Friday, June 13, 2014

ARTICLE 1361 - Indian Inspired Olivia Fraser

Bedazzled travelers to India bring back iPhone albums full of Hindu temples and Moghul palaces—but savvy collectors are increasingly packing an Olivia Fraser painting or two in their luggage. "She’s brilliant, with a terrific graphic sense and fresh, vibrant pictures," says Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, who noticed Fraser’s work in a catalogue in 2012. A year later, during a panel discussion at the Jaipur Literature Festival—the subject was the traditional miniatures depicting Moghul courtly life, which, surprisingly, are one of Lowry’s specialties—another panelist, Pondicherry-based painter Desmond Lazaro, told him more about Fraser’s out-of-the-ordinary take on those intimate, small-scale works on paper. Lowry was intrigued, and not long afterward, at the Indian Art Fair in Delhi, he spotted a Fraser lithograph and couldn’t resist. Intensely colorful and strangely hypnotic, it depicts multiple, overlapping profiles of humpbacked Brahman cows in a Pop Art–infused image that takes age-old Indian techniques and iconography and then scrambles that DNA to make a startlingly contemporary statement.

The Scottish-born Fraser moved to Delhi from London in 1989 with her fiancé and now husband, historian William Dalrymple of White Mughals fame, and, she says, "started doing paintings from life and street scenes." Tenderly tinted impressionistic landscapes, expressive architectural portraits, and insightful character studies, those early works followed in the brushstrokes of the important watercolors of Indian life that were commissioned by two of Fraser’s expatriate ancestors back in the early 19th century and influenced her illustrations for Dalrymple’s 1994 travelogue City of Djinns. But, Fraser says, her emulations weren’t "intense enough, not jewel-like enough."
So in 2005, after more than a decade and a half in Delhi, Fraser decided to immerse herself in the Indian miniature tradition, especially the Nathdwara paintings of 17th- and 18th-century Rajasthan. Setting aside what she had been taught at Oxford University and Wimbledon Art College, she apprenticed with masters in Jaipur and learned from Lazaro as well: grinding pigments from natural materials such as malachite and lapis lazuli, mixing them with gum arabic and water, picking up brushes made of fine squirrel or mongoose hairs, sitting on the ground with handmade sheets of paper called wasli, and then learning through observation. "In India, if you want to learn miniature painting, you have to follow the process and the rules, which are very strict. Each workshop—or gurukul—may have a slightly varying style, but you learn those rules," says the artist of her reeducation. "There is only one way to draw a banana leaf, only one way, so there’s no need to even look at the real thing anymore. It’s a systemized approach with many layers and regulations, and so different from what I had learned in the West."
Some people would have been daunted by those creative restrictions or deflated by the fact that much of today’s Indian miniature painting consists of rote evocations of sloe-eyed houris for jet-lagged tourists. But Fraser, who is represented by London’s esteemed Grosvenor Gallery, insists, "I was thrilled." Still, rules are made to be broken, and the artist has done so with electrifying aplomb and increasing international réclame. (Mick Jagger bought a work several months ago.) In Becoming Krishna, a classical visage of the eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu is encircled by disembodied elements—eyes, lips, nose, cap, et cetera—that appear as if they were objects on an assembly line. Ropelike branches drip from the boughs inBanyan Tree, reaching the ground where they seem to give birth to hissing snakes. Lotus petals have enraptured Fraser of late, a minor floral motif plucked out of its miniature context and set adrift in radiant, meditative arrangements that recall pinwheels or starbursts (as in1000 Petals) or in parallel lines (as in Chakra II), where the points of the petals are set this way and that so the image seems to just barely pulsate.
As Lowry explains, "Olivia elaborates by simplifying—they are no longer details magnified but details transformed." Fraser, for her part, says that her lotus-petal works are "becoming more hallucinogenic" in their optical trickery. See them in full bloom in "Subtle Bodies," an exhibition that runs through June 21 at Art 18/21 in Norwich, England. Some recent works are also on view through June 18 in Grosvenor Gallery’s booth at the Art Antiques London fair in Kensington Gardens, and Fraser’s Krishna prints will be available at the Oberoi hotels in Delhi, Mumbai, Agra, and Kolkata starting in late summer. "I’m interested in yoga and meditation very much," the artist continues, "so I’m drawn to creating something static that seems active, that has the feeling of breathing."
This change of focus has been transformative, but Fraser "wasn’t comfortable enough showing this new stuff until 2012," she admits. "My first few paintings took six months to do. You’re not going to show that many if you work at that pace, but I was jolly well going to get it right." Not only has Fraser gotten it right, she’s developed a mesmerizingly idiosyncratic approach where reverence meets whimsy. It’s an artistic evolution that makes powerfully clear that this longtime resident of India has truly become a part of it.
To see more of the artist’s work, visit

