In a 2004 photographed performance titled Transformations, a man wearing a mask made of jute mesh and buffalo horns, that covers his eyes, blunders about on a beach in Bangladesh. The performance tries to recreate the pathos that the Bangladeshi writer Syed Shamsul Haq evoked in his story about a colonial-era indigo farmer.
The farmer’s buffaloes had been taken away, leaving him with no option but to be yoked to the plough till he died of exhaustion.
Visceral: (clockwise from left) Mahbubur Rahman at Anupam Poddar’s residence in New Delhi; Transformations, 2004, photograph by Tayeba Begum Lipi; and The Story of Four Days, 2000, oil on canvas. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
The performer is Mahbubur Rahman—among Bangladesh’s most exciting and radical artists today. The performance, later repeated in shows in London and Warsaw, is distinctly representative of his oeuvre. Much like the farmer who was left without resources and forced to use his body, Rahman often uses his face and body to make statements about Bangladesh’s complicated political and cultural environment.
Forty-year-old Rahman’s work is visceral and raw. In one painting, Cosmic World 1 (2004), he depicts his own autopsied body and in another installation, North South (2005), two life-sized video projections of himself are connected by dangling twin hearts. The first is Rahman’s comment on a changing society’s need to self-analyse, and the second, on Bangladesh’s splintered history.
Rahman paints in various formats. He also performs, makes installations, creates video and engages in photography. His love for different media is what drew Devi Art Foundation’s Anupam Poddar to him. A pioneering collector of works by emerging contemporary artists from the subcontinent, Poddar first came across Rahman’s work on a trip to Dhaka in 2006. He was impressed by the artist’s concern for society. “His practice has a potent combination of play and a certain political commitment,” says Poddar, explaining what drove him to buy around 20 of Rahman’s artworks. Poddar is now showcasing select pieces from his personal collection as a Mahbubur Rahman solo show at the Devi Art Foundation’s gallery space in Gurgaon.
Cows, which symbolize Bangladesh’s communal divide; autopsied bodies and brains that connote the artist’s process of self-analysis; and screaming faces that portray the common man’s frustration—these are recurrent motifs in Rahman’s works.
Curator Vidya Shivadas has put together a show that tests its audience. In an installation titled Toys Are Watching Toys (2002), you come face to face with a video, projected on a wall, of a cow being slaughtered in a crowded marketplace in Dhaka to celebrate Eid-ul-Adha. Mannequins of a bride and groom are seated below the projection and a roomful of burqa-clad mannequins serve as spectators. Through this installation, Rahman likens the fate of the bride to cow slaughter. The graphic installation is a collaborative venture with his wife, feminist artist Tayeba Begum Lipi.
Through the Britto Arts Trust that he co-founded with his wife and fellow artist Shishir Bhattacharjee, Rahman has produced many other collaborative works. Some years ago, a 10-day interactive workshop between rickshaw painters and artists resulted in fascinating canvases that blended kitsch with classical art forms. In 2006, he worked alongside religious Paubha painters from Nepal.
Rahman studied painting at the Institute of Fine Arts in Dhaka, and because of the country’s decade-long military rule, it took him 13 years to graduate. It was here, in the fiercely political environment of his art school—set up in 1943 by freedom-era political artists such as Zainul Abdein and Anwarul Haq—that much of his political outlook took shape.
Though Rahman has attended art residencies in Ireland, Indonesia, India, Korea, Denmark and Britain, he laments the lack of exposure for Bangladeshi artists today. “Back home, I work from my living room,” he says. “Our country has other concerns to look into,” he adds as he walks me through his works at Devi, evidently pleased with the dedicated space for his work.
Rahman is working hard to change things. The Britto Arts Trust has been been striving to generate resources and studio space for artists. And more importantly, to create an open space for generating public opinion.
Yet, Rahman shrugs off labels, saying with perfect calm, “I’m not an activist, just an artist.”
Mahbubur Rahman-Solo Exhibition is showing at Devi Art Foundation, Sirpur House, Gurgaon, till 1 November.