Illustration by Elena Hormiga.

Promises and Perils of Connectivity

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Twenty years ago, during the mid-1990s, I was committed to building an artistic career. I desperately wanted to explore the global art scene and experiment with methods, ideas and media not yet available or discussed in the Bangladeshi art scene—but it was not easy. I was lucky enough to have next to me my partner Mahbubur Rahman, also an artist, who encountered the same obstacles and experienced the same frustrations. He became my mentor during the course of my journey as an artist and cultural organizer.

I remember working on the application for our first artists’ residency program at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in the beginning of 2000. We used to wait for the mail, which took days to arrive in Dhaka or reach Dublin. If I look back, even just 10 years ago, most artists from Bangladesh still did not have email. Things have really changed within the past decade, leading to radical shifts in the local art scene. Artists no longer need to wait to connect with the rest of the world or gather information in order to seek out artistic opportunities.

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that, with the help of a friend, we set up our first email account. As a result of this connectivity, Mahbubur and I saw the possibility and need to create an alternative platform—an important project for the still rather orthodox art scene in Bangladesh. In 2002, with four like-minded artists, we founded the first-ever Bangladeshi artists’ collective Britto Arts Trust, which then became part of the Triangle Network, a UK-based international network of small-scale, grassroots art organizations. At Britto, now in its 14th year, we organize workshops, artist residencies, community-based projects and events, exhibitions, talks, film screenings and debates to foster critical discourse and exchange between artists from different parts of the globe, with the objective to generate discourse on Bangladeshi contemporary art. We’ve brought overseas artists to Bangladesh, as well as supported local artists by providing international exposure for their practices. Over the last 14 years, we have witnessed the collective develop into a powerful incubator and catalyst, offering many artists of the younger generation hope, strength, confidence and opportunity to share their ideas and make radical art. Up until now, Britto is perhaps the only consistent artist-led, alternative forum, outside of institutional frameworks, for experimentation and international exchange of the visual arts in Bangladesh. It is a rare haven for artists—a place where they can meet, discuss and upgrade their skills on their own terms.

Yet as technology has rendered new platforms and forums possible, new problems have also arisen. A constant stream of information culled from the online world distracts me and detaches me from my daily life here in Dhaka. As an artist, I am confused by the barrage of events happening in the international art scene. Why do things have to move so quickly? Has the art world become too competitive? Are we all trying to prove our existence and worth as artists each day? This fear, this competition, this struggle and this insecurity I see very clearly when I travel abroad to see and participate in major art events.

Based on personal observation, I have sadly come to the conclusion that international art events are heavily politicized, driven by economics and not as well researched as they should be. Other people may feel differently. But I often feel puzzled by the seemingly random connections between art, money, patrons, fairs, biennials, summits, galleries, exhibitions and marketing. As a relative newcomer to the international art arena, I have noticed that money dictates everything. It controls whether I, as an artist, can be what I desire to be. Quite often, artists are not even directly involved in the processes of their own promotion. Instead, certain players who have vested interests in the artist’s success control the branding, the marketing and the public relations. These investors or beneficiaries might even invest funds in great coverage and publicity by well-known media outlets.

In the same vein, I am also often hesitant about whom to consider a real patron, especially when I clearly see that some of these so-called patrons are always desperately marketing themselves and calculating their every move of sponsorship, purchase or support for their own benefit. The artists or the exhibitions seem but a tool to meet their selfish goals. I strongly believe that artists need to undergo a long journey before they can make their mark and consider themselves an “artist,” and similarly, patrons also need to commit to a real sense of mission before they can proclaim themselves a “patron.” 

There is no doubt that artists love isolation and individuality. But at the same time the power of collective energy is essential to increase the worth of our communities. One can absolutely run alone but, to me, making a long journey together with one’s contemporaries and own community is undoubtedly extremely important.