Future of Hope

In the age of digitalisation, Artitude has given art institutions and professionals a platform to promote and support creativity, while physical movement being restricted due to health and safety issue. Our online exhibit is a fantastic window to flourish art and culture to an extended level, which has never been thought possible pre-pandemic. Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation (DBF) has collaborated with Artitude to launch an online exhibition titled, “Future of Hope – creative transmission during pandemic“ via our platforms to launch the exhibition online. We congratulate the participant artists, art professionals, and logistic provider and DBF‘s communication team a great success with this online exhibition.

HISTORY AND PRESENT

Pandora, in Greek mythology, the first woman. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, after Prometheus, a fire god and divine trickster, had stolen fire from heaven and bestowed it upon mortals, Zeus, the king of the gods, determined to counteract this blessing.

He accordingly commissioned Hephaestus (a god of fire and patron of craftsmen) to fashion a woman out of earth, upon whom the gods bestowed their choicest gifts.

In Hesiod’s Works and Days, Pandora had a jar containing all manner of misery and evil. Zeus sent her to Epimetheus, who forgot the warning of his brother Prometheus and made Pandora his wife. She afterward opened the jar, from which the evils flew out over the earth. HOPE ALONE REMAINED INSIDE, the lid having been shut down before she could escape. In a later story the jar contained not evils but BLESSINGS , which would have been preserved for the human race had they not been lost through the opening of the jar out of curiosity.

Pandora’s jar became a box in the 16th century, when the Renaissance humanist Erasmus either mistranslated the Greek or confused the vessel with the box in the story of Cupid and Psyche.

In circa 2020 during Covid Pandemic some like-minded creative thinkers hatched the idea of releasing the HOPE from the Pandora box and watch its Future.

NINE PERTICIPATING ARTISTS

Bipasha Hayat – Brooklyn
Hlubaishu Chowdhuri – Khagrachari
Imtiaj Shohag – Paris
Joydeb Roaja – Khagrachari
Kamrun Samadi – Vancouver
Mong Mong Sho – Bandarban
Md Tokon – Newyork
Sujan Chowdhury – Vancouver
Zakir Us Salam – Tokyo

Counsellor – Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam
Mentor – Professor Shishir Bhattacharjee

Pandemic Thoughts

Counselor’s Note

Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam

The Tenacity of Hope: Art in the time of the Pandemic

The new coronavirus pandemic began as a global health crisis but soon became a threat to all human pursuits –from day to day routines to education, from work habits to time honored social practices. It sent people into seclusion and world economies into a free fall.  The pandemic created widespread panic as people had no clue how to handle it. It caused massive dislocations in plans that families, institutions and states had so meticulously put in place. Weddings, holiday trips, art exhibitions, export orders and sports events were postponed or cancelled; unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence increased, and classrooms, workplaces and television talk shows turned virtual. The pandemic is supposed to have ushered in the era of the new normal, but we are yet to understand the full extent of its impact on our individual and collective lives. A few months into the pandemic, we realized how stressful our lives had become and how much of despair we all had been through. Even after some countries have been able to flatten the curve of the pandemic, not everything has been back to the old normal. A few of these countries have seen a second, even a third wave of the coronavirus, which is dimming the prospect of a full recovery anytime soon. Even the few lucky ones who have been successful in their fight with the beast are living in constant fear of a resurgence.

That word ‘fear’ has become synonymous with our experience of living through the pandemic. It derives from the anxiety and uncertainty we feel as it continues to unsettle every aspect of our lives. If fear is chronic and disproportionate, psychiatrists tell us, our defense mechanisms crumble. We need to come up with a strategy to fight the fear: we have to harness the power of science and innovative medicine to collectively fight the disease, as we need to pool our efforts to shape a future which will be more just and equitable. And at the forefront of the fight, along with scientists, health workers, specialists, researchers, lawmakers and educators are artists with their power of imagination to instil hope in the minds of the people. As the noted Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote in his The Principle of Hope (which came out in three volumes from 1954 to 1959):  ‘Hope, superior to fear, is neither passive like the latter, nor locked into nothingness. The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them…’

