Samdani Art Foundation
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Tayeba Begum Lipi, A Room Of My Own, 2014. Commissioned and produced by the Samdani Art Foundation for the Dhaka Art Summit 2014. Courtesy of the artist, the Dhaka Art Summit and the Samdani Art Foundation. 

Tayeba Begum Lipi (b. 1969) is one of the most recognized contemporary artists from Bangladesh, and a key figure in the development of support systems for artists in the country as a founding member and trustee of the Britto Arts Trust, along with her husband, Bangladeshi artist Mahbubur Rahman. Lipi was born in the north of Bangladesh in Gaibandha, a small village without significant access to medical resources, but with generally large family sizes (Lipi is one of 12 siblings). The only tool readily available to deliver a child in the villages is a sterilized surgical razor blade. Lipi’s most iconic works are those that transform this tool of reproduction into seductive and reflective sculptures, playing with Bangladeshi cultural iconography of femininity. One example is Love Bed (2012), a larger than king-size sculpture of a marriage bed, created from these gleaming blades with the Bangladeshi brand Balaka printed on them. While steel normally has a masculine connotation as a medium, for Lipi steel describes the strength of women to keep families and communities together, despite all of the hardships they are faced with, especially in Bangladesh. This work, which is in the permanent collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and many others in the series such as Bizarreand Beautiful (2011) which was shown at the 54th Venice Biennale in the Bangladesh pavilion, are rife with contradictions between the warmth and appeal of the subject and cold and off-putting perceived threat of the medium.

While Lipi’s works can be read as looking at the overall social fabric of Bangladesh and South Asia, they are actually born from a very personal space. Lipi’s solo project for the Dhaka Art Summit, A Room of My Own, inspired by the texts of Virginia Woolf, provides context for the artist’s previous body of work, sharing the artist’s silent journey over the years, fighting her own body and soul in the wish to conceive a child. The work provides a deeper understanding to her practice as a sculptor and the richness of her life experience. Lipi’s husband is also part of this story, and it is interesting to draw connections between their respective uses of sharp objects to depict resilience in the face of adverse circumstances.

Rahman and Lipi studied together since 1986, were married ten years later, and founded the Britto Art Trust in 2002 along with 4 other contemporary artists. Reflecting back on these days, Lipi shares that “As young artists, we usually thought about collective efforts and had always been surrounded by friends. We knew that we were taking a huge challenge by not going for any regular jobs that artists used to do to survive…so at that stage our very early conjugal life it was all about building ourselves as artists, because we knew it was not easy to be a full time unconventional art practitioner in this rather limited art scene.” Being so focused on the birth of their careers as artists, they could not imagine having a child, and chose not to start a family.

Coming from such a large family, the artist was unaware of age limitations for pregnancy until 2007, and when she conceived for a second time in 2009, she was over the moon with happiness. Three months into the pregnancy, however, she lost the child and was hospitalized, and after many tests, pills, and other medications, Lipi realized the sad reality that she would not be able to have a child of her own. After the stress of the 2011 Venice Biennale and of purchasing a new space for Britto Arts Trust, the reality of her future fully weighed in on her, and realizing that she might not be the only person suffering in silence, she decided to disclose her journey through her work. Lipi’s methods, however, are more subtle than other artists such as Tracey Emin or Sophie Calle who also publically explore personal pain.

In a Room of My Own, Lipi takes chronological steps into the special times of her life, sharing black and white photos taken at the time. The artist manipulates private items that women use as part of their bodies’ cycles that show the potential for pregnancy, such as sanitary napkins, safety pins, and tampons, and small objects that allow the audience to visualize a born and un-born child. Low lights create a sense of intimacy in the space. Despite the deep pain reflected in this room and her wider body of work, the artist finds it important to share that this experience does not define her as a person or as an artist. “We are a happy couple as always. I am not at all frustrated but of course sometime it makes me sad to think about the reality that women do have a limitation that cannot be restrained by anyone. At some point they are limited to the reserve of their own eggs that make them unable to give birth.”