Samdani Art Foundation
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Mahbubur Rahman, A Space For Rainbow, 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.

The Bangladeshi artist Mahbubur Rahman (b. 1969) has been instrumental in the development of contemporary art in Bangladesh both through his personal experimental practice, his activism, and also his work developing the Britto Arts Trust, which he co-founded with his wife Tayeba Begum Lipi in 2002. Rahman’s paintings and performances have been widely exhibited in solo and group shows in Bangladesh and internationally in several renowned institutions including the Bangladesh Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale and the 14th Asian Art Biennale.

In many of his performance works, the body plays a key role in the artist’s journey for knowledge. In his powerful and ongoing performance Transformation, Rahman wears a faceless hood with attached buffalo horns, and walks around the streets of Dhaka. The performance refers to local lore of the farmer Nuruldunner Sarajiban, whose resistance to British colonial forces ruined him and resulted in having to pull his own plough in the place of buffalo, crippling him to a point where he is left powerless and braying like a cow. The Triangle Arts Trust has remarked, “Rahman's perfor- mance plays with a sense of impotence, contrasting the symbolic value of the horns with his blind and helpless wanderings.” Rahman is interested in how norms in society are created, and what forces cause certain acts to be forbidden. Rahman opines, “The norms in the diverse culture of societies are usually created according to the local atmosphere, weather and time. Many illogical norms coexist bringing about conflict and compelling us to decide how we ought to act. The larger part of the community chooses the social norms.”

Gender norms are something that have interested Rahman from a young age. The artist is one of 8 siblings, and the first male born after his 5 elder sisters. He was always curious why he was the one that was always doted upon even though he wasn’t the youngest child. He grew up in old Dhaka, and in the early stages of his career, his early interest in gender politics extended to the lives of sex workers and cross-gendered people he encountered around the neighbourhood. The tragic rapes during the war in 1971 also keep popping to the forefront of his mind, and looking at how gender norms can lead to violence.

Rahman has recently become extremely interested in the treatment of the minority LGBT communities both at home, and abroad. The repeal of Section 377 in India in December 2013 repealed a 2009 ruling that decriminalized same-sex marriage in the country. This highly publicized ruling provided yet another example of the barriers to gay marriage and gender equality that are rampant in South Asia, and the rest of the world. In Bangladesh, LGBT people face extreme discrimination and verbal and physical abuse, and same-sex intimate relationships are illegal. People who support the change of these restrictive rules are battling a powerful system, and Rahman sees these peace lovers as a kind of warrior. In his solo project, A Space for Rainbow, the artist provides a space for warriors to become lovers, and to think about a covenant of peace and happiness, reflecting on the multiple meanings of the symbol of the rainbow from Christianity to gender equality. Rahman designed a common washroom on the third floor for warriors in which he projects videos depicting scenes of masculinity on urinals made of surgical scissors, a medium which has threatening undertones to virility. Washrooms are places where people are their most vulnerable, and by looking at this shared vulnerability, perhaps prejudices could be diminished.

Sounds of singing bowls and bells create a sense of calm and safety in this charged space. The artist shares that the “intention of this rainbow room is for the public to disconnect from their regular destructive life and rather give them a breathing space to convene and think about peace and happiness.”The artist believes that people lose identity in a washroom because it is a space where one tries to become comfortable and cleanse them self. Common warriors can join forces here with peace lovers to fight for equality. The artist has also curated an exhibition around the same theme at Britto Arts Trust.