Women in arts of BangladeshLala Rukh Selim
Women have always created art. They have used visual language to express themselves. The concepts of high art and low art, minor art and major art, folk art and fine art, have been developed resulting in marginalising the art of the many (common people), women, indigenous, and so forth to create a mainstream hegemony.
This hegemony is open to question. The politics of culture is one of the foremost reasons why Bangladesh came into being. The culture of the common Bengali became the core of the language movement as it was the struggle to give Bengali, the language of the common people, the status of state language. With that came the realisation of the unique culture of this land and its celebration, much to the irritation of the Pakistani rulers.
Though we won a free nation stemming from the language movement, our middle class is still very wary of the art of the common people. Their taste is a mishmash of western influence, a result of a colonial educational structure, globalisation, satellite culture, and the information technology revolution. All this is a preamble to saying that there is no way to single out what art is. Art has many forms within one society. Thus when we talk about women in the arts we should be very inclusive.
However, this discussion is focussed on the women who are practising in the mainstream of artistic activity, that which is patronised by the state, institutionalised, critiqued and collected. The entry of women in numbers in the art mainstream in Bangladesh is fairly recent.
With the exceptions of Novera Ahmed in the 50s and Rumi Islam in the sixties we really see the first big entry of women after liberation, in the seventies. In the struggle for freedom from colonial oppression a spirit of egalitarianism was born which gave the women of this land a new freedom. The international tide of socialism was strong and Bangladesh was also caught up in that tide. Women were at the forefront of the struggle and this spirit of equality opened up new boundaries for women. The field of art was no exception.
In the independent Bangladesh; Farida Zaman, Shamim Sikder, Nazlee Laila Mansur, Naima Haque, Shadhana Islam and others finished their institutional art education in the seventies. They remained active gaining fame and institutional recognition. The first group of women artists ‘Group of Four’ was formed in 1974 by Farida Zaman, Shamim Sikder, Naima Haque and Shadhana Islam.
From the seventies onwards more and more women entered the institutionalised world of Bangladesh art transforming it with their active presence. Their works represent the existence and the social reality of women from the perspective of women. They also express the exploitation of and discrimination against women in patriarchal society. Thus, it can be said that they have tread a separate path in the established mainstream creating a variety in their use of the language and medium of art. They have ventured into unknown territory with remarkable courage.
This is possibly because the women who actually do manage to carve a niche for themselves in this world of frenzied competition have to be unusually committed to be practicing in a field which has no boundaries. Art demands dedication and only those who are capable of it can stay on this path balancing the complex roles and responsibilities of a woman with that of an artist. This in itself can be a formidable challenge.
Women artists who have specifically treated the subject of women from a perspective identifiably different from male artists are Nazlee Laila Mansur, Naima Haque, Dipa Haq, Nasreen Begum, Rokeya Sultana, Dilara Begum Jolly, Fareha Zeba, Atiya Islam Anne, Nilufer Chaman, Nasima Haque Mitu, Tyeba Begum Lipi, Shulekha Chowdhury, Nazia Andaleeb Prima, among others.
The objectification of women in the still firmly male dominated art scene of Bangladesh is absent in their work. When women represent women, the form of their expression does not present woman as ‘other’. They inhabit the forms they create through lived experiences and emotions. Their art opens up an alternative reading of contemporary society and its contested issues.
Undoubtedly the art scene of Bangladesh has been altered and enriched by the eloquent presence of women. They have maintained a meaningful link with the traditional art of women by representing human society and the desire to transform it through their works.
The writer is an associate professor at the department of sculpture of Dhaka University
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