Dhaka 2013: Interview of Shahidul Alam
Chobi Mela VII Preparation © Ranak Martin
Shahidul Alam dancing during the Chobi Mela boat cruise on the River Buriganga. © Shehab Uddin
Reza from Chobi Mela shares some good news with exhibiting artist Graciela Iturbide from Mexico in between checking proofs. © Shahidul Alam
Morten Krogvold during one of his workshops at Pathshala
Rahnuma editing Chobi Mela catalogue text during power cut. © Shahidul Alam
Festival Director Shahidul Alam talks about the challenges and expectations one faces when running a festival such as Chobi Mela and points out the festival’s uniqueness and beauty.
There’s only few days left before the beginning of Chobi Mela VII and there are still a thousand things to be done and we are awaiting many guests from all over the world. So tell me, how is this Chobi Mela different from previous editions of the festival? What is special this time round?
S. Alam : Firstly, it’s actually an extension of previous ones, What we’ve always done in Chobi Mela is to ensure that it’s a very inclusive festival, there are people from all the continents, there is a very diverse range of work in terms of photographic practices, but also in terms of the ideas behind it. Of course we have some artists who are here for very first time, I mean Graciela Iturbide will be here for the first time, Max Pam will be here for the first time, we are not sure yet if Eugene Richards is able to make it, they have very tight schedules but their work is already here. So yes! Very exciting work.
I think it’s also very different in the sense that this time we have a much broader curatorial team, different styles, there’s been a far stronger curatorial input on this festival than there has been previously and of course new venues even within Shilpakala (National Art Gallery), it allows us to do things in a very different way.
I think it’s also different because there is much much more Bangladeshi involvement in this festival then there’s ever been. So in a sense while Chobi Mela is something we have been doing over so many years, its only now that the Bangladeshi public is waking up… What a fantastic event it is. And I think this will certainly be an event to remember.
Usually we go to festivals in France and in the US. The festivals there are usually supported by government funds or by funds from local institutions so the allocated budget they have is quite high. They have the opportunity to invite artists, create spaces and do lot of different things. How have you managed to run Chobi Mela over the past years without such financial support? What is the secret?
S.A : Usually we change the rules of physics, gravity does not work in Bangladesh. And the normal rules of physics would mean that we would need huge amounts of money that we simply don’t have. We hustle basically; we try and do a whole lot of things by barter, we try get people to support us in ways which save us money, without actually giving us things. And there’s so much goodwill from people, from volunteers like yourselves and other people who been very very generous with their time and effort. But we also have a lot of capability in-house, which means we can print the book, we do the posters, we have a couple of galleries of our own, so much of the work is being done in-house, we are able to do it at a fraction of the cost that any conventional organisation would need. But having said that I think it is important that we have much stronger government involvement. A festival of this sort, which would cost millions of dollars anywhere else, is impossible run on your own in the long run…
Festivals or big events such as this one tend to mostly take place in the west. Chobi Mela started 11 to 12 years ago. Do you think it made an impact on the younger generation here, because they can finally really see great work, meet amazing artists directly in Dhaka and get inspired and move from there? Then we also have Pathshala, where we have already hosted more than 100 international workshops…
S.A : Of course. Rather then taking photographers to the rest of the world, we bring the rest of the world to the photographers. It changes the whole thing around. But it’s also different in a sense that this is our festival, so it’s not simply a question of a young photographer going to a festival it’s a question of young photographers taking ownership of a festival that they can truly call their own. But I think there are other things that happen because the festival happening here also allows people to look at the process, how it builds up what happens during, afterwards and the continuity. So in a sense the festival is a teaching laboratory within which photographers, students, whatever, can get involved. Just by visiting a festival you can never get that sense. Here it’s a living-breathing event.
Running a successful festival involves lots of logistics. Sometimes we can’t get the artists’ prints because of problems at customs. Other times, the artists themselves encounter difficulties coming here. I just got an e-mail from an artist from Vietnam, Maika Elan. She is applying for a visa at the Bangladeshi embassy in Vietnam and the ambassador looked at her exhibition ‘The Pink Choice’ and his reaction was quite out of proportions, saying he can’t accept these photographs, which might prevent her from getting a visa. We face these problems going to other countries and people are facing similar issues to come to our country. So how do you handle such matters?
