Rini Mitra and Rafiqul Islam Shuvo were recently part of the Curated By Festival in Vienna, in the frame of the group show curated by Diana Cambpell Betancourt for Krinzinger Projekte, featuring a new generation of Bangladeshi artists. They both studied arts at Dhaka University and are currently living at working in Vienna. Rini Mitra is continuing her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, and Rafiqul Shuvo has recently finished his 2 months residence with gallery Krinzinger. About the bumpy road leading from Dhaka to Vienna, we discuss various aspects raging from what drives an artist to succeed, how self-organized working and living structures function as mechanisms against a stubborn institutional order, and what odds does one encounter when the thirst for knowledge is in direct competition with its means.
Bangladesh is one of the newest countries in South Asia, having obtained its independence from Pakistan in 1971. A nine month war following intense political movements that ended with the mass murder of Bengali civilians in March 1971 left a brutal legacy behind. More about this can be read in The Colonel Who Would Not Repent by Salil Tripathi. The years following the independence have not been less turbulent, with military coups and struggles to establish a parliamentary republic, which eventually achieved lead to improvement in economic growth and stability. With a more than complicated history, one that cannot be summed up in a few lines, Bangladesh is working its way through social, political, religious and environmental issues that, through the flow of capital connects all of us.
Alexandra: having a bit of an idea about issues you are dealing with in your country, one of them being the suppression of opposition (whether ideological or political) still prevalent, maybe you can tell us about your experience with that.
Rini: I am not from Dhaka, so moved there for university, which is by the way very big, around 25 000 students (at that time, now close to 30 000). So I was there from 1st of July 2002. My class started on the 22nd, and then in that night, maybe at 1 o’clock I saw students fighting in the female hall across the dorm I was in. Police was there, and they were dragging female students out of their beds treating them very brutally. This was very scary for me to watch, especially since I didn’t really understand what was going on, having only begun my studies in Dhaka. These student protests were the largest since Bangladesh was ruled by a military government a decade before, and were triggered by this suppression of opposition you were asking me about. The students were suspected of having taken part in protests before, that’s why the police was there.
After this night there were protests at the university, which I also joined. These were really big protests, all the faculties at the university joined in together. At this point, the authorities closed the university, in an attempt to have the students dispersed. This happens a lot of times in our universities. That’s how a study program of 4 years turns into 10 years.
Me: so maybe we can switch to another register and you can both talk about the reasons you wanted to study art in the first place (I know this is an annoying question)
Rini: I love art, for me this is something special. I wanted to go to Art University to learn more about it, and to learn how to draw, because I thought that knowing how to draw is a prerequisite to art. So I thought the art university will enable me this skill, among other things, also. Another important reason why I choose to study art is because of independence, meaning I prefer an independent lifestyle, one that allows me to work by my own rules, without pressure form an outside authority. At the university, I was always taken aback by my colleague’s abilities to draw, and wanted badly to learn this for myself. Needless to say, I had big struggles with this type of academic drawing. Teachers always told me my work is not right, proportions are wrong, etc. etc, so they gave me low grades.
But one day a famous artist teacher who was teaching the master’s program saw my work and he told me ‘wow, your work is excellent’. He thought I was from the master class, but it was actually only my first year…of course this gave me self-confidence.
Then, a teacher form the theory class, told us that if one can do self-portrait, one can do anything. So I started to do self-portraits, and everybody from my class was kind of surprised that I could do this so well. Because my emotions were transmitted onto canvas, and one could really recognize (fragments of) the self in the paintings, not in a physical resemblance kind of way, but in a more ‘truthful’ kind of way, if that makes sense. And this had nothing to do with the fact of whether one can draw or not, so at this point, my colleagues started to appreciate me, and believed I might be onto something, regardless if I can draw or not.
However, because I was in the graphic class, my teacher did not appreciate a big self-portrait oil painting I had done. He asked me why did I do it, and told me I had been wasting my time. However, the university had been closed for some time again, so I actually had a lot of time to experiment on my self-portraits.
Shuvo: I tell one small story. When the cricket academy was finished, I was left standing in front of the big choice as to which university should I go to. About this time, I secretly took a trip to the seashore, and saw the ocean for the first time in my life. I did not tell my family where I was going, because I was still young to take on such a trip alone. But I got to the sea, and I was very surprised by it, in a good way, and I asked myself, how will I keep this feeling that the sea gave me, to transmit it to my mother, so that she can understand the change this experience has triggered in me. To let her know it was a good feeling, and she should not be angry of me going without telling her. I took pictures, but I was not happy with the result, I didn’t think it expressed what I wanted, so I kept thinking, and the only possibility that came to my mind, was to become an artist. That way I could be able to transmit exactly what I wanted. This was the first time I was thinking about art as a possibility.