A number of young artists from Bangladesh have just done that – they have resisted fear and come out of confinement imposed by the pandemic to create hope with their art works. It’s not that they have flouted the lockdown measures imposed by the city or national authorities where they live: what they have done is celebrate the power of hope to break down the barriers of fear and anxiety. The artists came together under a project that asked them to reflect on the restive time and the options we have to remake a future based on the lessons learnt. It was expected that the art works they would produce would will be shown in an exhibition — first virtually and then, at a later date, in real time and place — and I am sure, when that happens, the audiences will also feel the power of hope emboldening them to engage with the future. Titled The Future of Hope, the project has been sponsored by Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation (DBF). Known as an organization dedicated to building a global platform for artists to share their visions, experiences and best practices for a collective pursuit of excellence, DBH has already extended its assistance to various art exhibitions and artists’ residency programs both in Bangladesh and abroad. It sponsored the public events connected to the exhibition ‘Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan’ at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge in January 2020 –which I had the opportunity to attend and also chair a seminar session. DBH hosted the second edition of the Majhi International Art Residency Program in Berlin between August 24 and September 12, 2020, right when the pandemic was raging (it plans to support the residency program for the next ten years). The Majhi event was nothing short of a statement of hope, as it brought artists and audiences together to celebrate art at a time marked by fear, anger and resentment. A saw a brief video of the event, and was struck by the air of conviviality despite the inevitable mask wearing and social distancing. The sound track had bursts of laughter which rang so soothing to my tired ears.

The Future of Hope artists are dispersed in all four corners of the world:  Bipasha Hayat, has been stranded in Brooklyn, New York since the beginning of the pandemic, Md. Tokon lives and works in the same borough, Qamrun and Sujan, an artist couple live in Vancouver, Imtiaz Shohag and Zakir Salam reside in Paris and Tokyo respectively, while the remaining three artists are from Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh –Hlubaishu, Mong Mong Sho and Joybeb Roaja. The nine have widely differing approaches to art, which is to be expected given their varying backgrounds, academic training and professional involvements. The diversity is also reflected in their choice of materials and techniques. What they have in common though is their conviction that artists can be real change makers. They believe that art functions at multiple levels, combining the aesthetic and the visual with the social and the performative. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how social issues are central in our efforts to reimagine the future. If a keyword of our discourses about the future is hope, then it must be audacious enough to aim for a sea change. And that change should begin by redefining things from our political and social lexicons that appear inflexible and immutable: power, justice, social responsibility, environment and climate, the binaries of self and other, joy and sorrow –just to name a few.

This is precisely what the nine artist have done, each in their own ways. The ‘concept notes’ they have prepared throw some light on how they view their role as artists and their perception of time and space, hope and despair, but more importantly, they show how they imagine or reimagine the future. Bipasha Hayat, for example, finds a close connection between past and future. Revisiting the trial of Socrates, the Greek philosopher accused of showing disrespect towards the gods and corrupting the youth, Bipasha finds the same blindness, intolerance and ignorance that poison the minds of people in many communities in the world today. Drawing a parallel between the deaths of Socrates and George Floyd—the latter leading to the recent revival of the Black Lives Matter Movement — she strongly argues that the concepts of freedom, human rights and justice should not be confined to law books and statutes, but should engage us in our daily struggle for a better future. The stone impressions she made remind us of the need to steel our resolve if hope has to find a counter to play.

Hlubaishu, an art teacher and social activist, also goes back to the past to retrieve a future lost in the debris of the here and now. The past for her is her childhood that she rediscovered in the company of rural children, finding joy and freedom at the same time and also the power of innocence. She is grateful that the children reconnected her with nature, and the treasure it has to offer. Hlubaishu worked with the children to make art objects entirely from what nature cared to provide. She was amazed to see how easily the children made masks (the ambiguous face covering that has saved lives but also created political and ideological fault lines) and other objects with leaves, branches and twigs they collected from the woods. This rekindled her hope for the future. Future is already here, she says, one just has to go and search for it.

The children, more than anyone else, can show the way to the future.

Imtiaz Shohag has created some hot wax paintings that attract the viewers for their challenging content, refreshingly bold style and a certain meditative quality they possess. As he walked through the deserted streets of Paris during the pandemic, he was startled by the eerie, almost surreal scenes unfolding before him. Working in the seclusion of a studio he had set up in a rural location where the lively presence of nature sharply contrasts with the barrenness of the city, Shohag made full use of the rich texture and optical effects of encaustic painting to create an illusory surface that plants doubts in viewers about reality itself. This, he hopes, will activate the viewers to challenge the larger doubts cast by the pandemic on our future, as the textural and optical effects of the paintings will lead them to discover the message of hope –hope in a more beautiful tomorrow that we can begin to build through patience and hard work, a reflection of how encaustic paintings are actually done.

