Senses Beyond Vision: In Conversation with Mahbubur Rahman, Guest Curator of Chobimela VIII

Tanzim Wahab:

Being the founding member of Britto Arts Trust, an alternate space for arts and experiments, you have worked with a hodgepodge of art forms and artists, even assuming different roles like being a curator at times and a visual artist at other times. But, whichever roles you have acquired, they consistently involved more than one art form or genre. We can't help but ask - how do you feel about being a guest curator of Chobi Mela, a medium-centric festival where content mostly revolves around photography?

Mahbubur Rahman:

Mahbubur Rahman | Photo: Farhad Rahman

Mahbubur Rahman | Photo: Farhad Rahman

I feel photography mainly transforms a physical space into a two-dimensional (2D) space. But that does not mean it dismisses everything else. A photo manages to capture three-dimensional (3D) ‘attitude’ through the play of light upon the object. Exhibitions often fail to make the viewers experience the message that the photographs must have articulated. I strongly advocated photographic installations, which appeal to the five senses of the viewer. I view exhibitions as a kind of a sensuous journey. As I design a space to exhibit artworks or photographs, I ensure that the viewer does not walk away from the exhibition with the same physical and mental orientation with which he or she had entered with. There should be a mental/psychological shift; as viewers’ walk in, their experiences should merge with the pieces.

The pictorial quality invoked by hanging the finest works on a two-dimensional wall bears no significance to me unless they provide the psychological impact that I consider being a necessity. It is not manipulation but rather a relaxation … like a therapeutic journey from one shot to another; in that case these shots should posses a strong narrative rather than being static representations of reality. Photography as an excluding art captures only a part of the real space and frames it with a purpose that it should reach a larger audience. A viewer can only be immersed in a work, if an image can target other senses other than vision. For example, if I have goose bumps as an onlooker, then it has surpassed my visions and appealed to my tactile sense - hence, the piece becomes more than an experience for me. The way the cognitive takes a visual command and knocks other senses--like recalling a smell or taste--is something that I seek to manage in exhibitions I curate. This is a very perplexing task, as I hardly know viewers individually.

At times we often enjoy others’ choices: of friends, buyers, critics, etc. We are buried under a unique pressure that stems from institutions or individuals. Impressions or biases of pure enjoyment or the comprehension of a work are often interrupted by previous knowledge. I intend to dismantle and if possible, to nullify prior knowledge to generate new ways of thinking on the viewers’ part. Being a visual artist, I often deal with materials and site-specific spaces; my work tends to range from wretched smells to the smell of decadence, therefore, even as a curator, I believe it is about sharing an observation and experience.

Even in workshops, I do not think it is interesting to ‘conduct’ them; rather they could be platforms to home-shared processes of exchanging thoughts as fellows to initiate better results. When five individuals sit together and discuss their understanding/practice, the solution/impact is heightened. And the ‘hangover’ of such a session at times affects potential work of the individual with a different essence, which I think is very important as the works can develop an existing style or a radically new one.

Tanzim Wahab:

Segueing to our conversation about workshops, you are conducting a four-month long workshop in Chobi Mela.. This is the longest workshop the festival had ever hosted. The participants’ will have the opportunity to discuss and produce art based on the theme of the festival: Intimacy. It is a blend of individual and collaborative art comprised of photographers and visual artists of other forms. How do you view a photographer approaching another medium or vice versa? What are the basic tendencies that you have found?

Mahbubur Rahman:

Photography is verging on like a film these days, as it has long transgressed its static frames and can be discovered in sequences. A deep narration plunged like the type we find through shot-divisions and compositions with details from a broader view to a close up. Previously, the viewer needed to shoot divisions of him within one frame that hung on the wall but now we are setting a mood through photo-installation. When an artist labours for a long duration of time and captures diverse shots, it serves as a representation of the various mental states of the artist through different snaps; when we pick one from the mosaic it limits the understanding of the viewer. By transitioning from this practice, we are giving a chance to previously un-chosen snaps to elaborate a new tale. Besides these, when photographs are framed with an extra glass-lair in front, it seizes to be a mere two-dimensional piece, instead it converts into a three-dimensional one. We have sculptors as well as those who are contributing their object-based skills to incorporate a different ambience to the viewers.