Because of my cricket experience (I used to play cricket professional), being used to the assiduous routine of training, I knew there is a long way to perfection. Day by day you practice and then results will start coming. This was my beginning in the academy, drawing a lot, and becoming pretty good in academic drawing as a consequence.
Along with perfecting my drawing skills, I was also searching for a deeper meaning for all these, or better put it, how to use this skills to express something bigger than merely a well done drawing. I have went through everything I could get my hands on in the library- that is everything before the dada movement, since our library is lacking most of the books dealing with what happened afterwards… so I saw many Egon Schiele drawings for a fact. I started my studies in 2002, and by 2004 I have first ‘met’ Beuys, when a teacher gave me a catalogue with his works, hoping this would aid me with answering my questions about art. It actually opened a big door for me, one leading through the ‘back door’ of our educational system.
Me: So you were less happy with the educational system to say the least. How did you came to the idea of curating shows and more importantly, how did you create this structure of encouraging and helping students to study abroad independently?
Shuvo: A student from a senior year suggested that I should apply for a scholarship to study abroad, in Pakistan, because there I could learn more about contemporary art. I applied and got the ‘SAF – South Asian foundation scholarship’ and went to the School of visual art in Beaconhouse National University in 2007. So I went there, but to be honest, I was not that keen on the educational system there either. It was not as ‘mature’ as I would have expected. That’s when it became clear I’m left studying on my own. So I took this year doing a lot of work, and researching on the internet. At this time, I also kept a close connection to my friends, like Rini and others, and through our discussions and exchanges the first curated show came to be, which consisted only of 4 people, students from the university in Dhaka. This was the first show (to my knowledge) at the university to include video and other media. So I’ve pushed for it and people changed their minds in regards to my show. This gave me motivation to do further shows, like in 2011 I curated three shows, each with a different curatorial approach.
Then, in 2012 my big show came to be. It was taking place at the same time with the first Dhaka Art Summit and was titled ‘Only God can Judge Me’, which caused quite a stir nonetheless because people didn’t understand the use of word God in the title, they thought I am pushing a religious cause here, not reading the whole as a concept.
Rini: I can only say we always wanted to go abroad for studying, because we felt our teachers did not understand our art, or what we were trying to achieve in it. My fist study abroad experience was like Shovo’s – I also went to Pakistan with the same Scholarship. Then, after the creation of our group, which was a process in itself (OGCJM, which was consisting at that time of 13 members), we decided we will all try to go to Europe.
Shuvo: Because my thinking was this: how can we change our art scene? how can we learn more and bring new knowledge?
A big problem was that the works we did at the university, were not, from a portfolio perspective, proper for applying to study abroad, in Europe for example.
Rini: Since our academy syllabus was not anywhere near… Also what was lacking and we strongly felt it was the theory, art theory. We had art theory at the university, but maybe just up to 20th century. So we thought that if we study beyond that, then we can analyze more properly what art is and get more involved in its discourses.
So the next step was to make our Portfolios, which were consisting of completely new work, not related at all to what we were doing at the university. And in this aspect, Shuvo helped a lot. We discussed a lot in the group, he kind of curated our portfolios, like telling us what to read and we would have discussions afterwards, based on the texts, so it was kind of like a small institute and he took on the role of the teacher.
Meeting Shuvo and taking part in his curatorial projects meant that I began working with other materials also. He curated one show on Mourn, and for this show he suggested to collect materials (kind of like ready-mades) and for that exhibition I did my work ‘Absent Paralysis’. By the way, the one in Vienna is a ‘reenactment’ of the work I did in Bangladesh, meaning I bought new objects here. My work with light also comes due to the collaboration with Shuvo as a curator.
When I came to Vienna, my teacher suggested I do a new light project, but I went to the lights shop and saw the prices here and that was kind of the end of it…So I thought, what can I do instead? For a long time I could not really work about self portrait. Once, I took home carton boxes found at the recycling bins and started painting on them. The results could be see last year in the ‘Aufgerissenen Auges: Transmanieristische Reaktionen’ exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, here in Vienna.
But to go with our portfolios completed, we (the members of the group) then stared applying in other countries. That’s how I got a chance to study here (in Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts), one friend in Hamburg, one in Goldsmiths (but he only lasted one year there, because of money…), another one was in St. Martins, one even made it to America, so, our target was achieved.