Qamrun and Sujan have also come up with their separate interpretations of the troubled times and used simple and familiar objects to relate them to the audience. Qamrun has gone back to the tradition of embroidered quilt—that time honored stitching and embroidery work done by our rural women which combines aesthetics and utility, as it functions both as a comforter in winter and an art work in its own right.  In embroidered images of everyday objects and rich floral or other decorative designs, the embroidered quilt also makes a statement of the artistic sensibilities of its maker as well her world view, which essentially is limited to her own surroundings. Qamrun has retained the basic features of the embroidered quilt –its patchwork of designs, the diversity of materials its uses (clothes of various colors and textures) and the stitch work — but has used images from the current and past pandemic to complete her statement. George Floyd and the BLM are there too, but at the center is a rainbow of hope with the message that some Italian children gave to the world during the early phase of the pandemic: ‘Everything will be alright’.

Sujan is a storyboard artist who seems to have shifted a gear. Instead of the horizontal lines forming his story panels, he has opted for vertical lines which serve as bars of a birdcage he has drawn. His birdcage has a message though, which is about hope. He shows that a cage cannot keep a bird for ever –the bird’s wings, clipped and tied, grow again, and in Sujan’s painting, they grow on the cage itself. When a prison becomes the liberator then the whole idea of incarceration takes a different meaning. The pandemic has forced us into bubbles and prisons of our own making, societies have become prisoners to systems that show little sympathy to the sufferings of people and entire populations have become prisoners of corporate greed. The world has indeed seen a proliferation of prisons. Sujan has painted images of everyday life on the cage, but the conclusion is never in doubt: things indeed will be alright in the end.

Joybeb Roaja considers himself a performance artist, but is equally accomplished in drawing and painting. In a series of sketches he has done on the distribution of relief goods to the needy people during the pandemic, he has used satire and dark irony to show how even an act of charity has nowadays become a means of publicity. In photographs printed in newspapers and uploaded in social communication media the givers of relief goods appear smug and self-satisfied. In fact in some photographs the number of relief givers is ridiculously higher than those receiving them. Joydeb attacks such posturing by putting sacks of relief goods in place of the heads of these donors, suggesting an abject transformation of these people into objects without any soul. He has also made videos where he dramatizes the same thoughts though performance. Joydeb’s hope for the future lies in imagining a time when no relief will be necessary, when everyone will share in the society’s wealth.

Zakir Salam’s paintings are rich in color scheme and tonality and show a careful multimedia use. The impression the paintings give is one of profusion; they gratify our senses and soothe our troubled minds. Living and working in Japan, Zakir has come to appreciate its decorative visual arts and the elegant refinement that characterizes them. His work also tries to use this rich visuality to bring home his message of hope. Zakir also has a passion for drawing which comes with a mix of line drawing and color. In a series of intricate drawings he has used the motif of hands. In drawing after drawing, a hand clasps another, hands unite to form a chain, and even gloved hands slip into other hands. What these hands suggest is the power of unity. In the time of pandemic when people are encouraged to frequently wash hands with soap and when shaking hands is a no no, Zakir reminds us that hands are metaphors of a unity that we can forge even in seclusion. All one needs is to imagine reaching out and touching someone in the time of distress.

Md. Tokon, whose paintings I find reflective and lyrical at their core, make the best use of light and shade in creating, in his words, ‘mindscapes’ of memory, nostalgia and hope. His paintings evoke nature in a substantial way as a force that can change the way we relate to the world and ourselves. Tokon has tried to reach the meditative depths of nature and repeatedly explored the relationship between the ocean, the forest and the sky. Is there a music that nature plays, he asks himself. But there is no exuberance in his nature paintings; instead, these are marked by a quiet stillness. His hope also lies in finding that still center of nature. This is one reason why he repeats his color schemes, only varying the contours or outlines of his images.

And finally, we have Mong Mong Sho, who came home for a few days before the pandemic from China –where he had gone for higher studies –and got stranded here. His plans all went awry, but he began to keep himself occupied revisiting his childhood memories of the sea and the green that spread all the way to the beaches. He remembered the stories of the fishermen and their songs. He found a strong attraction to the fishing boats that he frequently painted. The fishermen’s songs began to reverberate in his mind, giving him hope for e revival of nature, and with it, freedom from the sufferings brought on by the pandemic. Nature indeed is reborn in his work in vibrant colors. The accent on songs, colors, memories and his magical transformation into a boat all point to a renewal – a renewal spurred by hope.

The Future of Hope attempts to redefine the future and bring it in line withthe expectations people have for a more livable world. To the artists, therefore, future is not an uncertain tomorrow full of the afflictions we suffer today, but a time that we can live even during the pandemic. If we are determined to weather the storm called pandemic with hope, the artists tell us, we can rearrange the flow of time, and make our today a tomorrow of hope.

Dhaka.

Mentor’s Note