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

ARTICLE 1360 - Google Graffiti

Photographs of eyes affixed to dwellings in Rio de Janeiro are part of Google’s Street Art Project database. CreditMoSA

Street art in Dallas by the duo known as Faile, captured by a group with Street View technology.CreditDallas Contemporary

PARIS — There’s a portrait of an anonymous Chinese man chiseled into a wall in Shanghai, a colorful mural in Atlanta and black-and-white photographs of eyes that the French artist JR affixed to the houses of a hillside favela in Rio de Janeiro. These are among the images of more than 4,000 works included in a vast new online gallery of street art that Google is unveiling here on Tuesday.
Called the Street Art Project, the database was created by the company’s Paris-based Google Cultural Institute. Using images provided by cultural organizations worldwide, some of which were captured with Google’s Street View camera technology, it includes street art from around the globe, including work that no longer exists, like the 5Pointz murals in Long Island City, Queens, or the walls of the Tour Paris 13 tower in France.
With the initiative, Google is the latest organization to wade into debates about how or whether to institutionalize, let alone commercialize, art that is ephemeral and often willfully created subversively. A private database of public art, it also poses questions about how to legally preserve what in some cases might be considered vandalism.
In a sense, Google is formalizing what street art fans around the world already do: take pictures of city walls and distribute them on social media. Yet for Google to do so could raise concerns, given the criticism of its aggressive surveillance tactics, especially in Europe, where its Street View satellite mapping is widely seen as a violation of privacy.
Google is taking pains to avoid offense by setting strict conditions. It will include only images provided by organizations that sign a contract attesting that they own the rights to them. It will not cull through Street View images but will provide the technology to organizations that want to use it to record street art legally. Some groups have provided exact locations of the artworks; others have not.
Aiming to steer clear of one of the most contentious debates in the street art world, Google says it will not include images from groups seeking to sell the art or images of it. Many street artists object to their public work being sold without their permission. For instance, Banksy, the anonymous British street artist, has objected to attempts to sell his artworks after they are stripped from public walls, saying the stencils belong to the community.
Google also said it would remove images if artists complained to the groups that contributed them to the database.
The company sees the platform as a way of making more art available to viewers. “I’m not treating street art as anything different from what I would do with the Impressionist collection I’m getting on Art Project,” said Amit Sood, director of the Google Cultural Institute, referring to a philanthropic initiative that has provided technical support to more than 460 museums to help put their collections online.
The institute, which was founded in 2011 and has a staff of around 30 engineers, has also helped create online archives for historic figures likeNelson Mandela and used Street View to provide multimedia renderings of Unesco World Heritage sites like Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Mr. Sood acknowledges that the street art program, like the Cultural Institute, is a way for Google to generate good will in privacy-conscious Europe. “It helps make people realize we are doing a lot of things that actually support the community,” he said.
The database is searchable by artist, city, genre and other categories, and even includes a special section on New York walls of the 1990s. Among the 30 institutions that have furnished images so far are the Museum of the City of New York; the Dallas Contemporary exhibition space in Texas; The City Speaks in Atlanta, which finances street art and disseminates it online; and the Museum of Street Art in France.
Working with the French organization Project Tour Paris 13, Google filmed the rooms of Tour 13 in Paris, which had been entirely covered in street art, before its owners destroyed the building. Google also used a powerful camera to capture works by the Portuguese graffiti artist Vhils, who uses an electric chisel to carve images into the sides of buildings. Viewers can zoom in on the chisel marks.
Shepard Fairey, who is best known for his image of President Obama, said he had “no problem” with being included in the database. “I’ve always used my street art to democratize art, so it would be philosophically inconsistent for me to protest art democratization through Google,” he said through a publicist. And the Belgian artist known as ROA said he would be pleased to be part of it, “as long as they credit the mural to me, and it’s not being used for commercial purposes or corporations.”
Some past attempts to institutionalize street art have not gone over so well. The police commissioner of Los Angeles criticized a 2011 exhibition called “Art in the Streets” at that city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, arguing that it encouraged vandalism.
Philippe Vergne, who took over as director of the Los Angeles museum in January, acknowledged, “Street art often comes with a bad reputation where people don’t know how to discriminate art from vandalism.” Lois Stavsky, who runs the nonprofit group Street Art NYC, said that most street artists liked the idea of enabling more people to see their work. She said she had sorted through thousands of photos taken by her group at 5Pointz over the years and painstakingly uploaded hundreds to the Google platform. The owners of the building painted over the art last fall and plan to demolish it to make way for luxury condos.
“The fact that 5Pointz was whitewashed, it was covered up with white paint, just proves how important it is to document this,” she said.
The Google Street Art platform is to be presented at a news conference at the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art space owned partly by the City of Paris, which is opening an exhibition on Saturday called “The Lasco Project,” a play on words referring to the prehistoric art painted in the caves of Lascaux. Street artists have been invited to create works on the museum’s basement walls.
On a recent afternoon, the New York street artist Futura was wearing yellow rubber gloves as he spray-painted black dots on a striped wall for the Paris exhibition.
The artist, 58, said he liked the idea of Google’s Street Art Project, given that he and other artists mostly learn about one another’s work online anyway. “Instagram accounts — most artists are there,” he said.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

