Traversing Boundaries: Five Bangladeshi Artists Question the Legacy of Partition

Photo of Thomas Storey
13 November 2015

Bangladeshi art is in the ascendency, with a new generation of artists creating works inspired by the shifting terrain of contemporary Bangladeshi society. Five of these young artists are showcased in the exhibition Barbed Floss, at The Guild in Mumbai, which seeks to question the notion of borders and their relation to the complex history of Indian partition and Bangladeshi identity.

The increasing militarisation of land borders in the Indian subcontinent belies the cultural and social exchange which has always crossed these borders. Fluctuating concepts of culture, ethnicity and society are interwoven with economic and political issues in the discussion of borders, which transform natural landscapes into political battlefields. This is especially true of the border between India and Bangladesh, which was formed in the chaotic fragmentation of the British Raj, and has remained a controversial issue, not least because of the many immigrants who attempt to cross it daily. The divided territory of Bengal, which was once a culturally homogenous entity, is a constant reminder of the forever mutable nature of the boundaries between countries.

These are the issues which Barbed Floss brings to the fore, through the work of five young Bangladeshi artists, all of whom seek to understand the issue of borders and boundaries through the prism of their own experience. They explore what curator Veeranganakumari Solanki calls ‘issues of space, borders, territory, medium, politics and disputed solutions’. As she states, ‘each artist has a strong individual interpretation of issues related to the notion of ‘Barbed Floss’ and they express it through their use of medium and renewed association with their personal experiences, histories and country.’ These five artists are potent examples of the thriving arts scene in Bangladesh, which has developed an international reputation following strong showings at the Venice Biennale.

Tayeba Begum Lipi, From 1.7 million mi² To 55,598 mi², 30X30 diameter (each Piece), Stainless Steel, 2013 | Courtesy the Artist and The Guild

Tayeba Begum Lipi

In Tayeba Begum Lipi’s work From 1.7 million mi² To 55,598 mi², a series of four circular panels are framed in razor blades, suggesting the notions of separation and partition. The subcontinent’s land mass of 1.7 million sq. miles, is dissected into maps of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The artist recalls that ‘when I was a child, I used to hear about those happy days from my parents while the inhabitants from different beliefs and perspectives used to live together happily in one large land.’ Lipi’s four etched maps on polished stainless-steel plates create ‘a scratched and wounded reflection of the subcontinent and its inhabitants, who are survivors or an aftermath of partitions, borders and barbed fences’.

Lipi was born in 1969, and completed her MFA from the Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka. She has exhibited her works widely in Bangladesh as well as internationally in several renowned institutes. Her works are held in the collection of well-known collections internationally, including the Guggenheim Museum. Lipi is a trustee and co-founder of the Britto Arts Trust. She has also curated exhibitions and was the commissioner of the Bangladesh Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. She has participated in many residencies around the world and has also participated and conducted a number of workshops. She currently lives and works in Dhaka.

Mahbubur Rahman, Pocket, 22X22X21, Surgical stainless-steel scissors, 2013 | Courtesy the Artist and The Guild

Mahbubur Rahman

Mahbubur Rahman’s works depict ‘the pressure created by man-made systems of divisions that plug the natural flow of human relationships, communication and understanding’. Rahman states, ‘borders themselves inherently have the quality of unusual movement that negatively impact social understanding amongst harmonious communities and pre-existing neighbourhoods’. Focusing on the suffocation which comes about because of the pressure of borders, Rahman creates sculptures out of stainless-steel scissors redolent of dissection and imprisonment.

Rahman (b. 1969), completed his MFA in Drawing and Painting from the Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka. His works and performances have been widely exhibited in solo exhibitions and group shows in Bangladesh as well as internationally in several renowned museums and institutes; as well as at the Bangladesh pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. His works are held in the collection of well-known collections internationally, including the Fukuoka Museum, Japan. He is a co-founder and trustee of the Britto Arts Trust and has participated and conducted many workshops as well as curated exhibitions. Rahman is one of the curators for the 2014 Dhaka Art Summit. He currently lives and works in Dhaka.

Promotesh Das Pulak, Twin, 30x25x50, acrylic Box, Wooden Table,Towel, Shola flower and Electric machine, 2013 | Courtesy the Artist and The Guild

Promotesh Das Pulak

Promotesh Das Pulak’s installation Twins seeks to link the notion of partition to survival and brotherhood. His twins lie in an incubator, ‘created out of beautiful white shoal flowers, which suggest the betrayal of innocence and beauty. The position of the twins inside the incubator acts as a vulnerable metaphor of sharing food, oxygen and physical attributions. This work alludes to the notion of partition, division and separation in marked territories that once shared similar histories, cultures and identities.’

Promotesh Das Pulak (b.1980) completed his BFA and MFA from the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh. He is a member of the Britto Arts trust and has exhibited his work in several shows in Dhaka as well as internationally. Pulak was also represented at the Bangladesh Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, and has participated in several art workshops. Pulak lives and works in Dhaka.

Molla Sagar, Bichchhedi Gaan (Songs of Estrangement) | Courtesy the Artist and The Guild

Molla Sagar

Borders, the name of politics by Molla Sagar is the story of Bijoy Sircar, a well-known bard of Bengal, who was unable to let go of his affinity towards his land and people. In 1947 – post partition – he decided to stay behind in East Bengal, which later came to be known as Bangladesh, and was one of the many people who suffered a cultural and geographical alienation following partition. Sagar recreates this in his video through a performance of Bijoy Sircar’s ‘Bichchhedi Gaan’ (Songs of Estrangement).

An artist, documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, Molla Sagar (b. 1975) works with the mediums of video, photography and new-media. He has exhibited his works in solo and group shows internationally and his films have been screened at several international festivals and exhibitions. Molla Sagar currently lives and works in Dhaka.

Anisuzzaman Sohel, Leap across time-1, Medium: pen, acrylic and graffiti on paper, Size: 20×30 | Courtesy the Artist and The Guild

Anisuzzaman Sohel

Anisuzzaman Sohel has created a series of mixed media works which include ‘reflections of his own appearance to depict the projection of being a first-hand victim of the partition.’ Describing his works as an ‘interior monologue’, he combines apparent opposites as a means of elucidating the paradoxical position of Bangladesh, at once part of the subcontinent and alienated from it.

Anisuzzaman Sohel (b. 1973) completed his BFA from the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka. His works have been exhibited widely in Dhaka and he has been a part of several group shows internationally, including Britto, Kunstvlaai in Amsterdam (2012). He has participated in several workshops and is currently based and working in Dhaka.

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