S.A : Well bureaucracy has its own grammar. And I think bureaucrats world over are solidarity group that behave in a particular way, our government is no different sadly but to be fair we have actually been able to negotiate with the ministry of foreign affairs. Many of the artists are coming from countries which do not have Bangladeshi embassies. Graciela is arriving this afternoon in a few hours. Mexico does not have a Bangladeshi embassy so we have arranged for her to get a visa on arrival. We have informed pretty much all the relevant embassies giving them a list of the people they’re likely to expect. But as you rightly say some local guy somewhere will get up on his high horse and take a moralistic stand and decide he is the authority on what needs to come Bangladesh. There is much we live without but we have also been able to overcome many of these things. I agree that, government involvement is very necessary certainly at a financial level, logistic level. But on the other hand the fact that we don’t have it, does give us a lot of freedom that we would otherwise not have had.
Talking about the local community, there are different kinds of biennial art happening in the country where photography is not included. Yet just this year one of the grand prizes at the Asian Art Biennale was given to an artist from Lebanon who used photography in the winning work. Sad and contradictory! Chobi Mela is a photography festival but have you tried to engage people or artists from different parts of Bangladesh to engage ina broader range of artististic and performance presentation? How do you look at these things?
S.A : Firstly there is question about whether photography is art. It’s such a ridicules question in the first place. I don’t think we need to waste time discussing it. The problem with the Asian biennale and things like that, is that it is run by fossils. People who have no clue and live 50 years back in time and haven’t realised the world has moved on. What is sad is that their entry rules prevent Bangladeshi photographers and people working in the plastic arts from submitting work. Foreign artist naturally have never assumed there will be such ridicules rules… they submit work and it is judged for what it is. I think there needs to be a huge shift, a shake up in that structure altogether. But in terms of what we do, I personally think pretty much all the arts benefit from people who work in the periphery, in the edges. I think photography has lot to gain from people outside the field of photography, in terms of what they have to offer, how they can contribute to the medium and Chobi Mela always encourages that interaction. It’s been a very fluid border in movement and direction. I think certainly the fact that this is a festival where fine art photography, conceptual work, documentary work, 3D work, whatever, gets space is one of the things that makes it so rich. It’s not so predictable. Every year it is different. And I think every year it is evolving.
What are you working on right now? I saw you working with some prints of Eugene Richards. Tell us little bit about that.
S.A : Well there are two shows I’m directly involved with. One is WAR IS PERSONAL by Eugene Richards. As a photographer he is someone I have huge respect for. I think the work is very strong and powerful. It is also very personal, very sensitive, very moving. Its does not translate too easily because this work is done in a cultural space where those images will be read in a particular way. Here in Bangladesh even by other people (from other cultures) the same readings might not take place. So one of the things I’m working on is how to ensure that the physical space exudes the sensitivity and the emotions that Eugene tried to capture in his original work. So we are doing it through artefacts, we are actually using incense to make it more culturally specific because it gives the sense of sobriety, you also get a sense of loss which comes from the way we use incense. That with the gallery space creates the linkage. There are other artefacts we are using within it.
With Ojeikere’s work, its very interesting work. Very significant in African terms. Of Africans recognising their own style and taking pride in their own traditions. Ojeikere himself is a pathfinder in his own country, own region. But the problem we had was elsewhere… technical problems. We got one set of pictures that were 8000 pixels another set of pictures 2800 pixels. And I particularly wanted really big blow-ups. The 2800 files aren’t big enough for that. Now I’m downloading software, which allows us to make larger print without losing quality. I hope. Because I wanted to create a particular physical presence in that space which those images would make. Now I might have to rearrange the whole thing, but that’s the reality.
OK, one final question: Give us three reasons why people should visit Chobi Mela this year?
S.A : It’s fun! It’s specular! And it’s wonderfully different!
Thank you so much!
The interview was conducted by Munem Wasif
Chobi Mela - International Festival of Photography
January 25 to February 7, 2013
House 58, Road 15A (New),
Dhanmondi, Dhaka 1209