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The Asian Art Biennale in Context

Curated by Diana Campbell

Directly after DAS 2016, I spent two months as researcher in residence at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, looking to trace Fukuoka’s exhibitions of modern Bangladeshi art in the 1980s. Flipping through the extensive photo albums kept by museum staff from the time, I encountered installation images of Asian Artists Exhibition II—Festival: Contemporary Asian Art Show 1980 (known from here on out as the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show, Part II) from November 1980 which included works of art that were familiar to me from the storage of National Art Gallery Collection at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. The haunting blue geometry of Safiuddin Ahmed’s 1979 painting Fishing Net exhibited not only at the 1st Fukuoka Asian Art Show, Part II, but also at the First Asian Art Biennale in 1981, and DAS 2016 in Rewind. It became apparent that the exhibition histories between the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (FAAM), the Asian Art Biennale and the Dhaka Art Summit (both hosted in the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy) were intimately intertwined in ways not perceptible on the surface. 


A whole generation of Bangladeshi intellectuals was brutally massacred by the Pakistani military just two days before the country’s independence in 1971, and understandably investing in the regeneration of Bangladeshi culture was high on the national agenda. The Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy was founded by an act of Parliament in 1974, and the visionary and charismatic artist Syed Jahangir joined as its inaugural Director of Visual Arts in 1977, determined for Bangladeshi art to make a mark across the country and also internationally.


In 1978, Jahangir quickly organized in Dresden what would be a traveling exhibition of Bangladeshi contemporary art, which inspired him to set up the visual arts department of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy as a collecting institution via the National Art Gallery collection. He traveled to India that same year to participate (as an exhibiting artist) in the fourth Triennale-India, where he was impressed by the Lalit Kala Akademi. Nevertheless, he decided to take his own institution in a different direction, looking instead to the East for inspiration, as many artists in previous generations in Bengal had done—from Nandalal Bose (1882–1996) to Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) to Mohammad Kibria (1929–2011), to name but a few of those who employed new strategies in their quests to create autonomous spaces for art.


Jahangir visited Fukuoka twice in 1980 to prepare for the 1st Fukuoka Asian Art Show, Part II, where he consulted on the participation of 28 Bangladeshi artists, including himself. It was during his first visit to Fukuoka during the Summer of 1980 were he first had the idea to start the Asian Art Biennale, which is the oldest Biennale of contemporary art to continue to exist in Asia, recently completing its 17th edition. With strong support from the Bangladesh government and the foreign ministry, assisted by Farooq Sobhan (who is now chair of the board of the Samdani Art Foundation), it seemed the biennale was set to succeed in its January 1981 opening date.


However, when Jahangir returned to Fukuoka in November 1980, with only two months to go until the Dhaka opening of the Asian Art Biennale, only three countries had agreed to participate in the platform. Jahangir networked with his fellow artists in Fukuoka, who through a form of radical generosity, agreed to initiate their countries’ participation outside of diplomatic channels. These networks forged in Fukuoka were pivotal to the success of the Asian Art biennale under Jahangir’s leadership; seminal figures from Southeast Asia such as Raymundo Albano (Philippines), Redza Piyadasa (Malaysia), Mochtar Apin (Indonesia), and Lain Singh Bangdel (Nepal) lent their talent as organizers to bring the best of their country’s artists into the fold of the Asian Art Biennale in Bangladesh. This speaks to the energy, drive, and gumption present among artist communities at the time to set up their own alignments outside of traditional and often colonial channels. We are pleased to show photographs reprinted from the archive of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum chronicling the beginnings of these friendships that forged inter-Asia solidarity extending into Bangladesh.


The Asian Art Biennale in Context at DAS 2018 presents all of the 27 works of Bangladeshi art that the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy collected out of the first four Asian Art Biennales before Jahangir left his post soon after the 5th edition in 1991. The acquisition committee was made up of a group of senior artists from the Academy, and therefore most of these 27 works were made by artists who were part of this system.  With this in mind, the selection of works is not indicative of the spirit of the Bangladeshi participation as a whole at these Asian Art Biennales, with the exception of SM Sultan, Ratan Majumdar, Nurun Nahar Papa, Rasha, and Pramesh Kumar Mondol most of whom led more bohemian existences.


Rattan Majumdar’s work stood out among the 28 artists exhibiting at the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show Part II. He was only 26 years old at the time, and also exhibited his melancholic prints at the Whitechapel Gallery that same year, and in Dresden two years earlier in the exhibition previously mentioned in this text. Notably absent from the contemporary art scene of Dhaka today, Majumdar has an incredible archive chronicling his early days as an emerging Bangladeshi artist supported by the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy which we are pleased to show in this exhibition. In addition to the two bodies of work entitled Divided Society collected by the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy in 1981 and 1989, we also exhibit his National Award-winning work Pleasure in Nudity from the National Art Exhibition in 1979, a testament to the kind of work the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy was supporting at the time-- which some might consider radical for the context of today.


