Yesterday (12 February), the unstoppable bi-annual Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography opened. This year, it is taking place amid a pandemic while two years ago it was held in a charged atmosphere – amid pulled sponsorships and venue cancellations – following the political imprisonment of the festival's founder, photojournalist Shahidul Alam.
This year, the festival – jointly organised by Drik Picture Library Ltd and Pathshala South Asia Media Institute – set to run till 21 February, showcases the work of 75 artists from: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
Chobi Mela "Shunno (0)," is going back to its origins and raising essential questions about its purpose. "In Bangla, shunno [zero] is both a word and number – an empty space, vacuum, black circle or zero vector, which starts and ends at the same place," a press release describes.
A question this edition asks is how we can bring performative democracy to the present time in South Asia – to understand its value and experience its intensity in an art space. I find the festival answers the question, in part, by actively promoting female artists who exercise their democratic right to free expression through their art.
I also believe the festival provides catharsis by confronting the present. The following are some of the themes that appear through some of the female artists' work:
Uma Bista (Nepal) with "Stay Home, Sisters" explores the taboo surrounding menstruation in her home country. Despite being outlawed, the practice of Chhaupadi – which places women under ritual isolation each month – is still widely practiced in western Nepal. "This work is an inquiry about psychological trauma, inherited and passed down through generations," Bista shares on the Chobi Mela website.
Aishwarya Arumbakkam (India), a multidisciplinary artist, is exhibiting her ongoing project "ka Dingiei." It depicts a Khasi ethnic minority village on the border of India and Bangladesh, which has suffered massive destruction because of stone and sand mining since 1998.
"The resulting erasure is felt not just in the physical and socio-economic landscape, but also in the community's mythical and cultural landscape," Arumbakkam explains on the festival's website.
Meanwhile, the work of photographer and filmmaker Nida Mehboob (Pakistan), "Shadow Lives," covers discrimination against the Ahmadi community in Pakistan. The community was declared "non-Muslim" in an amendement to Pakistan's constitution in 1974.
"This work will never be exhibited in Pakistan, it wouldn't be safe for my collaborators or myself," she told The Business Standard (TBS). Mehboob hopes that through her work, Chobi Mela's visitors will be inspired to learn more about the Ahmadi community in the Bangladeshi context.
She added, "The ring photographed features a Quranic verse that reads, 'God is enough for us.' Rings with such inscriptions are worn by female and male members of the Ahmadi community."
Other works on the theme include those of photographer Bunu Dhungana (Nepal) depicting a Nepali woman's experience of life shaped by patriarchy in "Confrontations," and visual artist and activist Sumi Anjuman (Bangladesh) with socially-focused subject matter and work on the LGBTQ community in Bangladesh.
Not to be missed is a reading by lawyer and author Samari Chakma (Bangladesh), together with Naeem Mohaiemen, who will read over the internet, from Chakma's book "Kaptai Badh: Bor-Porong." Listeners will hear an oral history of the Chakma people – exiled due to flooding for the Kaptai Hydroelectric Dam project of 1960-1964. Chakma's legal work is focused on providing legal assistance to rape victims, and victims of false cases, due to the ongoing political crisis in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Dilara Begum Jolly (Bangladesh), who practices her art through multiple mediums, explores the past of Mahamaya Dalim Bhaban – a building that was used as a torture center in 1971 – in "Amorar Akhyan." Jolly's signature practice is needling on paper photographs – a meticulous process in which she draws motifs on paper, or highlights areas on photographs, through needle prickling.
Meanwhile, the work of Farzana Hossen (Bangladesh) speaks about: gender-based violence, inequality, oppression, uncertainty, and loss. I find the silence in her images and subjects' eyes share this story.
Asrafun Nahar Ruba (Bangladesh), in "Things We Skip!" made the most of the limitations of the Covid-19 lockdown by using new materials she could find at home as natural colours in her work: aalta (red dye), flower stains, turmeric, coffee, used paper, etc. On the festival's website, she says, "We cannot ignore the issues like rape, domestic violence and above all, gender domination. During this pandemic these social problems have increased even more. Here I tried to create an impression which represents the very sensitive and hidden suffering of a woman."
Globally, during Covid-19, domestic violence – dubbed the silent epidemic thriving amid the pandemic – has intensified. Many of the works on the theme were made before the pandemic, but warned of what was to come, and are an act of protest against such treatment. Displaying them certainly contributes to the festival's goal of performative democracy.
Isolation (or Covid-19 as an emotion)
Visual and performance artist Yasmin Jahan Nupur (Bangladesh) in "Time Could Not be Kept at Bay," depicts her new take on objects and subjects that the lockdown familiarised her with. Nupur told TBS, "This time it's [the festival's] become shunno, zero. The year 2020 also has two zeroes. We started from zero, we lost a lot of things. I was taking it [Covid-19] very personally. People lost parents, friends. It's like the start of a new world."
The thorns protruding from her throat in one of her photos at the exhibit, represent the globally recognisable Covid-19 symptoms, she added.
Meanwhile, photographer Salma Abedin Prithi (Bangladesh) explains her work "Torn" as, "Exploring the mental state of regular patients in Bangladesh during the Covid-19 outbreak, staging situations that are absent from mainstream media," on the Chobi Mela website. She based the work on her interactions with indistinguishable doctors in PPE and images shared in newspapers.
"Working class societies face multiple layers of problems including social neglect, food crises and domestic violence while experiencing growing fear and anxiety surrounding the spread of the virus," she continues. I believe this work will see return viewers as they attempt to decipher the experiences portrayed.
Not to be missed
"A Rebel With a Smile," a rare retrospective show of Sayeeda Khanum, is a must-see that explores the work of Bangladesh's first professional female photographer. "More than hundred hand-picked photographs of Sayeeda Khanum have been retrieved through rigorous research and teamwork," said curator ASM Rezaur Rahman at a press conference to announce the festival at DrikPath Bhaban in Dhaka on 9 February.
More transfixing works include: Najmun Nahar Keya's (Bangladesh) "Kintsugu Dhaka 2020," which uses Japanese techniques and concepts of wabi-sabi, and kin-sugi by using gold leaf, drawing her memories of old Dhaka and giving them new life; "Madness is a Very Slippery Terrain," featuring the work by Susan Kiguli (Uganda), Ruth Kelly (Ireland) and Emilie Flower (United Kingdom) as reflections on conversations about madness and political imagination; photographer Liz Frnando's (Sri Lanka) work on the idea that the objective of a photograph ponders an evolving interplay between its fragile and fugitive existence; and mixed media artist Nuzzhat Tabassum Binti (Bangladesh) whose artwork "Shohojpattho" conveys succinct messages and was inspired the book "Ballosikkha" written by Ramshundor Boshak.
The festival will integrate the physical with digital, with: exhibitions in three venues in Dhaka, a podcast series, artist talks, a radio programme, and other events. For an exhaustive list of the remaining female artists, their male counterparts and the work of collectives, as well as the configuration of the exhibits, visit https://chobimela.org/.