It all starts with contact with light. The process, as we know, requires light to seep into the lens in which the moment captured already exists. The exposure causes that moment to transform into a discernible photograph, an image with a story. The purpose behind Chobi Mela is intriguingly similar: to signify moments that have existed and continue to exist around the world, to process them through planning and curation for an audience, and thereby to include them into a narrative, into history, through 'exposure'.
This intent for exposure was first born, and cancelled, in 1995. After six years of planning, the year 2000 finally saw Chobi Mela I, the first international photography festival of Asia jointly organised by Drik Gallery and the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. The goal in this first installation really had been to expose, i.e. to bring to people's attention, the neglected and less glamorous parts of the Bangladeshi Liberation War. Hence the title of the main exhibition, “The War We Forgot”, which displayed the works of Don McCullin, Rashid Talukder, David Burnett, Raghu Rai, and many others under the unifying theme of 'Differences Unframed'.
20 years and 10 installations later, Chobi Mela has grown into what The New York Times this year called “one of the premier photo events of the year”, gaining a reputation for being syncretic and for engaging in dialogue with the power structures prevailing in society. “It is about the cross-cutting theme of social justice, and thinking about how a country should run on the basis of education, law, and culture. It is about subverting the exclusivity that alienates photography into a separate niche, and therefore including all kinds of artists into the conversation,” explains Shahidul Alam, eminent photojournalist and Director of the festival.
But it's neither simply the size nor the celebrity status it enjoys as an event, that makes Chobi Mela an interesting player in Bangladesh's socio-cultural landscape. Chobi Mela is worthy of discussion because of the way it curates and displays history through various visual media and, in the process, adds to history as it is written and remembered. It thus adds to the conversation about what history is, who gets to shape it, and the role that photography can play in it.
Alam confirms how the event has expanded in scope over the years to tackle exactly these questions. “The topics of discussion weren't as diverse when we first started out,” he recalls. “But we have sought to stretch out on both a technical and cerebral level. In terms of technology used, we've adapted video streaming for those who can't make it to the event (Noam Chomsky once live streamed in), and added more interdisciplinary displays in the exhibitions. In terms of analysis, we've sought to educate people that the visual arts are about more than just taking pictures, with the help of curators, critics, agents, photographers, historians, and writers all talking about their work. We've invited these people to speak about the politics of archiving, about what is and isn't given significance, about the value chain of producing art. Through these discussions, we've tried to create a space in which freedom of thought and expression can be exercised, most significantly in a South Asian dialogue.”
“IS THERE A PLACE IN YOUR HEART FOR ME?”
Over the years, the biennale's themes ('Exclusion' in 2002, 'Resistance' in 2004, 'Freedom' in 2009…'Intimacy' in 2015 and so on) have been coloured by the underlying premise of inclusivity. This year was no different. Reflecting on this year's theme 'Place', Shahidul Alam's poem for the event depicts an 'I' who searches for a home in sand, in soil, in oceans, forests, and skies all wrought by war and cruelty. The verse draws a distinction between a collective 'I'—those perishing on boats, the persecuted and the ostracised—and a 'you' that possesses the power to wreak wars and reject differences of caste, creed, gender, religion. It ends with 'I' reminding 'you' that the same red blood runs in them all, and asks 'you' if that doesn't grant them a place in their heart. Who is this addressed 'you', I asked Shahidul Alam. And is Chobi Mela, then, about inspiring empathy?
“We're challenging power structures and the word 'exclusion',” he responds. “Empathy merely helps that process. In this world divided by the sense of the 'other', we, the citizens, have become marginalised by state terrorism and other social issues. This year's theme tries to bring those citizens back into the center and remind others about their place in society. We're addressing all that is external to that conceptual 'place', which can be a person, a thought, a location. By addressing 'you', we're asking 'you' to question themselves.”
THE AGENCY OF CITIZENS
This act of placing citizens in the center was indeed reflected in many of the exhibitions this year.
Like past installations, a mobile exhibition of the photographs made its way on rickshaw vans across the city, traversing through the masses and reaching even remote corners of Dhaka where literacy is limited. On March 3 at the Goethe Institute in Dhanmondi, a visual history of small-town studio photography in Bangladesh, titled “Celebrating Mofussil Photographers of Bangladesh” was presented by the festival director. The photographers featured have had to struggle to preserve their cameras. It would have been more financially viable for them to sell the negatives to shopkeepers, who extract silver from them for sale. Yet they held on to their work. Their display at Chobi Mela this year brought their expertise and their act of preservation to the limelight for enthusiasts to see, and it allowed us, the audience, to educate ourselves about their practices.
Meanwhile, Taslima Akhter's 'Memorial Quilts', as part of the “Archives of Persistence” series, displayed quilts, sarees, gamchas, and handkerchiefs hand-stitched with messages about the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. They reflect the multiplicity of the victims' backgrounds—"Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim. My Akhi left me on April 24, and never returned”, “Hare Krishno Hare Ram, he left us on April 24, we are very sad without him”. They also allow their families to actively engage in the cry for justice--“Want punishment for Sohel Rana and other culprits”, “We demand changes to the compensation laws”, “We don't want another Rana Plaza”. Inspired by artist Robin Bergson's memorial quilt made for the centennial of the Triangle Sweater Fire in New York, the project was put together by the Bangladesh Garment Workers' Solidarity organisation and family members of the Rana Plaza victims.