ARTICLE 1359 - Nasreen Mohamedi at Tate Liverpool

Nasreen at her studio in Bombay at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute Dated 2 Nov 1960 
Photograph 4.2 x 6.2 in
Courtesy: Sikander and Hydari Collection

Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled c1970s
Ink on paper, 510 x 710mm
© courtesy Chatterjee & Lal

Nasreen Mohamedi Untitled Early to mid 1960s
© Courtesy Paul Aggarwal

Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled c1970s
Photographic print on paper, 280 x 343mm
© courtesy Chatterkee & Lal

Discover the intriguing work of Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937–1990). Born in Karachi and raised in Mumbai, Mohamedi is now considered to be one of the most significant artists within the modernist tradition, with her work receiving great critical acclaim internationally in recent years. Nasreen Mohamedi is the largest solo show of her work in the UK to date, giving many visitors their first encounter with her varied practice which includes painting, drawing and photography.

Featuring more than 50 of her works, Nasreen Mohamedi runs in parallel withMondrian and his Studios, and charts the evolution of Mohamedi’s work, exploring how she, like Mondrian, moved away from a figurative style and developed her own unique approach to abstraction.

This exhibition highlights significant phases in the artist’s practice; from semi-abstract lyrical paintings of the 1960s, to her intricate engagement and subversion of the modernist grid throughout the 1970s, and detailed drawings of suspended diagonal lines, triangles and spheres in the 1980s. The latter recall the utopian designs of constructivist artists such as Kazimir Malevich, who she greatly admired. A further highlight will be Mohamedi’s personal photographic practice through which she maintained a visual record of her experiences, capturing images of desert landscapes, seascapes, modern structures, and the Islamic architecture of Fatehpur Sikri.

After studying art at Central Saint Martin’s in London (1954–7) Mohamedi worked in Europe before returning to India in the early 1970s, to become a teacher in the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda. It was here that she worked alongside many notable artists and began to develop her abstraction, producing small-scale, geometric drawings, painstakingly composed on an architects’ table using pencil and pen. Virtually alone amongst her peers, Mohamedi broke away from the mainstream practice of figurative painting in post-Independence India. Her emphasis on minimal linear gestures to create infinite imaginary landscapes and structures exemplifies her desire to, as she wrote in her diaries, obtain ‘the maximum of the minimum’.

Despite comparisons to American artists such as Agnes Martin and Carl Andre, Mohamedi’s work defies easy categorisation and was the product of her distinctive personality, process, and aesthetic values. Nasreen Mohamedi reveals the artist’s significant contribution to modernism that expands the boundaries of Western art history and offers an opportunity to reconsider the meaning of abstract art.

Tickets for Mondrian and his Studios include admission into Nasreen Mohamedi. This dual programme means that both established fans and visitors new to the field of abstract art can discover exciting links between these two influential artists.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

ARTICLE 1358 - No Wealthy Indian With Pride in India's Heritage!

London: A ring belonging to Mysore's legendary ruler Tipu Sultan's has been sold at an auction for Rs. 1.5 crore on Friday in London. Auction house Christie's said the 41.2 gram ring was sold to an undisclosed bidder for almost 10 times its price.
Tipu Sultan had died at the hands of the British in 1799. The ring is notable because it was inscribed with the name of Lord Rama. The ring is thought to have been taken from him by a British general as he lay dead at his palace in Srirangapatna, which was his capital.
It is inscribed with the name of Rama in raised Devanagari script. Some say this shows that the Muslim king was more sympathetic to Hindus. But, others argue, Tipu was a despot and a fanatic Muslim ruler who forcibly converted millions of Hindus to Islam. He was known as the Tiger of Mysore for his aggression towards the British rulers.
The admirers of the Mysore sultan in Karnataka wanted the state government to buy the ring and keep it at state museum or at the Tipu Palace in Bangalore. They had even met Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who too hails from Mysore, regarding the matter.
Professor S Settar, a renowned historian from Karnataka had warned that the ring might be hidden from public view if it was sold to a private bidder. He had urged the Indian government to "make use of all available avenues, legal and diplomatic, to recover the ring".
Heritage conservation groups from across the world also criticised the auction.
According to the BBC, the ring was previously listed for sale by Christie's in 2012 but was then withdrawn from sale.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

ARTICLE 1357 - Indian Slobs!

WASHINGTON, DC: The ongoing case of Subhash Kapoor – the notorious art thief who is now standing trial in Tamil Nadu for allegedly selling stolen Indian artifacts to museums around the world – is getting a bit stranger, as it appears that despite the efforts of the US government to return some $100 million worth of stolen art, India doesn’t seem particularly interested in getting these items back.
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has seized about $100 million worth of stolen artifacts, all of which apparently came from Kapoor, according to a report by archaeologist and activist Dr. Kirit Mankodi. These were taken from Kapoor’s “Art of the Past” business in New York, and appear to mostly have originated from religious sites around the states of Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh.
One such piece is a stone sculpture of the Buddha, which originated in the Chola era, while another sculpture of Bharhut Yakshi is estimated at $15 million in value. Other works include a sandstone sculpture of the Mahakoka, a bird-like goddess, which was reported stolen in July of 2004.
These works, along with many others, have been collected and are waiting to be sent off to India. But due to a lack of activity from India’s side, they have been languishing in a warehouse in the US. Indian authorities are demanding to see proof of where these works originated, and want to make sure they can trace the full histories of these objects before taking them back.
The news is unusual, as just this January, the successful handover of a sandstone sculpture took place at the Indian Consulate General in New York City. India has been swift to arrest and prosecute Kapoor for his alleged crimes, but their delaying in reclaiming these works of art is somewhat unexpected.
Last month, the Toledo Museum of Art had a similar problem, when it reached out to the Indian Consulate General and Embassy regarding what to do with its Ganesha idol. Kapoor sold that idol to the museum, along with several other works over a ten-year timespan. If they are stolen, the Museum wants to return them, but it has received no communication from Indian authorities.
“We have had no contact from the Indian side,” said Kelly Fritz Garrow, the Director of Communications at the Toledo Museum of Art. “We wrote to the Indian Consulate in New York on July 13 of last year, when we first found out that there may be an issue, but we received no response to that. We wrote another letter recently [to the Embassy], when we put out the information about the items we bought from Kapoor, but once the US government got involved with us, we’ve worked directly with them. We hoped to work directly with the Indian government, but that didn’t happen, so the Justice Department is our primary contact.”
Kapoor’s stolen art found its way to museums outside of the US, as well. The National Gallery of Australia, which bought a 900 year-old bronze statue of the Hindu God Shiva from Kapoor, has sued him for $5 million. They’ll have to wait until his current trial is resolved before getting their shot at him.
As for the art collected by ICE – it’s still sitting in a Department of Homeland Security warehouse, a sad state of affairs in which the public can’t appreciate it, and its home government can’t (or won’t) claim it.
Deepak Chitnis for The American Bazaar

