Rendezvous with Dhali Al Mamoon


Giorgio: The thing that strikes me about your art work is the prevalence of political references, especially from Western political ideologies of the 70’s. I’m curious to see if you were also influenced by the art movements of the West?

Dhali: There is no way that I can avoid Western influence and there are many reasons for that. For one we cannot escape the colonial history of our country. Even in terms of  art education, the making of art, even the esthetic sense, and political ideas, everything came from the West. From our student days we questioned these things but we could not go beyond that. Probably, this is the problem of every post-colonial country. 

I have been teaching at the university for 26 years, and I have found many problems, for instance nothing is contextual, nothing is space and time related. From the curriculum to the methodology of teaching ,we are just copying the West without questioning. That’s the real problem, which I try to address and solve in my works. I criticize myself and try to go beyond that.

Giorgio: Even thought I am not an expert in Pakistani art, it seems to me that Pakistani artists, despite a similar history of colonisation, are quite good at using their roots as a tool to go ahead. Take for instance the rebirth of miniature painting which was heralded by a small group of artists like Rashid Rana, who used a traditional form to convey a conceptual idea. But maybe that is not the case in Bangladesh?


Dhali: This is an interesting debate. This development in Pakistan is very recent, it happened over the last decade. Before the partition, the art activity was centered in East Pakistan but now I think the Pakistani arts are doing better. The question of influence becomes relevant again at this point. If you look at the people who are making these changes, they are coming from abroad, they are educated abroad and are mostly members of the diaspora. So when they come back, they look at the past and try to address it again with new ideas, creating a new discourse, even though I don’t know what it is. The appreciation of art comes from the West, those that come back bring it with them along  with the consciousness of how the west looks as us… As students we were also preoccupied with the idea of identity and trying to figure out what it really means.

Wakil: From this aspect, I would like to add that the generation of artists who founded the art institute in the 50’s had a different role to play from ours. They spent most of their power and energy to establish the art college, but they did not continue to found a system based on intellectual practice. This is the case in the government academies in Dhaka, Chittagong, and Rajshahi. Some individuals can try to change things, to start something new, but they are faced with the opposition of the power alliance, which does not encourage intellectual discourse. That is one major problem – that institutionally there is no tradition of intellectual exercise.

G: Let me make a big jump. I think in every art scene artists rely greatly on the support of the collectors. I think one of the issues, I don’t want to call it a problem, but it is definitely an issue, is the lack of committed collectors of contemporary art. What is your opinion on that?

D: I do agree with you but the existing paradox is there is a total lack of art professionals – museum directors, collectors, art critics, gallerists, whatever. In the development of contemporary art in the West you can observe the relationship between art and society – you see how it is related to commerce, to commodity, to individualism. What we have here is just the reflection of all of this, and somehow it is not really focused it is blurred. 

G: I think it is a pity because from a very cold and market oriented point of view, Bangladeshi art is still very cheap compared to international standards therefore I am surprised that there is not a small group of collectors that decide to invest, and maybe invest is not a great word, but to build a nucleus of contemporary art which honestly would cost very little.

W: This word ‘collecting’ has just become popular very recently, before it was just on a very individual level. And even our government institutions they never collected with an objective in mind. But a nation has a need to see its past. If we see the collections of the Shilpakala academy or the National Museum, we will not see any contextual historical point of view. This is necessary for our art praxis, for the development of our idea of identity.

In the last 10 – 15 years we see the appearance of a new generation, they are young, they are earning large sums of money and now they are interested in collecting art. But again the question arises, what kind of art? In our student years most of the art was collected by foreigners, embassy people were interested in landscape artists, because they were collecting souvenirs

D: But that is not art collection…

W: That was the situation. Now I see one or two collectors that are becoming clam and quiet and they say ‘ok my house is full’ and what does that mean? Now after 15 years they are becoming a little bit more conscious.

D: What is missing is the understanding of art, in regard to the institutes, the artist, the critics, even art collectors and galleries. We do not consider our art as an art. As a generation we tried, but we failed, to create our own definition. But we are questioning, what is art? What is the role of art?

G: But do you think that also the young artists are asking themselves these questions?

D: I am really frustrated sometimes because I do not get these questions from the younger generation because they are busy looking after their career. I hope some of them are. 
W: Since you are a teacher you see it through your experience. But what I see is that the situation of students has changed very much in the last decade or so. We can not compare it with our time. The questions have also changed. Perhaps it’s a generation problem and we do not understand them. But it is true, that there is a lack of understanding of art. What kind of questions do they have? I do not know, but I am not very optimistic.

D: Maybe because we belong to the same age, and to the same contemporary group and understanding, I agree with Wakil, if you look at my painting, if you go through my whole journey, you can find that there was a search for something. When I was painting, I was trying to incorporate the local tradition, like the cinema banner and rikshaw art. From my point of view and understanding of the language of art, I tried to imix the local flavors with the technique. The same applies to my installations. 

When you are suffering from an identity crisis, it is like a disease, it is a complex. So if you are not free from it, you can not create. It is a burden, when I am looking for identity everything I do is preoccupied with that. But there are so many things in life, art is not only about identity, it is more than that. Maybe for the new generation, because the whole global scenario has changed, this is no longer an issue. You can no longer claim that contemporary art is from the West, because the whole idea has shifted. And in the next 10 -20 years everything will be different.

G: I would like to return to the question of identity. Before coming here I was in Argentina, and that is another country with a huge identity problem. The attitude was similar to that which I found here. Gallerists, artists, collectors, are all isolated and do not communicate with one another. When I went to Brazil, I found a people with a very strong sense of who they are and a completely different attitude. The art community – artists, curators, critics, gallerists, museum directors, are cohesive and work together as an army to move ahead as a whole structure. And that is something I did not find here and I wonder if this has something to do with the lack of understanding of identity and its strengths. 

D: If you look at the art scene as a whole, how people are appreciating, representing, discussing art, you do not see communication. But we have to move forward. As an artist I have to keep asking myself in which direction. Taking in consideration history, genealogy, politics, genes, tradition, it is all very complex. 

G: Can we talk a little bit about the reinterpretation of history,  since the exhibit is based on genocide. What I see happening in Bangladesh, is a fervent nationalism which is negative. Is that something that you worry about?

D: Nationalism is an important element to me. I want to address this issue in a different way in the exhibit. In my recent works, I tried to create a vocabulary though images and objects, because I believe that objects and images have the ability to create a dialogue with the viewers, and through them I try to address this issue.

[Art critic Giorgio Guglielmino and artist  Wakilur Rahman  speak to Dhali Al Mamoon]
October 28, 2012

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