Amit Kumar Jain
Howard Zinn in the foreword to Michael Shank’s essay titled ‘Redefining the Movement: Art Activism’ defines the role of an artist as transcendent. Zinn (2005) implies that the role of an artist as an activist is ‘to transcend conventional wisdom, to transcend the world of the establishment, to transcend the orthodoxy, to go beyond. It is the job of the artist to transcend that – to think outside the boundaries.’ According to Kapoor (2007), this artist activates the role as a citizen artist due to the social and political scenario that surrounds him/her, and uses artistic mediums to directly confront the nation state or indirectly assist marginalized groups through non-conventional means and capacity building workshops. The art of Mahbubur Rahman is situated somewhere between the two.
According to C-Print (2014), Born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Rahman considers himself as ‘anti-establishment’, as well as ‘anti-self’. Educated in the Academy of Fine Arts in Bangladesh, Rahman charted his own path in a developing nation, bringing to the forefront the bureaucracy and power struggles of a relatively young country. Rahman voiced his anguish against the failure of the nation to recover from a colonial past, from the impact of two traumas – the Partition of 1947 and the Liberation War of 1971 – and from the military rule (1989) in independent Bangladesh. Amidst the growing distance between the wealthy and the poor, Rahman transcended the state run orthodoxy in fine arts to create his own language by the use of his own body. By adopting younger mediums of installation, video, performance, and constantly merging the boundaries of high and low art, Rahman created a platform for like-minded cultural practitioners to align themselves with similar movements in the sub-continent. This essay concerns with Rahman’s performances and his body or the ‘dust’ (as mentioned in the literary work of the Ecclesiastes 12:7 – a book present both in the Torah of the Jews and the Bible of the Christians) as a tool for political and social change in Bangladesh.
Rahman’s frustration with the rapid and unplanned urbanization in Dhaka is seen in Nature Salutation (1997), a spontaneous performance at the Patenga Sea Beach in Chittagong. Using the serene backdrop of the sea, Rahman explored the process of physical and spiritual death that had taken place due to industrialization, forest clearing and mass consumption in Bangladesh and thus, resulted in the slow but sure death of nature. No longer a silent bystander, he represents both the city and nature through his body, which he eventually submerges in the ocean, as an act of releasing the body and soul in the vastness of nature.
In Spell of weeping (2003), Rahman commented upon the bureaucratic academic structure that ran the fine arts department in Chittagong and had resulted in a limbo-like situation which halted the artistic development of the youth for five years. Unable to take a decision on the appointment of new candidates for teaching fine arts in the two institutions in Chittagong, no new students were accepted in the fine art colleges and the ones already enrolled were not allowed to sit for their examination, delaying their graduation by half a decade. Rahman, himself a product of academic orthodoxy, documented the frustration of the young artists through photographs and interviews, which were shown during his performance as cutouts, sound and video. Using a medical drip, he released his own blood on his forehead, summoning his third eye (like Shiva’s) to respond to the massacre of artistic freedom and the right to education.
A performance that foregrounds Rahman’s sensitivity towards the social structure of Bangladesh and its colonial past is based on the poetry of Syed Shamsul Haq. Titled Transformation (2004) the artist used his body to narrate an episode from colonial Bangladesh where rebelling indigo farmers, Nuruldin and his father, were stripped off their belongings including the buffaloes that ploughed their fields. Rahman, wearing a mask made of jute relives the anguish/plight of the farmers as he suffocates and struggles for his right to survival.
Staff correspondent, ‘The art of breaking the mould’, C-Print, July 13, 2014<http://www.c-print.se/archive-old/the-art-of-breaking-the-mould>
Rahman transforms into a half human-half animal creature, which burdened by the politics of the state is unable to move forward or backward. The performance was also a commentary on contemporary social structure in Bangladesh which, according to Rahman, has been stagnant in its growth for many years. In 2014, he re-enacted ‘Transformation’ outside the Bangladesh Parliament. Dressed in the headgear of a buffalo and confined to a cage, Rahman invited a group of artists to collaborate and recite ‘Nuruldiner Sara Jibon’ (a recital on Nuruldin’s life). The performance was done at the same time a fence was erected around the national Parliament for the first time since Independence, and made a direct association with human uprisings during distressed times.
Rahman represents an artist that is aware of his personal, political, social and religious standing. In another performance titled Enjoy the democracy (2004), Rahman commented upon the religious fundamentalism professed by prominent political figures of the time. He, along with three other artists, draped themselves in a costume made from the scarves that is worn mostly with the Palestinian national dress, an accessory favored by religious fundamentalists at that time. The Bangladeshi Government itself was formed from the coalition of four conservative parties and was following policies which were affecting the freedom of expression.
In Artificial reality (2002) Rahman used cowhides to explore the social structure in his country. Drawing a comparison between the victims of gender discrimination and cows that are destined to be slaughtered during Eid, Rahman dressed in clothes of the groom, navigated through his installation, in search of the ‘perfect’ cow that once bought can be subject to social and religious slaughter. A spontaneous performance, Rahman once again used his blood as he enacted a slaughter of the selected cow with a kitchen knife, signifying the domestic violence.
Much more recently, Rahman’s introspective performance titled Rudally (2012), looked at personal memory, identity and morbidity. The performance can be seen as an extension of another work titled Pink roses fall down along with me (2007) where he commented upon gender politics as well as narrated a near death experience while he was in his mother’s womb. Amidst the backdrop of traditional folklore music from Mandi community, Rahman showered with his own blood before cutting his hair. The hair, blood and the rose become the main protagonists in this performance as they transcend the boundaries between gender, death and beauty. By cutting his hair during the performance, Rahman was also letting go a memory of his mother, whose features he could see in his own face. The outburst of tears and the fear of losing a memory placed Rahman beyond the limits of his own political practice.
According to Louw (2001), Rahman’s involvement with art and activism and his commentary on political and social conflicts results from a hunger to search for a genuine Bangladeshi identity in the twenty first century. His search has taken him across mediums, transcending boundaries that were created by orthodox academic institutions and fundamentalist political ideologies. More often than not he has used his body in public spheres, a space, as Habermas has mentioned, that intervenes between the nation state and the public, creating an area for political activism and reforms5. His politically charged sites act as agents of reforms, providing a platform to activate a two-way dialogue between the nation state and its public. From his body to the society and from the society to its government, Rahman’s patient practice surfaces as gentle reminders that change is inevitable; and he will keep trying till his dust settles.
- Zinn, H. (2005). ‘Forward’. Redefining the Movement: Art Activism. Seattle: Journal for Social Justice
- Kapur, G. (2007). Secular Artist, Citizen Artist, Art and Social change: A critical reader. London: Tate Publishing Ltd.
- Staff correspondent, ‘The art of breaking the mould’, C-Print, July 13, 2014<http://www.c-print.se/archive-old/the-art-of-breaking-the-mould>
- Vidya, S. (2009). Maneuvering through fractured lines: The Art of Mahbubur Rahman. Haryana: Devi Art Foundation
- Eric, L. (2001). The Media and Cultural Production, London: Sage Publications
[Amit Kumar Jain is a museum professional based in India who previously served as the Head of Programs at Devi Art Foundation and as the Director-Special Initiatives at the Savara Foundation for the Arts. He recently curated the Colombo Art Biennale (2014) and the Reading Room, an exhibition on altered book art, as a partner project for the Kochi Muziris Biennale (2015). He serves on the advisory board of Colombo Art Biennale and the Nepal Arts Council.]