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
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.