#FreeShahidulAlam Banner flies over the Statue of Liberty in NYC, 28 September 2018 (photo by Monir Haidar)

CAIRO — In early August 2018, a wave of peaceful protests broke out in Dhaka. Students organized together through whatsapp and social media, and took to the streets with demands of stricter traffic and safety regulations after the death of two students in July. Only a few days after the protests began, influential Bangladeshi photographer, intellectual, and pedagogue, Shahidul Alam, was arrested from his home for documenting the protests. His continued imprisonment has garnered the attention of international human rights organizations, universities, arts institutions, and influential thinkers and artists from Noam Chomsky to Arundhati Roy, Judith Butler, Anish Kapoor, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Francis Morres, among others.

Shahidul Alam founded the Drik Picture Library in 1989, filling a gap in Dhaka’s artistic landscape, which was dominated by institutions upholding traditional mediums like painting and sculpture. Nine years later, Alam founded Pathshala — literally meaning “school” — a multimedia educational institution that quickly grew to rival the Faculty of Fine Arts in quality. The Drik Picture Library and Pathshala are two ambitious, radical institutions that have irreversibly changed the trajectory of the Dhaka culture scene, which has always been a contested arena.

Alam’s wrongful imprisonment is only one fraction of the rampant governmental and infrastructural problems challenging artists, writers, and institutions in Dhaka. At a #FreeShahidulAlam demonstration in New York on September 28th, Gayatri Spivak said: “What is really important for the state is that if one silences creative artists and intellectuals, then the conscience of the state is killed… it’s not just freedom of speech, it’s the freedom of speech of a very particular person who is a global person from this community of artists and intellectuals.”

SM Sultan, “After the Flood” (1986), (image courtesy WikiArt)

This “particular person,” which Spivak indicates to be a writer, artist, intellectual, thinker, has long suffered a perilous fate in Bangladesh. For instance, Ebadur Rahman, cultural theorist, filmmaker, curator, and novelist, has been directly involved in the Dhaka artistic landscape since the 1990s. He indicates that this fate is historically embedded. He says “The radical art movements of South Asia and especially in Bengal have their roots not so much in fine art collages but in merging of life and radical ways. Ideas began percolating after the 1955 Bandung conference in Indonesia that focused on building economic alliances across Africa and Asia. This formed the backdrop for Non-Alignment Movements, the grassroot Tebhaga peasants revolution, the Red Mullah Bhashani Kagmari movements, and the political changes that followed.”  Dhaka has been, through tumultuous periods, a hotbed  for radical thought and artistic expression. Despite the various infrastructural and political obstacles to cultural production, this remains the case.


Founded on the heels of Partition, originally called the Dhaka Fine Arts School, the Faculty of Fine Arts in Dhaka was founded by painter Zainul Abedin in 1948. Abedin is considered by some to be the father of the Bangladeshi Arts scene, and the institution has grown to be a bulwark of traditional practice, inextricably linked with the government, dictating the parameters of artistic production. Despite Bangladeshi liberation in 1971, and tempestuous political events throughout the 80s and 90s, the art school curriculum has remained unchanged since its founding.

Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, “The Soul Who Fails to Fly into the Space“ (2018), (photo courtesy of the artist)

To put it into perspective, at the time that Alam’s Pathshala multimedia institute was propagating new mediums and experimenting with pedagogical approaches, graphic design students in the Fine Arts College were producing fonts and posters by hand. Artist Ebadur Rahman expands, “Not only outdated, our government subsidized art colleges are stumbling blocks towards any kind of artistic success. Not because they are antiquated, which they are, but due to the disconnection and the closed colonial mentality they perpetuate among students.”

Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, “All Revolutions are not Transparent” (2017), (image courtesy of the artist)

Bangladesh’s first real gallery, The Bengal Shilpalaya, emerged in the mid 1980s, and the scarcity of independent arts institutions persists today. Rahman expresses that “Bangladesh never had the economy or the infrastructure to sustain an art scene in the Western sense of the word.”

Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, “Detail, All Revolutions are not Transparent” (2017), (image courtesy of the artist)

Contemporary artists exhibiting a dissatisfaction with the “boring” modernist and Western arts education system perpetuated by the Faculty of Fine Arts turned instead to historically radical figures like SM Sultan and Novera Ahmed. Novera Ahmed, whose anthropomorphic sculptures were influenced by figures like Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein, was rejected by Dhaka’s art crowd, and she lived most of her life in exile in Europe. SM Sultan was also shunned by the Fine Arts College. Famous for his focus on agricultural and spiritual themes, SM Sultan’s depictions of peasants and farmers (men and women) with large muscles was seen as a break from the Western traditional modernist forms of soft palettes and undulating curves, as he portrayed subjects he deemed to be truly Bangladeshi. Rahman says “Sultan was something else altogether…It’s almost impossible to locate his scopic innovation without placing him in a discursive field which he himself erased.”

Arguably, another influence was a notable radical group that emerged in the 1980s: the Shomoy (Time) Group, whose members included artists such as Shishir Bhattacharjee, Dhali Al Mamoon, Dilara Begum Jolly, and Nisar Hossain. Rahman says, “Some of the artists of the Shomoy group are good interpreters of what Hal Foster called the neo-European avant-garde. But, the problem is, they treat art as an artisanal skill set; due to their intellectual shortcomings and lack of education they never figured out the sensuous political knowledge economy of arts.”  The Shomoy Group also broke away from the modernist tradition and shifted, if only slightly, to the discursive field and language of Bengali artistic practices.

SM Sultan, “Farmers in Confrontation“ (1986), (image courtesy WikiArt)

Rahman is very conscious of the elisions common in Dhaka’s story of art: “The new art scene that emerged in 1990’s in Dhaka, had almost no influence from [people like SM Sultan and Novera Ahmed], but, these people were important as symbols, as talismans to put up against institutional hegemony and stupidity until we developed our discourse and new voice.”

Though not directly linked to the visual arts scene, Shahidul Alam’s contributions onto the Bangladeshi cultural landscape undoubtedly also paved the way for new discursive interventions. In a 2006 interview with artist Naeem Mohaiemen in Bidoun Magazine, Shahidul Alam stated that upon returning to Bangladesh, he noted that “The biggest need was to change the way majority-world countries were portrayed.”

The Drik Picture Library and later Pathshala provided institutional support and educational opportunities for those interested in exploring alternative mediums (like photography and video) and new subject matters. Though these photography institutions were initially peripheral to the arts scene in Dhaka, they now intermingle and exist symbiotically. Rahman says, “now the scene is more open and old walls are coming down due to economic telos and interests: both artists and photographers earn their bread in the advertising industry, and their paths cross often, and they have to share resources in order to survive.”

Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, “War of Images” (2016), (image courtesy of the artist)


After attending the Fine Arts College, disgruntled with the state of arts institutions and limited resources in Dhaka, artists Marzia Farhana and Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury (winner of the 2018 Samdani Art Award) began convening with another artist couple at a tea stall in the neighborhood of Shahbag, which has been home to Bangladeshi radical thinkers for decades. Eventually, the friends took a two room apartment, and formed a live-in collective. Though they began in 2008, they didn’t take a name until 2011, when they first exhibited as a collective; the curator of the exhibition called them Young Dhaka, and the name stuck.  

Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, “War of Images” (2016), (image courtesy of the artist)

Chowdhury says, “All rooms were [an] open studio, so we [would] invite all our friends who are interested in art practices or alternative art practices, or anything. We had no furniture, just art. Producing a lot, a lot, and just storing it. Interesting things were happening.” Farhana adds, “In one show, for one exhibition, we submitted our bed. We are seven artists and we sent our seven beds.” The collective grew quickly, encompassing generations of dissatisfied art school graduates, who all share a desire for alternative artistic practices. “We did not like ‘political art’ that some people were doing in the street — it was too straightforward. We wanted to find something smarter,  an intellectual practice.” Farhana adds, “The number of relationships increased, two other couples came, and others, five and ten years younger came. Some musicians joined, and then in 2012, Ebadur Rahman found this group of people.”

Rahman first approached the collective in 2012 for the Dhaka Arts Summit as the first curator of the Samdani Foundation, he encouraged the collective to stay in Dhaka (one of the tenets of the collective was their shared aspiration of studying abroad). Chowdhury says, “He said why would you go abroad, no —  you’re running in parallel to the international art world.” Rahman left the Samdani Foundation in 2012, before the opening of the inaugural Dhaka Arts Summit. His proposed show was meant to include the collective, but this did not come to fruition.

