Susan’s First Visit to Dhaka
By ucwajgo, on 14 July 2010
It was most interesting to see Bangladesh, our institution and art world through Susan’s eyes. Many things were brought to our notice through this contact. Susan’s camera was active throughout her 10 day trip. She reveled in the sensory feast of Dhaka, the colors, the art in the transport decoration, the hand painted sign-boards, the costumes, and the density of Dhaka. All the handmade objects, signboards, decoration teeming in Dhaka and outside which we took for granted were transformed when seen through her eyes. What people of lesser means used for decoration was precious to her. In the economic reality of Bangladesh cheap labor made handmade objects cheaper than machine-made ones. The exact opposite value is attached to handmade objects in the UK.
Susan brought to our notice the tranquility and almost out of the world atmosphere of the Faculty of Fine Art, a haven of calm in the heart of turbulent Dhaka. The contrast of the outside and the inside was very dramatic for her. She remarked on the method of our instruction which is focused mainly on mastering naturalism through the 7 different practical departments of the institution, namely – painting, sculpture, printmaking, graphic design, oriental art, ceramics and crafts. We emphasize working from life, which is not a priority anymore at the Slade. She also noticed the degree of skill our students have, not only in their academic pursuits, but beyond. I analyze this as a result of our cultural and economic context. We came to know how Slade students are treated as artists from the very beginning and their work is self-directed while our students have specific courses that they have to complete based on medium or subject. Another surprise for Susan was the fact that there was no provision for interdisciplinary exchange for students in Dhaka or to change their department once they had been admitted. Through our discussions it became apparent that we in Dhaka also felt the lack of interdisciplinary exchange and this was something we thought needed to be addressed. Susan’s appraisal was not really a big surprise for us because there have been questions raised by our teachers and students as to how effective our teaching methods are in preparing professional artists in the contemporary context. It was this need that had prompted us to work on this partnership.
Historically, our institution roughly followed the model of Calcutta Art School where most of the founding faculty of our institution had been students and teachers. Calcutta Art School had been founded by the British in 1854 basically as a vocational training institution modeled on the British design schools. However, historical, social, and political circumstances transformed it contextually. The art school founded in Dhaka in 1948 developed its own contextual characteristics, something between a vocational and a fine art school. It was also true that providing a vocational background had been an objective because art had to be useful to have a place in society when the school had been founded. That situation has not really changed in Bangladesh, a country still grappling with basic economic problems. Our students have no art background when they are admitted to our institution so the foundation of art education begins in the institution whereas Slade students are already prepared through their school education or a foundation course. The contrast in our situations became very clear and so the exchange also led to reflections on the relationship of education, culture and economics.
Professor Lala Rukh Selim
The first trip for the project was my trip to Dhaka in July 2010. Although I was coming from a one-month residency in Bangkok, itself a vibrant colourful city full of traffic mayhem, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer saturation of Dhaka on every level.
Looking back at my first notes and observations, the key things that initially struck me were the depth of visual culture prevalent throughout. As well as the famously painted rickshaws there are hand painted trucks, buses, number plates, signs, just about everything. The buses had a handmade quality to them – hand painting and handmade articles have a value in the UK over the printed, mass manufactured images and signs. The reverse seems true here. The ability to make and create seems far more embedded in the culture and results in a visual feast – even security railings in Dhaka are made noteworthy through design and geometry – making me re- view our own cities and streets as drab and utilitarian by contrast.
There were different models for supporting contemporary art that I became aware of. For example on my first day in Dhaka I was taken to see the Bengal Art Foundation’s ‘Art Camp’, where 150 distinguished painters from East and West Bengal were brought together for a few days of frantic creative activity. I understood that many of the works produced during this camp (and in others like it) would then become part of the Foundation’s extensive contemporary collection.
Seeing London, in particular the Art Galleries, though Lala Rukh and her colleagues’ eyes was revealing. There are very different priorities and sensibilities at play in the modes of presentation of work in both countries. To me the art spaces in Dhaka seemed to crowd in the paintings, no space left uncovered and no sense or opportunity for a single work to ‘hold’ a wall. This was in stark contrast to the luxuriousness of space within our cultural and commercial art spaces (and all too often a limit to the amount of truly quality contemporary work within them).
In broader cultural terms I had the privilege of being shown around the Bangladesh national museum by the deputy keeper, and whereas in the UK (and most of Europe and America) the museum visitor tends to emerge blinking into the bright lights of the bookshop (or gift shop) to take advantage of all the merchandising opportunities, or at the very least take home a clutch of postcards as an aide memoire of the visit, in this instance no such consumerist opportunity – so much an expectation in the west – was in evidence.
The Slade as the chosen companion British art school could not represent a greater contrast in terms of curriculum design. Unlike many other British art schools – and most American art schools – the Slade does not adopt a modular structure, rather gives each student a studio space and encourages them to determine their own studio practice as individuals from the first day. Students are accepted into the school of Fine Art and choose their subject area as appropriate for the development of their work, on occasion even moving between areas if the work demands it. The University of Dhaka Fine Art Faculty by contrast follows a very strict curriculum, students are accepted into each subject area at the outset and there is no opportunity to change or move between areas even for graduate study. One thing that both sets of students have in common however is a very high level of ability, enthusiasm and commitment to their work, as evidenced by the very exciting levels of engagement in the workshops shown by student participants both in Dhaka and Slade.
Professor Susan Collins