“They chose their own fabrics and personal effects to stitch on,” Taslima Akhter, the curator for the exhibition, shares. “The memories and emotions attached to kathas in our country was a big element of the project. Moreover, since most of the people stitching the slogans were of the working class, with limited levels of literacy, the writing had many spelling and grammatical errors. We made it a point not to correct them and to keep the emotions behind the text intact.”
As an artist, a sense of responsibility towards the subject in such projects is crucial. Speaking about her exhibition “Files of the Disappeared”, Ashfika Rahman shares, “We need to be sensitive and thoughtful about outcomes. Each of the protagonists in my exhibition [on victims of enforced disappearances] went through PTSD tests to find out about their depression, anxiety, fear. Eventually they started speaking about their experience, which was a meditative/healing process. Professional psychological counsellors, especially Anne Anthonia Baroi, helped me to talk to my protagonists about their pain in a sensitive way. As a result, for the first time, they wrote about their feelings on their own photographs.”
Through such exhibitions, introducing these subjects to the public eye as 'protagonists' is a valuable act of handing them agency. From 'victims'—passive recipients of injustice—they become an advocate, a champion of their circumstances.
In each of these exhibitions, therefore, regular people were given the access to see the exhibitions on the move, or to present their own work, their own voice and memories. It accords the materials displayed the authenticity of a lived experience. The history presented becomes not one of glory, of wars and political victories, but one of the ordinary people. More importantly, it allows those grassroots people—the mofussil photographers, the Memorial Quilt stitchers, even the rickshaw-pullers driving the mobile exhibitions, to actively shape history as it is presented through Chobi Mela. They become a part of what Alam calls a “transformation of our collective memories.”
WHAT GOES ON BACKSTAGE
First, Chobi Mela issues a call for submissions online, which somewhat shapes the character of the event to follow. The curators then analyse what is missing from the material submitted, what requires more emphasis. The content is selected irrespective of the artist's identity, so it can come from a local newspaper from Santiago, Chile or from a cover shot of Magnum.
“The focus this year was on the way people the world over are being displaced,” explains ASM Rezaur Rahman, one of the curators of Chobi Mela X. “We also made sure to choose Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas' works on Nicaragua and other similar fine art films, which the people of Bangladesh would have had to pay to go see abroad. Providing access was a key objective.”
Rahman elaborates on how they incorporated the theme into the very design of the event, using 'place' as a physical space and a state of mind. Artists and curators were asked how they could interpret the theme in their own ways. Zihan Karim, a lecturer at the Fine Arts department of Chittagong University, was commissioned to curate the works of 13 artists at Drik's under-construction site in Panthapath. “The exhibition comprises a moving image which is also a still image. The goal was to show how artists of other medium use photography,” Rahman explains.
The curator also sheds light on the presentation of the exhibitions--an amalgamation of the artist's emotions and the artist-curator's strategy to shape the audience's perception of the artwork. “The artists get a lot of freedom in terms of presentation,” says Rahman. “Jan Banning's “Red Utopia”, for instance, is a very classical exhibition on the faces of communism in five countries. The pictures speak for themselves. But we left one wall red. Immediately upon entering the room, you feel like you've entered a 'red era', an era of leftism and communism. So not only the photographs but also the entire space of the exhibition communicates with the audience from a distance.”
A decision was made also to signify places that held individual, not just universal, value, thus making archives out of personal, local, and national images. So, you have Moushumi Bhowmik recording folk culture through her travels across Bengal, Rana Plaza victims' relatives displaying their personal belongings, Issa Touma capturing Syrian civil war from his window in Aleppo, and Ashfika Rahman presenting the physical and psychological aftermath of enforced disappearances.
Chobimela, beyond the walls of galleries
For art enthusiasts, CM provides a platform for communication, collaboration, and learning. Ashfika Rahman explains how, “It allows enthusiasts to exchange ideas with international experts. The festival is a place where knowledge and experience can lead a photographer to dream, experiment and step forward.”
But the very name of the event, 'mela' is, foremost, a celebration. It's a medley of trades and tastes, of artists inviting audiences to enjoy their creations. By starting off with a celebratory rally, by travelling and holding discussions of ideas across the city, Chobi Mela this year managed to stretch the definitions of space. While artists and audiences from the world over flocked to the city to attend the festival on the one hand, the city itself rearranged to host them on the other. The biggest example of this arose when hordes of audiences followed the updates on Arundhati Roy's talk “Utmost Everything”, switching from one location to another, from physical spaces to Facebook live, and by staying put at the changed venue when the session seemed near impossible to execute. Such movements, both physical and rhetoric, serve as acts of defiance when they are most needed. The event itself may try to present history, yes, but by hosting acts of resilience, of support for thought and culture, it also becomes mobile archive of history as it unfolds.