connection between the art and the audience.
Finally, what role has art played as a tool of expression, in a place like Bangladesh where the space for freedom of expression is so limited?
A trip to the Liberation War museum can remind us of the ways in which art contributed to the revolution back then. We had the famous poster by Kamrul Hassan saying "Ei janowar der hotta korte hobe." Then we have the Mongol Shobhajatra, which was conceived with the intention of challenging autocracy by combining the voices of the masses on one artistic platform. So art has always been politically vocal in our country. Like every medium-specific platform, it uses its weapons of colour and the paintbrush, and various other media today. Our galleries are playing a role in social development, displaying and changing the state of our conceptual understanding. It is an ongoing process the effects of which will be discernible at a later date.