Piecing together the narratives from the catalog essays of the first four Asian Art Biennales, it became apparent that works by international artists at the early shows were donated to the National Art Gallery collection, including the entire Philippine pavilion of 1983 curated by Raymundo Albano. After over a year of searching for these work in the collection storage, we are pleased to present 5 prints on wood collage by the award-winning Filipino printmaker Romulo Olazo, who also exhibited in the First Fukuoka Asian Art Show Part II in 1980. We also present one panel of a 1980 triptych An Afternoon for Bangladesh painted by Filipino artist Phyllis Zaballero, who met Jahangir in Fukuoka one month before painting this work specifically for the exhibition at the invitation of Raymundo Albano, knowing that it would be a donation. I interviewed Zaballero in her Manila studio and archive, and we present a view into the history behind this work and hope that the other two panels will soon be found. Interestingly, while the work was created in preparation for the first Asian Art Biennale in 1981, the Philippines did not exhibit a pavilion until 1983, and Zaballero’s work did not exhibit until 1986 in the third edition of the biennale organized after Albano’s death via the Cultural Center of the Philippines.


The point of this exhibition is to highlight the collection within the Shilpakala Academy building that hosts the Dhaka Art Summit, pointing to a Golden Age of the institution under Jahangir’s leadership in the early stages of Bangladesh’s nation building process. The exhibition presents fragments of continuing strands of inquiry into Bangladesh’s role within a rich network of artists across Asia who were trying to build a space for artistic exchange outside of colonial paradigms and build strong and relevant institutions in their local contexts (such as Jahangir with the Shilpakala Academy, and Albano with the Cultural Centre of the Philippines). Dhaka Art Summit benefits from the incredible legacy of the Asian Art Biennale, and we look forward to continuing this research into its institutional history with other colleagues across Asia at a key moment in time when several of the protagonists of this story are still active. The young artists of Bangladesh today benefit from the international exposure that Jahangir and his collaborators created for them via this special biennale.  


Traces of the Asian Art Biennale can be found elsewhere in the Summit, and this biennale is certainly among the “gifts of the inferno” alluded to in Bearing Point 2. The inaugural panel in DAS’s auditorium talks program, Another Asia, features Syed Jahangir who will speak about his experience setting up the biennale. Jack Garrity of the Pacita Abad estate will discuss this pioneering Filipino Artist who exhibited in the 3rd Asian Art Biennale, and Juneer Kibria will discuss his father Mohammad Kibria (also present in Planetary Planning) in a panel about transnational artistic and architectural practices that included Bangladesh. Bearing Point 4, includes the provocative Hostage series of Shahid Sajjad which exhibited in the 6th Asian Art Biennale in 1993. A workshop on “forensic art history” will give local Bangladeshi art historians tools to further their inquiries into this fascinating period of Bangladeshi art history, and the Asian Art Biennale will also be addressed in the Scholar’s Weekend via the symposium Displays of Internationalism.


This presentation would not have been possible without the following individuals and institutions who supported us with time, access, and encouragement:


Fukuoka Asian Art Museum

Raiji Kuroda

Rina Igarashi

Syed Jahangir

Yasunaga Koichi

Patrick Flores

Rattanamol Singh Johal

Rattan Mojumder

Marga Villanueva

Storage staffs from Shilpakala

Phyllis Zaballero

Liaquat Ali Lucky

Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy

Asian Art Biennale

Will Smith, Art in America

Md. Muniruzzaman  


Abdus Sattar

(B. 1979, Barisal, Bangladesh, lives and works in Dhaka, Bangladesh)

Abdus Sattar is a well-known oriental art practitioner and honorary professor at the Department of Oriental Art, University of Dhaka. In his early artistic life he has been trained by Somnath Hore as a print maker but chose to focus on the unexplored areas of oriental art in this country. 

Alok Roy

The Man – I, (1983)

Burnt clay

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Alok Roy’s The Man – I presents a study of the human condition in the fragile and difficult medium of burnt clay. Roy’s forms fold and collapse into themselves, seemingly on the verge of disappearance. The central form encompasses a human head, caught mid-scream, alluding to a sense of collective suffering and trauma. 

