Chobi Mela festival opens in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Chobi Mela continues the way it began,” writes Shahidul Alam. “Unyielding to power.” He’s referencing the very first Chobi Mela festival, which opened in Dhaka, Bangladesh back in 2000. Alam and Robert Pledge had painstakingly put together an exhibition on Bangladesh’s 1971 war, which a government minister – phoning at midnight – wanted to censor; rather than comply and remove the offending prints, Alam and Pledge moved the entire exhibition to a new venue, which opened at 3pm the next day.

“That is how we’ve always done it,” writes Alam, the founder of Chobi Mela. “Against the odds, facing the storm, with the wind against our face.”

Though he doesn’t mention it outright, it’s difficult to read his comments now without also thinking of Alam’s own recent experience, in which he spent 107 days in Dhaka Central Jail last year. The 63-year old photographer and Drik Gallery director had been arrested on 05 August after stating in an interview with Al Jazeera that the wave of student protests in Bangladesh last year was a reaction to government corruption. He was charged with violating Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), which has been used in more than 20 recent cases involving journalists, most of them related to news-reporting.

“It is a fantastic feeling to be free in a free country, breathing free air,” he told AFP when he was finally released on 20 November. “But I hope for freedom for everyone else.”

A mutilated head, in Rayer Bazar brick field, where the nation’s finest intellectuals were murdered, by the Pakistani army with the help of their collaborators (razakars). Dhaka, Bangladesh. December 16, 1971. From Rashid Talukder (1939-2011): A Life’s Work

Given this hiatus this year’s Chobi Mela looked under threat but it’s now back for its tenth edition, curated by ASM Rezaur Rahman, Munem Wasif, Sarker Protick, and Tanzim Wahab plus guest curators, and featuring 33 exhibitions by artists from 21 countries. The shows include a retrospective of work by well-respected Bangladeshi photojournalist Rashid Talukder, which “portrays a priceless visual documentation of Bangladeshi people’s history of independence – starting from the early 1950s language movement to 1971’s liberation war”; it also includes Archives of Persistence, a group show of images from places of conflict and transition, which includes work by the Kashmir Photo Collective, Bangladesh Garment Sromik Samhati, and the Burj al-Shamali Collection, plus a solo show by Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas based on the Nicaraguan revolution of the late 1970s.

Chobi Mela is known for creating innovative exhibitions, including shows outside conventional gallery spaces. This year, 13 Bangladeshi artists have been part-commissioned to produce site-specific work under the theme of ‘place’, and, as in previous years, mobile exhibitions on rickshaw vans will travel all over Dhaka – including to remote locations, in which the local population has low levels of textual literacy. The festival’s programme of workshops and talks, meanwhile, includes presentations by author Arundhati Roy, Indian photojournalist Raghu Rai, and German publisher and bookmaker Gerhard Steidl.

Mobile exhibition, Parliament House, Chobi Mela IX

“When times have been turbulent, our audacity got the better of us,” writes Alam. “Refusing to accept the impossibility of our ambitions or the paucity of our resources, we stuck our necks out, often inciting the wrath of the powerful. That insistence on the freedom to think and disagree, to unsettle with images, has characterised Chobi Mela.

“We shall swim upstream, sail against the wind, buck the trend. We shall remain unbowed. Our art will not be bound by pristine walls but spill out in stormy nights and onto busy streets. Above all, we are here to stay.”

Organised by Drik Picture Library and Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, the 10th edition of Chobi Mela is open from 28 February – 09 March in Dhaka, Bangladesh

The “Jak Chobi” are family pictures made by the Burmese junta. On the front of the photographs, the family members are pictured alongside a number and the name of their locality while on the back a stamp with a signature from Burmese officials is apposed. In case of control, the family has to show the picture in order to avoid any further trouble. As they do not have the permission to leave their villages, the picture permits to control the presence of all family members. During the crossing of the Bangladeshi border, those pictures have been deteriorated by elements like water and mud adding a symbolic layer refering to their struggles and denied identity. From Archives of Persistence, photographed by Walid Saddam
Borders and Freedoms/Borders of Freedom © The Travelling Archive
Wakefulness and the Dream State: A Self-Study © Umrao Singh
From Live, Love, Refugee © Omar Imam
From An offset Artist © Dayanita Singh
9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo © Issa Touma
Managua, Nicaragua, July 2004. Re-Framing History, Nicaragua mural project installation based of original photographs taken in 1978 of the popular insurrection against Somoza. From Nicaragua in Time © Susan Meiselas
From She Dances on Jackson © Vanessa Winship
GEO. Georgia. Anaklia. 2013. In 2013, president Mikheil Saakashvili was ousted and all his personal projects of accelerated change in Georgia were put on hold. Facade-like modernisation covered the greatest number of political prisoners in entire post-soviet region. The series of images traces the abandoned dream of a man with almost unlimited power in his country. An unfinished viewing tower. In 2011, President Mikheil Saakashvili visited Anaklia, a village located on the Black Sea. He conferred town rights on it and announced the beginning of an ambitious development programme which would transform it into a luxury resort. Resplendent with lavish glamour, Anaklia was intended both to become the new authorities’ political flagship and to compensate for the nearby city of Sukhumi, which was lost during the Georgian-Russian-Abkhazian conflict of the early 1990s. Construction work began in 2012. After Saakashvili’s party was defeated in the parliamentary election of 2013 and Saakashvili himself fled the country, the work was discontinued and the colossal building site rapidly transformed into crumbling ‘modern’ ruins. From the series Refusal © Rafal Milach
Communism in Russia. Communist Party of the Russian Federation: Kirov district office, Kaluga province. First Secretary Valentina Gelperina. The KPRF came second in the Russian legislative election of 2016 (13%). From Red Utopia © Jan Banning
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy