In the Curators' den

Chobi Mela VIII will bring together the work of more than 30 artists from around the world this January, and of course, these shows don’t just put themselves up.

For the past 10 months, the curatorial team of Chobi Mela VIII has been sweating day in-day out, trying to install these shows across 11 venues in Dhaka. The team faces a million hurdles everyday in not only trying to retain the integrity of these works, but in also trying to showcase them with the Bangladeshi audience in mind. 

You can imagine them working in dark, windowless rooms, with no hint of life or light or food, bent over tens and hundreds of rows of photographs in tones of black, white, color and sepia, complete with a gamchha tied around their heads, curating and developing these shows. But I’m going to cut your imagination short and tell you that that’s not the case, partly because photographs cannot be curated in a room that lacks proper lighting, and partly because there’s more to curation other than just staring at photographs. Also because the Festival Coordinator, Nabil Rahman, makes sure that every eardrum in the room is torn from the exotic music played on his cheap speakers from Cambodia. It’s not that miserably serious after all.

But yes, the curatorial team has been sweating hard, minus the gamchha.

The curatorial team consists of ASM Rezaur Rahman, Munem Wasif and Tanzim Wahab, each a notable figure in the Bangladeshi photography scene and each bringing their own expertise in the art of photography on the table. Also contributing as guest curators in the panel are Mahbubur Rahman, visual artist from Britto Arts Trust; and Salauddin Ahmed, notable architect.

And when Wasif’s not angry or flustered over work, he’s pretty fun to talk to. I sat down with him earlier to find out what really happens in the curatorial team, because I was sure that curating didn’t just mean staring at rows of photographs neatly lined on tables. He says he is barely surviving with Chobi Mela VIII less than a month away, and I understand the pressure on him and his fellow curators. What with works of photographers like Anwar Hossain, Shirin Neshat, Kevin Bubriski and Christina Nunez needing curation by them, the expectations on their work adds a lot of weight on their shoulders.

“We’re dealing with some of the best photographers from all over the world- curating works of photographers who have spent years trying to master their art. They have sent us their work, and we’re responsible for putting it up in a way where they will be well-presented and their context will also come through. There are a lot of logistical and technical things to worry about, and at the same time, we’ve also had to focus on the philosophical and creative dimensions of each work,” says Wasif.

The work is exemplary, but to fit them in the numerous galleries and venues is a challenge.

“We’ve had to think about the local audience and the kinds of venues we have in Bangladesh- we have very, very few galleries that are actually run by professional artists or curators and in most of them, we just have four walls where we’re not allowed to pin nails or paint. So we are also in constant dialogue with them for these changes. Chobi Mela is also taking place across 11 venues all over Dhaka, and we’re getting all these venues at the same time. Having to install shows in 11 different venues at the same time is very challenging.”

Galleries are easier to handle despite the little challenges, but the biggest hurdles are faced when dealing with venues that were originally never built for exhibitions and shows. Venues like the Northbrook Hall (Lalkuthi), Bokultola or Bulbul Lalitakala Academy have their own unique place in Dhaka’s history, but turning them into venues for photography exhibitions adds a new chapter in their history.

“There are places like the Northbrook Hall that need to be completely worked on from scratch for the exhibitions. We have to think about the lighting there, the structures, and completely reimagine the venue. But this also gives us a lot of scope for trying out new things. We’re going to have an exhibition by Luis González Palma there and his work deals with magic realism and tells a myth. It’s very, very fascinating and we’re trying to blend the venue and the work together, and since we’re starting from scratch, we can work with a lot of new ideas.”

As an example of how important it is for the venue and the work to have a synergy, he talks about placing Mahesh Shantaram’s work, ‘Matrimania’ in Beauty Boarding, one of the oldest hotels in Dhaka, located appropriately in Old Dhaka.

“Matrimania is a very satirical take on Indian weddings, and it’s funny and kitschy all at the same time. And placing it in Old Dhaka is like juxtaposing the makings and workings of Indian weddings and Old Dhakaiya weddings next to each other, as both the cultures are known to be extremely extravagant and lavish about their weddings. This gives the local crowd of Old Dhaka a big context when they walk into Beauty Boarding to see the show, and it can possibly make them think about things as well.”

Having the guest curators in the panel brings a whole new dimension to the curatorial process, as elements from their art forms are incorporated into this process of turning photography into a contemporary art form.

“We’ve invited two very talented and fascinating artists into our curators’ panel this time- Mahbubur Rahman, who is a very fascinating artist from Britto Arts Trust; and Salauddin Ahmed, who is an architect. With their help, we’re trying to create a different vision for Chobi Mela VIII’s curatorial process this time and not be restricted within the technical aspects of photography alone, because we believe that photography is a contemporary art form. We’re coming up with all these different structures and ways of looking at the same work now, which makes things much more challenging this time, but at the same time, I also think, it’s going to be much more exciting for the audience.”

With so much happening in less than a month, I can’t help but wonder how the crowd is going to perceive and interpret it. Will they know how much trouble the curators went through just to measure each and every inch between photographs, the immaculate attention paid to every detail?

But then I remember what Shahidul Alam, Festival Director of Chobi Mela, told me recently in an interview: “We don’t give the audience enough credit. We underestimate the crowd.”

And I really wouldn’t want to underestimate the crowd either (especially since I’m one of the hundreds thousands in the audience myself).