mary angela schroth


Title: Bangledesh: Parables

Artists: Tayeba Begum Lipi, Promotesh Das Pulak, Imran Hossain Piplu, Kabir Ahmed Masum Chisty, Mahbubur Rahman

Curator: Mary Angela Schroth

Venue: Gervasuti Foundation

Parables: Limbo

Rather than illustrating a prescriptive subtext related to a spiritual dimension, a moral attitude or a religious principle, the theme ‘parables’ within the Bangladesh Pavilion is used to sketch a scene. The Biennale blurb advertises it as a ‘bridge between two cultures and contexts that unite for the duration of the fair’. The show’s co-curator, Bangladesh Tanim describes it as: “based on the theme that is said to be emblematic of our times, exemplified by the limbo of purgatory – that suspended existence that is neither heaven nor hell. The project is thus called ‘Parables’.”

This is Bangladesh’s first entry into the Biennale, and as one would expect from a formerly silenced country now given a voice - it shouts loud. Imran Hossain Piplu presents a series of images of guns. They are excavated and documented like fossils, as though war, fighting and violence are engrained deep into the country’s history and anthropology. Promotesh Das Pulak’s photography does little to dispel this notion. Presenting a series of historical photographs of men clutching the weapons, they become a dominant image in the Gervasuti Foundation’s three-storey townhouse where ‘Parables’ is exhibited.

Where masculinity is suggestively entwined with the guns too, Tayeba Begum Lipi sheds light on the destructive myths that shape what it is to be female. Metal bras hang on wires in one sculptural work; they are repetitive and scythe like. These crude shells are designed to hold the breasts that define the persecuted gender. In another piece, Lipi dresses up as both a man and a woman. She sits in a double screen projection, anticipating the vows for a marriage, which from the anxious and nervous expression on her female character’s face, has clearly been arranged. Lipi is as convincing in her role as a man as she is in her ‘natural’ state. The projection suggests that these gender constructs, which oppress and subordinate women, are fictional constructions.

The freedom with which these powerful political statements are made and the sophisticated artistry that articulates them is what forces this exhibit from a perceived hell, into a state of limbo. Although it is from the comfortable confines of the Biennale we may empathise, or even judge the terrible situation of Bangladesh depicted by these artists - problems that feel so remote from the luxuries of the fair and the relatively peaceful city of Venice - we must also question who it is that has prevented their presence and voice here beforehand?

Exhibiting artist Hashem Khan Bengal claimed, “It is extremely expensive to participate in the Venice Biennale and when Bangladesh’s wish to participation was fading, it was lit up by the patronage, collaboration and support from the Embassy of Bangladesh in Italy, the Italian Embassy in Bangladesh, Bengal Foundation, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bangladesh.” A portion of the funding was also to be generated from the sale of paintings during the exhibition, called ‘The Venetian Window of Bangladesh’.

The distillation of a powerful social and political critique into commodities, sold on to private collections where they become empty signifiers for monetary rather than critical exchange must force us to question the type of culture Venice withholds too. The high price the Biennale demands for countries to participate enacts a kind of censorship, which discredits the fair’s claim to showcase a truly global selection of works. Artistic greatness has never hinged on wealth.

Bangladesh’s presence in the Biennale is valuable to the point of necessity.  The Bangladeshi voices in Venice are subversive and have the potential to actively move their country closer to change. What we can hope from this state of limbo, is that on the other side this change will happen and that the strict application process of the fair, will become overturned for a more socially responsible selection process. With such re-analysis comes what should be the Biennale’s main priority, greater art.

Rachael Cloughton


Title: Iraq: Wounded Waters

Artists: Adel Abidin, Al Karim, Ahmed Alsoudani, Ali Assaf, Azad Nanakeli, Walid Siti

Curator: Mary Angela Schroth

Venue: Gervasuti Foundation

Rijin Sahakian is the Founding Director of Echo, a non-profit organization whose mission is to support the generation, presentation and preservation of contemporary art in Iraq. Echo is the organiser of an adjunct programming in the Iraq Pavilion at the 54th International Venice Biennale.  