Aminul Islam 

(b. 1931, Tetia, Bengal Presidency, British India, d. 2011, Dhaka, Bangladesh)

Reflections and Reality, 1976

Painting and collage (mirror)

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Aminul Islam was an active member of leftist political and cultural organizations, which heavily influenced his practice. Reflection and Real uses the language of geometric abstraction to produce social critique, meditating on the perceived versus the reality of a society. The collage presents a shattered surface, that reflects and multiplies itself over and over again, speaking to fractures in society that reproduce themselves in every generation. The artist presented a similar work at the first Fukuoka Asian Art Show, Part II in 1980.

Bonizul Huq

Love of Tree, 1983

Oil on Canvas

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Banizul Huq’s Shadow – I presents an image that is fills one with both a sense of foreboding, and calm. Huq abstracts from the form of a banyan tree around which cattle are huddled; the banyan tree occupies an important position in the vernacular spiritual beliefs of South Asia, where it is seen as both a repository of wisdom, and also the dwelling-place of ghosts. The cows, which are also important symbols in Hindu beliefs, that huddle at its base seem to be ghostly presences, occupying a metaphysical realm, rather than one of reality.

Hamiduzzaman Khan

(b.1946, Kishoreganj, Bangladesh, lives and works in Dhaka, Bangladesh)

Remembrance-III ’71 (1980)


Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Hamiduzzaman Khan’s Remembrance-III ’71 memorializes all those who lost their lives during the Bangladesh War of Liberation. The sculpture depicts a frail yet resolute figure, clad in only a dhoti, standing a shattered door, riddled with bullet-holes, celebrating the resolve of the freedom fighters in the face of horrific violence.

Hashi Chakraborty 

(b. 1948, Chittagong, Bangladesh- d.2014, Chittagong)

Memory – 15, 1983

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Hashi Chakraborty’s work reflects a deep romanticism, drawing on influences from both cubist and folk modes of painting. Chakraborty creates a creates a dream-like space where floating shapes interact with each other to suggest emergent forms. He explores the idea of memory and inspiration found in romantic poetry, as the space where past experiences spontaneously emerge and play themselves out.

Kazi Abdul Baset

(b. 1935, Dhaka, Bengal Presidency, British India, d. 2002, Dhaka)

Painting-I (1980)

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Kazi Abdul Baset’s work occurs on the border between abstraction and figuration, drawing equally from his exposure to Abstract Expressionism, which he had encountered while studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1963-64, and Bengali folk forms. In Painting-I we find traces of the handling of colour by artists such as Mark Rothko, where abstract fields of pigment are layered to create a sense of depth. Baset’s painting creates an energetic encounter between different coloured fields, interrupted by a smoke-like column which imbues the work with a sense of urgency. Baset’s painting reflects a strong desire to modes of abstraction beyond those already established in the West.

Mansur Ul Karim 

(b. 1950, Rajbari, Bangladesh; lives and works in Chittagong)

Open Window and Chair, 1983

Oil painting

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Mansur Ul Karim uses both abstract and figurative modes within his paintings, which draw their inspiration from the landscape of Bangladesh. Open Window and Chair presents a vantage point from which to view a rapidly changing world; energetic brushwork and composition creates the impression of a rapidly transforming space. Karim views these changes favourably, even romantically, pointing to the openness with which artists of his generation embraced cross-cultural exchanges. 

Mohammad Kibria 

(b. 1929 in Birbhum, British India; d. 2011 in Dhaka)

Painting-V (1980)

Oil on canvas

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Mohammad Kibria was a master of abstraction, whose paintings delve into the realm of pure colour. Painting-V explores the tension between hard and soft forms produced by placing various shades of earth brown side-by-side, and plays with varying levels of luminousity that appear through these juxtapositions. This work, as in most of the paintings he created, references entropy in nature found when moss or other natural materials grow on man-made structures, inspired zen philosophy that he encountered during his time studying in Japan. This painting exhibited both in the first Fukuoka Asian Art Show, Part II in 1980 and two months later at the first Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka in 1981 before entering the collection of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.

Nitun Kundu 

(B. 1935, Dinajpur district, Bengal Presidency, British India- D. 2006, Dhaka)

Homage to the Martyrs


Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Through this sculpture, Nitin Kundu pays homage to the martyrs of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. He creates an ascendant column, which spirals towards the sky, memorializing the heavy price of freedom paid by those who were killed, and their lofty aspirations. This sculpture exhibited both in the first Fukuoka Asian Art Show, Part II in 1980 and two months later at the first Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka in 1981 before entering the collection of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.

