Magic for Change

Lala Rukh Selim

DBJ_04Dilara Begum Jolly’s critique of society seeps through its layers, from the all-encompassing arena of global politics, narrowing down to the national, the tribulations of women, the ravages of war and its impact on humanity and civilization, myth and religion. These layers are collected in formal groups and depicted in the language and symbols that Jolly has gradually refined in her work. She has shown undeniable political concerns from her early works exhibited in a group show of nine artists in 1983. Bangladesh under the shadow of dictatorship, at the mercy of international and national conspiracy, was pictured in her impassioned and forthright paintings. Socio-political reality depicted by her was characterized by an almost expressionistic intensity of emotion. Social commitment has continued to be a primary element of Jolly’s works which has, in time, flowed into a variety of different media.

After the show in 1983, her social commitment was targeted on the plight of women. Her mother was her inspiration who staunchly believed that women could only be emancipated with economic self-reliance. Jolly immersed herself in reading Syed Waliullah, especially Lalshalu (1948), and grasped the connection between religious fundamentalism, patriarchy and women’s place in society. Thus began her research into the politics that has established the oppression and the complex role of women in society.

In the 80s, before the internet made information as accessible as it is today, Jolly was not as conversant with global discourses addressing the issue of whether there is a unique perspective on art, a ‘matriarchal’ aesthetic in contrast to traditional ‘patriarchal’ aesthetics, whether there is a feminist sensibility grounded in women’s relationship to their own bodies. However, she realized that she would have to learn to see with her own eyes and find her own language if she wanted to depict the reality for and of women. She would have to discard the language of the establishment, taught through institutions founded by patriarchal society, considered universal and neutral.


Jolly picks up information and incidents and absorbs them both intellectually and emotionally to achieve a state where the subject is no longer external. The incidents are often collected from media reports of brutality inflicted on women.  She internalizes these narratives and achieves a state of identification with her subject and interprets them in her own language. The language is a mixture of fact and fantasy interjected with symbols that Jolly repeatedly uses. Beginning with Lalshalu in 1985, in 1996 she portrayed the tragedy of Nurjahan, a victim of ‘Fatwa’ who killed herself after she was pronounced guilty of adultery by the village council and publicly stoned. Jolly is drawn into the tragedy of Rumana Manzur, teacher of the Dhaka University, blinded by her husband in 2011 because she wanted to continue her studies abroad against his wishes. Jolly becomes part of the young female garment workers of Tazreen Fashion who were burnt alive in a factory fire in 2012.

In her attempt to find an alternative language and create her own vocabulary and symbols, Jolly turned to the Nakshi Kantha (quilted embroidery made by Bengali women), an art form developed by women with its particular language, symbols and forms. Stitching together layers of used fabric and embroidering their reality, hopes and fears, often using a variety of symbols, Nakshi Kantha presented to Jolly an alternative to ‘patriarchal’ aesthetics. The soft, textured taste of Jolly’s work closely parallels the Kantha.

The politics of reproduction, the glorification of motherhood to compel women to fulfill the reproductive role, drew Jolly’s attention to the embryo. The changed perspective of world politics after 9/11, the violence of the unfair Iraq war and the realization that mothers were the main victims of the war led to Jolly’s obsession with the female reproductive system. The senselessness of bringing new life into a world made unfit for living and women’s lack of choice in the matter prompted her to work on the embryo. The biological function of the female body which continues beyond the control of the mind in an endless cycle of fertility is interpreted with pathos. She presented female reproductive organs, not as in biology textbooks, but as a part of the pattern of fertility of nature, reminiscent of the reproductive organs of flowers in a fluid pattern of organic growth, echoing the form of the Nakshi Kantha. In the Kantha the female reproductive organs are often symbolized as the open lotus and fertility symbols are extensively collected from the vegetal and animal world. In essence, the representation may be thought to be the opposite of the objectification of the female body which we see through most of art history. It is the complex interrelationship of the woman and her internal bodily functions, her relationship with the external world, which is focused in contrast to the external female form. In fact, the forms Jolly creates are soft and organic, and have an almost moist appearance of internal organs, as if all is encompassed internally.


In this exhibition we see Jolly’s work on the garment industry, Tazreen Fashion tragedy, the politics of the garment trade with its predominantly female labor force subject to ‘modern day slavery’ and the hypocrisy of the buyers in the ‘developed’ world, Rumana Manzur and the quiet brutality of domestic violence, oppression of women in the name of religion and many other issues that we face daily. In fact, they are so pervasive that we have become almost desensitized to inhumanity and inconsistency. Jolly’s work cannot be contained in her commitment to speaking for and about women. It grows and unfurls in many directions to point at causes and consequences. She repeatedly addresses imperialism, the destruction of war and the crisis of humanity in the present day. Her work does not stop at representation but, to borrow the words of Heide Goettner-Abendroth, her work (1994) ‘…becomes magic. Magic intrudes into reality by means of symbols and has the effect of changing reality. Ancient matriarchal art tried to influence nature and tried to change it by using magic…; modern matriarchal art attempts to change psychic and social reality using magic (modern magic).’ 

Sources: Heide, G. (1994), Nine Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetics’, in Stephen David Ross (ed.), Art and its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, New York: State University of New York Press, p. 566.
[Lala Rukh Selim is a sculptor and professor of the sculpture department at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Dhaka University, Bangladesh. She is widely renowned for his research work in the field of art, crafts and cultural property.]

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