The organisation’s contribution includes a commissioned a film, ‘Tigris (and other bodies of work)’ directed by Oday Rasheed, which intimately captures the lives of three artists working within the country and a panel discussion entitled ‘A Fluid Resilience.’ The absence of water in Iraq is the central theme to the country’s Pavilion and is described as a greater threat to the Iraqi people than civil war or terrorism. Through Echo, the Biennale becomes a stage to explore artistic and scientific practices as a means of social resilience and sustainable regeneration. 


Rachael Cloughton speaks to Rijin Sahakian about Echo’s role in the Venice Biennale and its aims for the future. 


RC: Echo places much emphasis on art being a means of reconnection with the rest of the world for the Iraqi people. If Echo is attempting to re-establish bonds broken through war, how ethically responsible are those who broke these bonds, to support the project?


RS: Well, I think that the connection with the rest of the world is more about breaking the isolation that Iraqi artists inside of Iraq have had because of a number of events, from the previous regime to sanctions to travel bans and the restrictions implicit and associated with conflict. Also, of course the difficulties of participating in events, exhibitions, and exchange in general when one is living under major upheaval and violence. 


I don’t know if it is necessarily a good idea to start assigning blame to certain parties because it is easy enough to find no beginning or end to that line of investigation. Even if the issues were that black and white, I don’t quite see how those responsible for the kind of destruction seen in Iraq to be the most appropriate avenues of support. Those collaborations are likely not so useful for an independent arts organization. I can see how those who care about and value creative practice, regardless of where they are in the world, would be important allies and supporters, as there would be a shared interest in the values and mission of the work taking place, and perhaps a recognition of the importance of support in light of the circumstances. 

RC: Echo claims to have a program stemming from the ‘urgent need expressed by Iraqi students and artists for high level contemporary education.’ Can you tell me what provisions are currently in place for visual artists in Iraq?


RS: Unfortunately, not many. There is little to no government funding for artists or artistic work, no arts councils or other organizations to provide funding or advocacy. The modern museum of art is still in disarray. Art students do not have access to the libraries, resources, or tools necessary to properly train in or create new work. Today, there is virtually no support for visual artists in Iraq. And yet, they are finding ways to organize and move their work forward on their own as best they can. That was the driving force behind the idea of Echo. It is an organization that would advocate and facilitate support for this important work. 

RC: In Autumn 2011, Echo will launch its learning programme. How did Echo devise this? In many ways it mirrors an institutional education but it is not degree granting or accredited. What learning structures or experiences of art did you take inspiration from to create the format? Is this format a long or short-term arrangement? And do you envisage it changing over time if its initial aims are fulfilled?


RS: Our learning program is still very much in development. The initial workshops are a pilot program, and we hope the students, and those of us involved with the project, will learn from the process and further develop the program from the initial 8-month workshop series (as well as our continued research). This came from a desire to provide a contemporary arts education to students, who are not able to take these courses in Iraq currently. It is also a way for established artists from Iraq and the Middle East to connect and share their work with these students. We wanted to provide entry points that made sense. 


The teaching artists all speak Arabic and are from the region and each have substantial practices of their own to engage students and to teach from. In a sense its not only connecting students with what we hope will be a significant learning opportunity but also connecting them with the possibilities of arts practices and exchange as experienced directly with artists working in various points around the world. 


RC: Is Echo an attempt to draw artists from the wider international scene to Iraq or is it a project devised primarily for the Iraqi people? Is its broad international scope an attempt to liberate isolated Iraqi artists in a physical or metaphorical way? (Such as through the virtual connections granted by the internet, artistic networking sites etc).


RS: Echo is primarily focused on supporting the artistic work of Iraqis. However, you can’t really speak about that without an international context for a number of reasons. First, Iraq is facing one of the largest population migrations in recent history, so there is that aspect of internationalism that must be included in discourse on Iraq today, and in any attempt to include the various artistic practices and experiences that are now necessarily taking place all over the world. I think you have to take in the context of Iraq, which is one where there have been a number of migrations due to conflicts that have been taking place for the past few decades, though this is the largest in terms of sheer numbers. 