Qayyum Chowdhury 

(B. 1932, Feni, Bengal Presidency, British India- D. 2014, Dhaka)

My Village (1977)

Oil on canvas

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Nature plays a key role in Qayyum Chowdhury’s stylized abstract paintings. His lyrical painting My Village, depicts a romantic vision of village life in harmony with the rhythms of the sun and the tides, referencing strongly the landscape of Bengal whose lush green expanses are riddled with small, snaking bodies of water. 

Rafiqun Nabi 

(B. 1943, Chapai Nawabganj, Bengal Presidency, British India, lives and works in Dhaka, Bangladesh)

The Poet (1980)

Wood-block print

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Known as a painter, print-maker and illustrator, Nabi’s work references the vernacular forms of Bengal to create compositions with a strong narrative component. In The Poet, Nabi celebrates the Romantic ideal of the poet finding inspiration in nature, paying tribute to figures such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das whose work served as inspiration during the Language Movement (Bhasha Andolon) which ultimately led to the establishment of the nation of Bangladesh.


Life II, 1983


Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Akhtar Ahmed Rasha, known as Rasha, uses found pieces of wood to realize his sculptural forms, which often follow the shapes of the wood itself. In this work, Rasha depicts the hardships of a new nation, and the struggles before it: a figure crouches, with an alms bowl before him, and an old man leans heavily on his staff; towering above them, however, we see the face of a man, looking ahead, illustrating the artist’s hope for the future. The work won the Grand Prize of the 3rd Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka, after which it entered the collection of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.

S.M. Sultan 

(b. 1923, Narail District - d. 1994, Jessore)

First Plantation (1975)

Natural Pigment on canvas

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

S.M. Sultan is known for his energetic style, weaving together multiple sources of inspiration, and his paintings of Bangladeshi agricultural workers, whose figures he renders with exaggerated musculature. Sultan’s First Plantation, which depicts farmers in the act of sowing seeds, bursts with a sense of anticipation and optimism, reflecting his hopes for the new nation of Bangladesh, which became independent only a few years before this painting was finished. This work marked a shift in his practice as he was previously known as a landscape painter, and this monumental and iconic figure appears in the many works he made post 1975.

Safiuddin Ahmed 

(b. 1922, Calcutta, British India; d. 2012, Dhaka)

Fishing Net (1979)

Oil on canvas

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka

Safiuddin Ahmed’s work references the strong linearity and bold use of colour found in the indigenous visual practices of the Santhal communities of Santiniketan, among whom he spent many of his early years. Fishing Net speaks to the intimate relationship between man and nature in village life in Bengal, depicting the gleam of the fresh catch as is lies in the fisherman’s net. Water is a recurring theme across the artist’s work as the impact of the 1974 flood was emblazoned into his imagination. This painting exhibited both in the first Fukuoka Asian Art Show, Part II in 1980 and two months later at the first Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka in 1981 before entering the collection of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. 

Shahabuddin Ahmed 

(b. 1950, Dhaka, lives and works between Dhaka, Bangladesh and Paris, France)

First Step (1986)

Oil on canvas

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy

Shahabuddin Ahmed’s work is heavily influenced by the violence he saw first-hand when he served in the Mukti Bahini during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Ahmed’s energetic, almost violent, brushwork in First Step visualizes his exuberant hopes for the future of the new nation of Bangladesh, created during the 15th anniversary of its independence.

Sultanul Islam

Life Circle (1985)


Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy

Sultanul Islam’s sculpture Life Circle explores the cyclic nature of life and death, and of the

pain of existence, drawing from Buddhist beliefs which have become part of vernacular mythology in South Asia. Islam’s crouching figure, which seems simultaneously on the verge of life and death, becomes a representation of the notion of samsara, which binds us to our mortal desires. A similar sculpture is found in the collection of the Bangladesh National Museum.

Syed Jahangir 

(b. 1935, Satkhira, Bengal Presidency, British India, lives and works in Dhaka, Bangladesh)

Soul Seeker – II

Oil on canvas

Courtesy of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy

Syed Jahangir draws inspiration from the landscape of Bangladesh, and his trips to the Rangamati in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, to produce meditative and metaphysical paintings. Soul Seeker continues this spiritual search for the heart of the country, creating forms that resist easy resolution, but rather seem to keep unfolding before our eyes, pointing to the never-ending nature of the search. Intuition and knowledge that exists outside of reason are another concern of Jahangir’s early works, which is also alluded in the title of this series of works, “Soul Seeker.” Syed Jahangir was instrumental in setting up the first Asian Art Biennale and creating networks across Asia, many of which began during his time spent in Fukuoka preparing for the first Fukuoka Asian Art Show, Part II, 1980.

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