Tanzim Wahab:

BRITTO ARTS TRUST has played a significant role in the realm of art; many interesting works are indebted to it. For the first time, Chobi Mela VIII will house two exhibitions there. Is this the first time Britto Art Trust is hosting an exhibition that will solely showcase photographs?

Mahbubur Rahman:

Yes, it is.

Tanzim Wahab:

 At Britto, you are curating photographs by Abdollah Heidari and Alexandra Serrano. While the former one is representing traditional and humanistic social documentary in black and white, the latter takes on a radically different approach yet, maintains a narrative dealing with memoirs and recollections. Why and how do you plan to exhibit them at Britto?

Mahbubur Rahman:

I was utterly shocked when I first saw the works of Heidari. The burnt babies from an Iranian school looked like effigies…I could smell them. I was not able to look at it directly for long nor could I help myself to have a second glance. As a whole, I felt it is a very strong piece. As guest curator, I took up the challenge to evoke viewers with this same kind of feeling. This compelled me to contemplate on the second series that would be in high contrast with Heidari’s work to intensify the affects therefore, I selected Serrano. An intimacy between the objects and the use of space meet in harmony with the theme of memory and recollection; the physical existence becomes less important because it is now, catered to a mental existence and reality.

I visualized a journey in which the pieces by Heidari would be exhibited in a strong dark space in order to haunt viewers with a narrative that you will emerge later in Serrano’s work. Through this journey I seek to narrate the passage of a strong white space but with hindrance when you search for an exit. The viewer will have two consecutive shocks, as they will not be allowed any space between the two.

Tanzim Wahab:

In a time when we are going through an art movement for new mediums, how is a festival like this contributing to the change of the scene? Running an art festival regularly with such minimum resources and money in this part of the world seems almost unrealistic but we have never stopped trying. I also ask myself what novelty Chobi Mela brings into the art of contemporary time in Bangladesh?

Mahbubur Rahman:

Photography so far has been a media-based art form. And from that point Chobi Mela is turning towards grooming photography in a new way that opens alternative doors and roads.

We have seen photo collages from the artists earlier. Chobi Mela largely worked on that.

There is a clear institutional gap between fine arts and photography, here again Chobi mela works on transgressing gaps and generic borders. Chobi mela also concentrated on the art of installation and space; designing has demonstrated how photographs could be installed on a wall in both two- and three-dimensional ways.

I also find photo-graffiti very interesting. I consider photo-graffiti as a kind of printing in which the artist ‘prints’ with spray paint while a regular printer prints by dot and pixels with ink. In both of the cases, art ‘happens’ at the command of the artist.

Tanzim Wahab:

Where do you think the expectation will reach this time in its eighth edition considering Chobi Mela is the oldest photography festival in the Indian subcontinent? And talking about your own expectations, how do you predict Chobi Mela  VIII to meet up to those expectations?

Mahbubur Rahman:

As I basically work with space and wildly believe in generic blends, I did not find myself much in tune with static states of photographs, but after being involved in some earlier ventures with Pathsala I experienced a shift in myself. Chobi Mela’s scale is too much! It is a very monumental and established event. Chobi Mela matures its participants on emotional aspects. It involves people intimately and physically; not only the viewers but also the organizers: those who arrange pieces after matching the temperament with the space says a lot about their drive to attract viewers without vocal directions.

Chobi Mela always dreamt big even though the resources were often insufficient. In a country like Bangladesh, home to such an event is a huge challenge that Chobi Mela has never failed. We are headed to witness the festival’s fruition; the executions and expectations are blossoming as the opening day approaches soon. Limitations will always be there; to find a way out of those limitations is to discover happiness. I hope to see more input of different medias in future Chobi Mela. I always ask one thing, “why to exclude any media, why not we utilise it all  together?”