The matter of connection is also taking into context the isolation of Iraqis due to the previous closed nature of the government, the sanctions era, and of course today the difficulties of travel and also of communication. There are many compounding issues that we are attempting to address, or to at least take into consideration so as to most effectively undertake our mission. 

RC: To what esteem is art held in Iraq? Do you think the general population has faith in its power to transform, emancipate and inform, or has the isolation you noted made art a low-profile activity?


RS: I’m not sure if the general population anywhere has that idea about art’s possibilities! But it would be great if that were the case. I think there is definitely an interest in art, and I think the artists themselves very much believe in its possibilities as most are sacrificing a great deal in order to work in it despite great uncertainty and challenges. I don’t know if its necessarily isolation that would make art a low-profile activity. I would probably say its more the ravaging effects of decades of war, recent occupation and violence that have made survival a pressing activity. Things are still very much in flux in Iraq, and particularly in Baghdad. There are still near daily bombings, people being driven from their homes, and a great deal of difficulty for civil society and involvement. 

RC: Echo describes contemporary art to be so complex and global that it constitutes not a single activity but an array or rich activities without clear borders. This is the impression one gets when studying the panel for ‘A Fluid Resilience,’ that mixes scientists and intellectuals alongside artists. Do you think that art has become more resilient and able to initiate sustainable regeneration due to these overlapping boundaries in disciplines? Or, do you think art has always had the capacity to spark social change?


I think that art has always providing a new means of expressing and taking in new information that can at times, reflect social change, imagine it, or, I suppose, spark it in some cases. I think social change can actually be just that –seeing something in a different way for the first time. That can take any shape, it can be a rendering of a vase full of flowers, and it can be a critical text. 

RC: What is ‘A Fluid Resilience’s’ relationship to the exhibited works of art? Do you see it as an explanation, an additional artwork, or a form of discussion symbolic of the multi-disciplinary practices in the arts now…?


RS: In researching the issue of water and Iraq, you find that water is much more than just a scarce resource. The water issue in Iraq is related to a host of social, political, and economic issues that span various swaths of time. You cannot really look at it in isolation, and there are layers and layers to sort of sift through and unpack if you want to get any sort of grasp on its current predicament. That kind of multitude of understandings is what I wanted to explore with this panel. What I find most interesting about the rigor of some artists’ practices is the ability to investigate these layers, and to somehow bring them into focus and communicate them through compelling, diverse mediums. 


The new kinds of understandings, and new presentations of information that can come out of this, is I think very much related to scientific inquiry and the kinds of investigations and presentations of these investigations that emerge. In Iraq in particular, I think the work of artists like Jananne Al- Ani (creator of The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People) is invaluable when you have these very intense events and experiences that are not often brought together but are very much related; violence to the body, landscape, visual imagery and imaging, coding and military/media language and popular discourse. 


You also have on the other hand the real lack of information on all of these things that have and are taking place, because of the kind of suppression of information and an environment of conflict that disrupts modes of creation and circulation. 

RC: Although you were born in Baghdad, you have received education in America and you continue to live and work there, yet your work has retained a focus on the Middle-East. Can you tell me about your own sense of responsibility to your homeland?


RS: Yes, well I left at a very early age but my extended family remained in Baghdad so I always had that as a constant presence in my life, it never felt very far away in that sense or removed. I suppose what I also felt very close to were the issues that I didn’t feel were very well represented. 


Obviously America’s involvement with Iraq has been longstanding, yet I never felt that what was actually taking place in Iraq was expressed, or that there was any sense of the place as comprised of individuals. Early experiences sort of led me to being very interested in how different arts practices allow for these very specific expressions, which are very crucial. 


I don’t know if its necessarily a sense of responsibility to my “homeland” that drives my work but more that Iraq is a place where these kinds of practices I think are extremely critical, and a place where they’ve been severely restricted for decades. That’s one part of it. There is also a real history of art making in the region that has a depth and vitality that is continuously exciting to work with and learn from.  


Rachael Cloughton