PRINT April 2018



Mahbubur Rahman, Transformation, 2004–. Performance view, Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 5, 2018. Photo: Tanvir Murad Topu.

ON FEBRUARY 5, 2018, a half man, half bull riding a black-and-white horse made a grand entrance into the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s premier fine-arts institution. Wearing curved horns attached to a woven rope net that covered his torso, the imposing beast sat on his steed, which was draped with a red caparison, and surveyed the area. Although a strange sight for pedestrians, the bull-man cut a familiar figure for members of the art community, who know him as a recurring character in the work of artist Mahbubur Rahman. Pointedly, he led the charge that evening into an institution where performance art is still not on the curriculum. The event was part of Rahman’s curatorial project “ShohorNama,” the Dhaka edition of the six-city Asian art festival Topography of Mirror Cities.

That same day, artist Yasmin Jahan Nupur performed as part of the fourth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, a biennial of exhibitions and symposia focusing on art from South Asia. In Enej (Dance), 2016, Nupur confined herself to minimal gestures, moving her hands slowly up, down, and sideways to frame her face. Her dance starkly contrasted with that of the Santal community, who presented a traditional routine propelled by energetic jumps and kicks. Together, they evoked the history of the fight to create Bangladesh around a shared linguistic identity, a nationalism that has increasingly excluded indigenous groups like the Santals.

Although it was only coincidence that Rahman and Nupur showed works on the same day, their parallel appearances affirmed Bangladesh’s place within the growing constellation of performance-art communities throughout South Asia. These artists represent a history of the scene, which has flourished in no small part because of an artist-led movement that has supported and nurtured this medium as a creative form of political protest.

Rahman has been at the forefront of new media and performance art in Bangladesh since completing his MFA in painting and drawing at the University of Dhaka in 1993. Although his use of materials has always been wide-ranging, his subject matter has remained consistent with his desire to draw attention to marginalized figures, and to uncover the roots of their oppression. In Rahman’s practice, the artist is cast as a citizen who strives to highlight the problems of the society in which he lives. This has meant that his performances often take on urgent issues in Bangladesh, such as the violent persecution of minorities since the liberation war of 1971, governmental corruption, and environmental degradation. Rahman’s bull-man belongs to his ongoing Transformation project, 2004–, for which the artist appears on beaches, in galleries, or around the city, usually enacting the suffering of this mutant animal. The figure is taken from Bangladeshi writer Syed Shamsul Haq’s 1982 play Nuruldiner Sara Jibon (The Entire Life of Nurul Din), about an indigo farmer who leads a rebellion against the British. The Transformation performances protest the subjugation of the underclass, drawing from histories of hardship—whether the colonial period in which the play takes place, the time of the military occupation during which the play was written, or even the current period of democracy, which has not lived up to its promises.

These artists represent a history of performance art in Bangladesh as a creative form of political protest.

Rahman has been a critical player in the evolution of Bangladeshi performance, as a maker but also as a curator and instructor with the Britto Arts Trust, an artist-run organization he cofounded in 2002 with Shishir Bhattacharjee, Tayeba Begum Lipi, Salahuddin Khan Srabon, Imran Hossain Piplu, and Kabir Ahmed Masum Chisty. Artist-led workshops organized by Britto as well as by other alternative spaces have long been the only means by which Bangladeshi artists can study and learn performance. In 2004, Rahman conducted a workshop with French artist Awena Cozannet near the city of Chittagong; among the twenty participants was Nupur. Inspired by discussions about the use of the body as material, she changed the course of her practice. “When I performed, I felt I could connect with the audience with my actions and gestures,” recalled Nupur in an interview in 2017. She has since used it as a tool of protest and dissent with which to confront ritual traditions, and to explore the body itself.

Over the years, Britto’s workshops and the adoption of this model by other artist groups spawned festivals and artist-organized events, including Porapara Space for Artists’International Performance Art Festival, Back ART Foundation’s Dhaka Live Art Biennale, and Jog Alternative Art Space’s public art festival at Cheragi Pahar. In 2017 the Bengal Foundation hosted “ephemeral: perennial,” an exhibition of performance art, curated by Rahman and Bengal’s Tanzim Wahab, which focused less on live presentations and more on the importance of documentation and its widespread lack. The event provided an opportunity for the performance community to pause and consider the necessity of the archive as a way of preserving its own history as the pace of activity quickens and a new generation of artists enters the field—an archive that will help that community claim its rightful place in histories of art, now and in the future.

Zeenat Nagree is a writer based in Mumbai.