Marzia Farhana, “Equilibrium Project” (2018), (image courtesy of the artist)

Rahman discussed his split with what is currently Bangladesh’s largest and most dominant independent arts institution, the Samdani Arts Foundation, which opened in 2011. It was founded by Rajeeb Samdani, businessman and entrepreneur, and his wife, art collector Nadia Samdani, who had a vision to “expand the audience engaging with contemporary art across Bangladesh and increase international exposure for the country’s artists and architects.” Rahman adds,“The only thing the Samdani/Dhaka Art Summit did was destroy the opportunity of Bangladeshi art to become part of the world knowledge economy.”

Marzia Farhana, “Equilibrium Project” (2018), (image courtesy of the artist)

Soon after Rahman left the Samdani Arts Foundation, then later the Bengal Arts Foundation — both due to ideological differences — the collective, Young Dhaka, suffered internal rifts and broke apart. Still, Chowdhury and Farhana’s work carries the ethos of the collective. Chowdhury’s work lies somewhere between installation and assemblage, with works entitled “The Soul Who Fails to Fly into the Space,”  “All Revolutions are not Transparent,” and the “War of Images,” addressing topics from transcendental freedom to global widespread fascism, criticizing capitalism, and disrupting popular Western aesthetics. Chowdhury’s work offers criticism in the form of a resting pulse, bringing together images, videos, and objects that, together, result in an uncanny and poignant escape.

Rahman discusses the obstacles present to independent artists today, especially those whose works beg to be read outside of the frameworks of comparison that always contain and bind artists to certain national, ideological, and aesthetic stereotypes. Rahman says, “The biggest obstacles, in my view, is the disparity of knowledge … Bangladeshi art is a living organism networked with our lived and living bodies. The notions of “free speech” or “democracy” are foreign to our bodies and the lack of which are inconsequential to the lives we live, in the truest sense.”

Farhana offers another perspective on the difficulties present in Dhaka vis-à-vis the global art world: “It’s difficult to get the funds … International curators want Bangladeshi content, they don’t want a female hijabi talking about Joseph Beuys. I live in the internet age, and I was brought up in the internet and movie age. They think that I live in Bangladesh, and I don’t know what movies and internet are.” Farhana’s work is inextricably centered around social engagement practices. Her entry into the 2018 Dhaka Art Summit was entitled “Equilibrium Project,” where she brought in school kids from the Government Primary school in Dhaka to conjure “the empathy lost in a violent world” through material crafts and building. Farhana’s work draws inspiration from SM Sultan’s focus on the educational aspect of art, looking to what is “beautiful” among children living in areas of social, cultural, and financial deprivation.

Marzia Farhana, “Apocalypse and a Garbage Land” (2017), influenced by Kabakov “A Man who Never Threw Anything Away” (image courtesy of the artist)

Farhana’s work entitled “Act of Resistance: Betrayal and Visceral,” which will be shown later this year at the MACBA, addresses the false hopes or dreams given to the collective consciousness by corrupt, capitalistic cronies.

Marzia Farhana, “Act of Resistance, Betrayal and Visceral” (2016), (image courtesy of the artist)

Ebadur Rahman is highly critical of the facile nature of institutions, particularly those who aim to “put Bangladesh on the map.” Now independent of any institutional affiliation, Rahman says, “It was never my intention to market or put Bangladeshi art on the map. The map is a colonial project. We would be defined and ruled within the map by the terms and tools that cannot accommodate our reality. I wanted to flip the script…” And, yet, arts institutions in Dhaka remain in the nascent stages, and it proves difficult to reconcile the plethora of needs facing Bangladesh’s artistic communities. The institutions present on the Dhaka “scene” today seem caught between the onus of “putting Bangladesh on the map” and, in Rahman’s words, “the delusion that Bangladesh is the center of the world.”

Marzia Farhana, “Act of Resistance, Betrayal and Visceral” (2016), (image courtesy of the artist)

Nevertheless, institutional actors in Dhaka continue to grow. The Samdani Art Foundation announced the next permanent art space in Bangladesh, set to open in late 2018. The Srihatta – Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park” will open in the rural tea district of Sylhet, the first of its kind. Their statement reads: “As with all Samdani Art Foundation activities, entry to Srihatta will be free, in an attempt to make art widely accessible to diverse audiences.”

For those lucky enough to encounter the works being produced in Dhaka today, they will see that despite formal educational stagnancies, institutional scarcity, and political obstacles, artists in Dhaka continue to offer alternatives to global failures. Nevertheless, perhaps Rahman’s unapologetic conviction rings true: “I was and am very aware that the fragile and naive ecology of truly innovative Bangladeshi art is not ready to meet the world head on.”

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