Shuvo: and this structure I’ve shared with other people also, so now many students want to study abroad…
Rini: Because before this, students didn’t know that they could study abroad independently, that means without a governmental scholarship, which are by the way, very hard to get. So the students didn’t have the training in how to apply, nor was there a predecessor to serve as model. So, through our group we raised awareness that everybody can go for studies abroad, so now a lot of people are considering this.
Alexandra: this is a very nice structure, because you were in quest for knowledge and experiencing the world, and this new knowledge will help other people learn also, even if not physically travelling themselves, but you post a lot of pictures online also, so you let people take part in your journey and experiences…
Shuvo: yes, but you know, this structure has bad parts also, and I would like to talk about those… Like you know, this is one system, one new form I thought of, and I liked to push this new form, and this is not always good. I shout and sometimes I dictate. Dictator, you know?
Alexandra: dictator? Who, you?
Shuvo: yes, sometimes. Especially when I’m helping people make portfolios, and I want to get them away from thinking it through our art system structure. This is not an easy task…Because they have figurative drawing, like this type of academic work, and it’s a huge difference between that and what the students here do in university. So the question is, how you, in a very short time, mix this two systems together, so that our students have a chance of enrolling at a university abroad also. So I did this transition in a very short time, and this required a steady hand sometimes, this is what I mean by dictator.
However, I’ve decided now that OGCJM is temporary closed…I’ve changed its name two years ago also, but I’ve decided to close it because now it’s time for a new structure. This first one is finished, because it has achieved its goals, so now it’s a time for a new stage, because people know now how to go outside, and in our art scene there are many things happening at the moment also, so it has changed a lot since 2012. You know, I was an unimportant person in the Bangladeshi art scene in 2012 when I secretly made this big show…but that changed after it.
Rini: yes, it was very secret. I was also an artist in this show, but I didn’t get any information as to who are the other artists, or anything
Shuvo: Because in this show I mixed different kind of artists. There were 32 artists participating, among them even a cricket player, a banker art critic, ad-designer, writer and rapper among well-known artists and art students. How I managed to do this, was to talk separately to the artists involved, so they didn’t get any idea of who else was in the project. My curatorial note was ‘Everybody is an artist, so let’s God be the judge of every artwork. The issues that this declaration brings into view is linked with how art is given legitimacy through certain knowledge and how it occupies a certain niche and exists in a particular social context as art; also how the structures of society such as politics, education, and other social-political contents interface with such issues, impacting the nature of artistic production. The show is a continuum of insider and outsider takes on art and other related issues and its presentation is made possible through a diagram defined by notions of interactivity. It’s an amassing of process based artistic/textual actions to see how art and artist’s role keep changing in a given social environment.’* I dedicated the show to Bangla singer Azom Khan and the radical writer Ahmed Sofa.
Rini: and this is the first exhibition taking place in an abandoned (soap) factory in Bangladesh, I think this is an important thing also…so this exhibition represented a ‘first’ for many reasons.
Shuvo: so then after this show everybody knew me…and of course with ‘fame’ comes also the fact that some people didn’t like me anymore, like some of our members from OGCJM have left the group…Because we’re not working just art, you know, we’re working a life structure…And things worsened when people learned that I’m coming to Vienna, some like me even less now (laughter). But this is not so important, most important is that things are changing in Bangladesh and students get inspired form such works.
Alexandra: There was this great round table discussion in the identity issue of Art Forum magazine this summer, where they discussed issues of identity in regards to arts and marketing artists, which was also kind of the theme of this year’s Curated By. They were discussing something like, how at art fairs sometimes a sort of identitarian mythology or biography is promoted, like a quintessential quality, a value to be consumed , so artists would have to perform this ‘authenticity’, which makes it then ubiquitous…
Shuvo: you know, sometimes I’m thinking I’m a second hand artist. Because sometimes I’m not the original, I don’t express my land, like this I’ve learned from my land, this language I’ve learned from here…I’m always trying to manipulate.
Alexandra: but why do you say it’s not original, that you are not an original Bangladesh artist, because that’s what this article says (art forum), that there is not such a thing as Bangladesh artist, or Romanian artist, quintessentially so, that all these are constructs , marketing strategies, so I don’t think you should say second hand…
Shuvo: yes, but sometimes there is too much pressure, so it is good to claim this ‘second hand-ness’…
Rini: He is trying to bring discourses in the Bangladeshi art scene, in regards to what is the international art discourse at the moment. So he did lots of different things, and introducing a curated show was part of this.
Shuvo: because before there were also curated shows, but not good enough, from my perspective, and not acknowledging the role of the curator as an important player in the art field.
