PARTNERSHIP: An Interview with Munem Wasif – Co-Curator of Chobi Mela IX
For the past 18-years, the bi-annual Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography has brought the work of many internationally renowned photographers to Dhaka, exhibiting their work alongside national and regional talent. With photography having so often been excluded from the South Asian region’s visual art exhibitions and art history, Chobi Mela has helped to transform the medium’s value as an art form within the region. The festival’s ninth edition, fittingly titled Transition, looked back over its 18-year history to determine what the festival has achieved and where it stands today amidst the rapidly changing cityscape of Dhaka.
When the first edition of Chobi Mela took place, photographer Munem Wasif was an enthusiastic spectator, by the second edition he had enrolled as a student at the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. Now a member of Pathshala’s faculty, Wasif has developed professionally within the festival’s presence, and for the past three editions, has taken on the role of co-curator, alongside Tazim Wahab, and ASM Rezaur Rahman.
Pleased to be an official Research Partner for the ninth edition of the festival, we caught up with Munem Wasif to find out how he went from enthusiastic visitor to co-curator.
Samdani Art Foundation: Although you were not part of the first festival (in an organising capacity), could you provide us with some historical context as to what the impetus was that spurred Chobi Mela to become what it is today?
Munem Wasif: The festival was first instigated in 1999 (opening its first edition in 2000) by Shahidul Alam, the Founder of Drik Picture Library and Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. After obtaining his PhD in chemistry from England he returned to Bangladesh and started initiating his own photography programmes and events, then in 1994, he was asked to participate in the Arles festival. Having successfully stretched his budget, Shahidul took two photographers from Bangladesh to Arles, and on returning to Dhaka, realised that it was not possible to take the whole of Bangladesh to Paris, New York, or London: instead he would need to bring international photography to Dhaka.
During the 70s and 80s, many people left during a period when the country was still under construction, but many of them had the urge to come back. Many of Bangladesh’s big organisations—Drik, Grameen Bank, Ubinig, Gonoshasthaya Kendra—were formed by Bangladeshis’ who went abroad to study after liberation, later returning to do important things which have served the country in a larger context, and I do feel that Shahidul was is a member of that generation.
There was an urgency to do something here when Chobi Mela first started and Shahidul wanted to put Bangladesh on the global map, bringing the world to Dhaka but also demonstrating the breadth of work happening across the country.
SAF: How have you seen the public’s reaction to photography change during the history of Chobi Mela? Do you think the festival encouraged people to become more engaged with photography or to take it up themselves?
MW: A generation of photographers have grown up in Bangladesh with Chobi Mela, but when the festival first started, photography was not part of any art college or university curriculums or accepted into the Asian Art Biennale (the oldest biennale of art in Asia, founded in 1981). There was a need to do something, to create a space to learn photography, which became Pathshala, but also to create a space to see international photography, something which also happens now, in a different way, during the Dhaka Art Summit. The last Samadani Art Award was a great example, if you look at the nomination list, half of them had graduated or where studying at Pathshala.
Bangladeshi photographers have successfully managed to travel and showcase their work internationally over the past ten to fifteen years, with lots of them now successfully earning a sustainable living from their work. But with no commercial galleries in Dhaka representing photographers, it is important that people learn the vocabulary to survive in this industry.
SAF: You mention that when Chobi Mela was founded, photography was not openly considered to be part of the region’s art history and was not taught in local institutions. Do you think Chobi Mela has helped facilitate this change in attitudes towards photography?
MW: I don’t think that this change of attitude has been a reaction to Chobi Mela. There has been a generation of photographers producing amazing work here in Bangladesh; including Golam Kashem Daddy, and Manzoor Alam Beg who set up the Begart Institute of Photography before liberation and then, the Bangladeshi Photographic Society. Before Chobi Mela, there was not a platform which could absorb all this energy, which is why the festival became so important to the local photographic community.
SAF: Do you think the influence of international photography coming here to Dhaka has helped photography be seen more as an art form?
MW: The ability to have conversations with artists, curators, and historians from around the globe, always provides a very rich experience; something that it is possible for us at Chobi Mela because we were well connected with what is happening in the rest of the world. But, if you look at Pathshala’s (one of the festival’s organisers) curriculum, it does not just cover photography, but also visual anthropology, art history and curation: if you look at Chobi Mela’s programme, it reflects all these elements.
From the very beginning Chobi Mela has always been aware of the kind of world we are living in and we wanted to ensure that artists from Africa, and other lesser represented global regions, were also included in the exhibitions; something which has become a very important part of our overall programme. Before Chobi Mela, there was no photography festival in the region, but through conversations with regional peers, festival’s such as Photo Kathmandu, have also been founded.
SAF: Having been able to experience Chobi Mela while you developed professionally, how did you go from being a spectator to the curator?
MW: It was a very spontaneous progression which happened naturally as I progressed through my career as an artist and teacher. I have been actively teaching at Pathshala and involved at the school for some time and it is during my time there that I discuss with colleagues what kind of questions we should be asking ourselves, and of course, Chobi Mela is a great platform to expose those lines of enquiry. Teaching at Pathshala has given me an understanding of the boundaries we now need to push.
SAF: As this edition closes, where do you see Chobi Mela heading next?
MW: Chobi Mela has already started to change radically in the last few editions. Some of the recent initiatives which have been added to the regular programme include Chobi Mela Fellows—inviting artists, sculptors, film makers and photographers to work together. We have invited artist Mahbubur Rahman, and architect Salauddin Ahmed, into our curatorial team and worked with them for the past two editions. Moving forward, we feel there is a real need to look back over the past 18 years, to fully understand the history of Chobi Mela. We are still unsure where things will go next but are interested to create new debates and dialogues to help us read between the lines to see what we need to change to move forward.
The Samdani Art Foundation was pleased to be an official Research Partner for the ninth edition of Chobi Mela.