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Collectives, localities and networks in the emerging contemporary art scenes of Nepal and Bangladesh

Marlène Harles, M.A. (GPTS 6)

Entrance to the Bangladesh Pavilion (Venice Biennale 2011) © Marlène Harles


In my PhD project, I focus on the transcultural relations between the contemporary art fields of Nepal and Bangladesh. My initial research highlights the recent mushrooming of artist-initiated groups and collectives in both countries as transcultural phenomenon that can be compared with and discussed in relation to more established groups in countries like India. I aim at understanding how these collectives shape the local contemporary art scenes. And more precisely, what role do collective effort and collaborative actions play in the development of a new generation of contemporary artists that is able to put a local landscape on a global map?

Compared to their economically emerging neighbors India and China, Bangladesh and Nepal have gained little attention within the contemporary art market and the academic disciplines, including the Anthropology of Art. Both countries have however, over the last couple of years, shown remarkable dynamics as emerging fields of art production. In 2011, the artist group ‘Britto’ secured Bangladesh’s first presence at the Venice Biennale. In collaboration with the Shilpakala Academy (an established national institutions for art in Bangladesh), the Samdani Art Foundation (a new non-profit art institution) organized the country’s first Art Summit in 2012, in response to Delhi’s annual India Art Fair, and translocally connected to the Kathmandu International Art Festival (KIAF). Alongside these ‘international’ events, local artist initiatives increasingly foster exchange within and between national borders through regular artist talks, workshops and residencies, in sometimes intensely intertwined, sometimes disconnected realms.

Kolor Kathmandu Mural at Maitighar, KTM ©Marlène Harles

My project tries to both open up the methodological and theoretical scope of Art and Anthropology and to acknowledge the new, vibrant efforts in an emerging inner-Asian field. In order to achieve my research aim, I focus on five concepts: localities, institutions, events, networks and agents. The latter will constitute the red thread that ties the other concepts together.

Each locality consists of a distinct set of characteristics that influences and is constantly renegotiated by its inhabitants; artists are no exception. In Bangladesh and Nepal, the historical background, and mostly the fight for independence and self-determination are deeply anchored in the everyday life. It is a topic frequently addressed by artist in their work. In fact, the incorporation of socio-cultural issues has become an intrinsic part of contemporary art practice and finds different articulations in each locality; in Nepal for example street art has become a collective tool to claim the city, an attempt to counteract the rapid changing urban landscape.

Institutions play an important role in forming artists and framing their work. Universities deliver degrees that qualify the student to create ‘Fine Art’. Institutions like the National Academy of Fine and Performing Arts (Shilpakala) in Bangladesh and the National Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in Nepal once created to act as public intermediators between the government and the countries’ art scene, but today often criticized for their lack of real support. More and more private initiatives and artist-led groups take up the formation of artists by offering workshops, residencies and platforms for exchange. Exhibition spaces, galleries and museums further frame art within certain categories (contemporary, modern, traditional).

Booth of the Siddharta Art Gallery at the Dhaka Art Summit 2014 ©Marlène Harles

Events (from international festivals to gallery openings and workshops) constitute a place where the global and the local art discourse are negotiated. They illustrate current trends, such as the proliferation of performance art and address critical issues such as the translatability of art and the necessity for ‘visual literacy’ versus the idea of an ‘international language of art’. They further show the importance of digital networks (e.g. facebook) in marketing these events and they indicate processes of urban development, practices of community building and the flow of ideas/objects.

As metaphor and analytical tool, networks offer insights into various levels of exchange. There is a global system connecting galleries, managers, artists, curators, collectors and art writers from different art worlds. There is also a very private network based on daily ‘face-to-face’ interaction and there are formally initiated networks such as SANA, the South Asian Network of Art. Focusing on networks enables me to better grasp ideas of reciprocity, intensity, durability, direction and density between the different nodes of the network in and between Bangladesh and Nepal.


A Transcultural Perspective on Contemporary Art in Bangladesh – Agents, Localities and Networks

The young Bangladeshi nation recently made its appearance in the contemporary art world. While artists from India and China are booming on the global art market, their Bangladeshi neighbours have only started to make themselves noticeable. Artists like Tayeba Begum Lipi and Mahbubur Rahman have long been deploring their country’s missing experience with work on wide-scale platforms, the absence of government policies on funding for art and culture, and the predominance of conventional media known as ‘Fine Arts’. In 2002, they therefore joined forces and created the country’s first artist-run organization for contemporary art: the Britto Arts Trust.

The underlying hypothesis of my thesis is that Britto is a key figure in the new developments in the contemporary, Bangladeshi ‘field of cultural production’ (Bourdieu 1993). The organization is dedicated to foster alternative, critical thinking, experimental approaches to art, and local/international exchange. In such, it sets itself apart from other, earlier established art institutions, such as the Institute of Fine Arts or the Shilpakala Academy.

My research will focus on the Britto Arts Trust, its founders and members, their ‘landscapes’ (Fillitz 2002) and the spaces they create and inhabit. With the help of five basic concepts (agents, institutions, localities, events and networks) and their constant reconnection to Britto, I will analyse the local, global, cultural and transcultural cross-linking established by this new group of artists.

Research on agents for example includes the individual members of Britto, their ‘Selbstverortung’ and their ‘landscapes’. How is this manifested in their works of art? How do they work as a collective? And when does the collective fail to act as one single agent? Intrinsically tied to the agents are the localities they live in and the spaces they create. Dhaka is a huge city, constantly changing its face. Within this seemingly unsettling environment, Britto’s members have created a contemporary art hub - Britto Space - in Dhanmondi. The Dhaka district seems to have become the preferred location of galleries and cultural centres (Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, Dhaka Art Centre,…). What influence does this have on the identity of the Dhanmondi district and its population? What effect on Dhaka urban development and planning? How does it affect the Bangladeshi art world/market?

Britto also reaches out to neighbouring districts (1mile2 in Old Dhaka), Bangladesh’s rural areas (iron casting workshop in Bogra), other South-Asian countries (SANA) and the global art scene (Venice Biennale 2011). Especially in the last two cases, a transcultural perspective will be of great importance. It provides a conceptual frame for the examination and reconfiguration of inner-Asian circuits and processes of cooperation between Britto and international agents. In addition, the metaphor of the network enables me to map the inter-linkage between points (agents, markets, localities) and lines (information and material flows) within the local and global art world. It also uncovers frictions and discontinuities between agents and flows. Multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 1998) is an efficient method to approach and follow information flows and agents acting within the global art world.

The project has linkages to Professor Christiane Brosius’ research carried out in Kathmandu and Delhi, as well as to Martijn de Roij's work on the art scene in Kolkata, India.