Although art making is another form of curating.
But now I have to be careful in Bangladesh not to push too much my role as a curator, because it might exclude my role as an artist, which I’m keen on keeping on also. Because I don’t consider myself a good curator anyway, I just started this new path, this was the challenge for me, to open new ways for people to think about art, art making and the art system – but I’m not good enough to be a curator.
Alexandra: this is opened for interpretation, because the question is what is a good curator?
Shuvo: a curator must do a lot of good research first, and in contrast to an artist doing research for his own work, a curator must be opened to do research for a lot of different things, that are not necessarily connected to his own art practice, if he is having this double role. He also need a lot of communication skills, and because my English is not very good, this creates a lot of barriers for me, you understand. There are many factors that are determining a good curator, and I have many problems because I have lots of lackings…
Because you know, I talk now to you, to people here in Vienna, and I see that art understanding here is better – in Bangladesh on the other hand, I had people coming to me at exhibitions and complaining that all these is just a storage room, not art.
Rini: And the discussions were more like what is proper art, why do you make art, what is art, how do you come to the art scene, like this type of questions…
Shuvo: …like: is this really a work of art, or not? So I first decided, everybody is an artist, everything is art, I push this thing…like to stop this kind of questions (laughs)
Alexandra: this is of course related to Beuys pedagogical concept. And that’s why I like so much what you did with your group OGCJM, because it was clearly about developing this creative potential prevalent in all of us, but repressed because of the aggression made by the concurrence and the principle of success. Because you had brought together in this exhibition people from various fields (sports, finances, literature and fine arts), it is exactly the kind of collaboration our world thrives for at the moment, since our world issues are too complex to be dealt with within singular fields of independent research. And so knowledge acknowledged through art can constitute an element that comes back in life.
Shuvo: Yes, that aligns with the structure of OGCJM which was also an attempt to find out whether a space could be created for art practice in the realm of Bangladesh context. Also investigating how technology opened a door of possibility to have first-hand artistic inspiration from the art world. OGCJM is also evident that an artistic lifestyle is all that one needed to become an artist, it was also a play on that. Art has to be injected in life otherwise all art pieces are just an object.
Alexandra: But let’s go back to the journey, how did you manage to come to Vienna and get the residency at Krinzinger? Also, what projects do you have in sight for the future?
Shuvo: In 2014 I stopped my work as artist, I had to work to sustain my family, my hard drive broke and I’ve lost all my video work, so I was very depressed at this time. I didn’t really think I will ever be able to go back to the art world and make it as an artist. My chance came when I applied to participate in the Dhaka Art Summit in 2016. Luckily they liked my work and even gave me a whole wall to draw on as an intervention in the exhibition. This was in February this year. Krinzinger Gallery also saw my work there, and they found out I was coming to Vienna to Rini so they offered me this residence. This opened up many possibilities for me, for example in November my work will be shown at Shanghai Biennial, and I have some projects in sight for 2017 also.
Alexandra: and Rini, what are your plans, projects for the future?
Rini: I am part of more group shows this fall in Vienna, for example on 27th October I show my work in the frame of Donnerstags in der Bibliothek events series at the academy, where I’m part of the exhibition ‘Everybody here wants you‘. Then, in December I will take part in a group exhibition on the theme of Snapshot here in Vienna (details will follow). Also, I take part in the art exhibition on the occasion of Prothom Alo’s 18th Anniversary at the Bangladesh National Museum in Dhaka (from 4th to 15th of November 2016), so things are looking up.
Alexandra: Thank you very much for interview, and we are looking forward to see and hear of you in the future.
Rini, Shuvo: thank you also.
 Book description: “A searing, kaleidoscopic portrait of Bangladesh from the 1947 Partition to the present Bangladesh was once East Pakistan, the Muslim nation carved out of the Indian Subcontinent when it gained independence from Britain in 1947. As religion alone could not keep East Pakistan and West Pakistan together, Bengali-speaking East Pakistan fought for and achieved liberation in 1971. Coups and assassinations followed, and two decades later it completed its long, tumultuous transition to parliamentary government. Its history is complex and tragic-one of war, natural disaster, starvation, corruption, and political instability. First published in India by the Aleph Book Company, Salil Tripathi’s lyrical, beautifully wrought tale of the difficult birth and conflict-ridden politics of this haunted land has received international critical acclaim, and his reporting has been honored with a Mumbai Press Club Red Ink Award for Excellence in Journalism. The Colonel Who Would Not Repent is an insightful study of a nation struggling to survive and define itself.”