Chobi Mela

Chobi Mela was conceived in a nation far removed from the established capitals of photography. Bangladeshi photographers did not feature in the classical books on the medium. Images of Bangladesh seen worldwide were images produced largely by white western photographers. There had been no festival of photography in Asia.



Several issues were being tackled. The ignorance about non-western photographic practice (this was true even within Bangladesh, where photographers knew about Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, but were unaware of important work being done in neighbouring countries); the non-recognition of photography as a valid profession and an art form; the limited options that Bangladeshi and regional photographers had to seeing photography. There was another significant but very localised goal. In a nation where the majority of people cannot read or write, photography provided one of the few means through which the average person could be reached.


Chobi Mela IV took place when the nation was at the brink of civil war. The presentation by Robert Pledge at the Goethe Institut was interrupted by the news that curfew had been declared and the military were out in the streets. Typical of Chobi Mela, Robert continued with his presentation, and the audience stayed on. We found safe routes for the visitors to get home on that dark night. Chobi Mela V starts in January 2009. A landslide victory of an elected government marks the beginning of what one hopes is a move towards democracy. The theme Freedom, could not have been more apt. "Madiba", the retrospective on Nelson Mandela is a quintessential expression of freedom. "Buena Memoria," Marcelo Brodsky's work on the disappearances in Argentina, "A People War" from Nepal and "Bangladesh 1971" all show collective struggles to overcome regimes of oppression. Naeem Mohaiemen's installation, being built as I write this, talks of more contemporary struggles, where nations deal with increasing militarisation propped up by the very forces that harp on democratic values. For amidst all the rhetoric about freedom and democracy, powerful nations in far away lands, find it far more expedient to deal with pliant dictators than responsible governments answerable to their own public.


Over sixty exhibitions, thirty-five participating nations, well over a thousand images, and over fifty visiting artists from Asia alone, are impressive statistics, but the emphasis on figures is misleading. The dozen or so workshops, the week-long sessions of presentations, debates, lectures and discussions, the portfolio reviews and the all night party, will perhaps be what the visitors remember the most. More significant is the bridge across continents through the live broadcast of these entire sessions. Especially the video conference between three outstanding individuals, Mahasweta Devi, Noam Chomsky and Stuart Hall, as they provide their take on 'Freedom'. The mobile exhibitions, now a trademark of the festival, where a mini Chobi Mela on ten rickshaw vans, plying the streets of Dhaka, will move the festival away from galleries to the more public spaces of football fields and open air markets. For in both the majority and minority worlds, across cultures and across nations, the class divide continues to be the biggest bridge to cross.


Shahidul Alam

Festival Director





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