Sunday, March 30, 2014

ARTICLE 1356 - End of an Era

K. Chinnappa, who has painted cutouts of politicians and almost every actor over the course of his career, at his workshop in Bangalore on Friday. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K.

K. Chinnappa brings to an end an illustrious career of hand-painted posters

Hand-painted life-size images of film actors and famous personalities will be a thing of the past soon, with Rajkamal Arts, the only surviving company that paints posters and gigantic cut-outs of artistes and personalities in Bangalore, all set to shut shop.
A life size image of Nandamuri Balakrishna in Legend, an upcoming Telugu film, is perhaps the last painted work of 77-year-old artist K. Chinnappa, the man behind Rajkamal Arts. A 46-foot cutout of BJP’s prime ministerial candidate pick Narendra Modi is his last work of a well-known political personality. Interestingly, Mr. Chinnappa had breathed life to huge cutouts of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in the 1960s and ’70s.
On Thursday, when The Hindu went to meet the artist, his son Gopalakrishna, who is also a painter, was busy packing some rare works of Mr. Chinnappa at his workshop in Gayathri Nagar to transport them to London.
Mr. Chinnappa has painted nearly every major star in all four southern languages and Hindi in his career, numbering over 4,300. He has painted images ranging from MGR, NTR, Rajkumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Prem Nazir and even that of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
Mr. Chinnappa feels his works are not relevant in the age of digital printing. “There was a time when I used to work 18-hours a day to meet the needs of the film industry. Now the demand for hand-painted posters is almost gone. It has become difficult to pay salaries to workers, pay rent and electricity bills,” he says.
No one would want to ‘waste money’ when everything is digitised and prints could be got in a few hours, Mr. Chinnappa said.
Those working with Mr. Chinnappa have already found other jobs. Some are colouring temple Gopuras (tower) and paintings murals. Since when he started training under his guru Sri Sheenu at the age of nine, Mr. Chinappa has spent most of his life with colours and canvas. He began as an assistant, working on the iconic Mother India poster.
There is no missing the pride in Mr. Chinnappa’s tone as he talks of his work. “Keep a digital print next to a hand-painted poster and you will find a rich texture of myriad colours that is lacking in digital prints. There is no substitute to hand painting,” he says.
He is a recipient of the Indira Priyadarshini Award. The Discovery Channel has expressed interests in making a documentary film on him.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

ARTICLE 1355 - Rakhigarhi - Bigger Than Mohenjo-Daro

The newly discovered mound number nine situated to the west of the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi in Hisar district, Haryana. Photo: Vasant Shinde
The discovery of two more mounds in January at the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi in Hisar district, Haryana, has led to archaeologists establishing it as the biggest Harappan civilisation site. Until now, specialists in the Harappan civilisation had argued that Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan was the largest among the 2,000 Harappan sites known to exist in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The archaeological remains at Mohenjo-daro extend around 300 hectares. Mohenjo-daro, Harappa and Ganweriwala (all in Pakistan) and Rakhigarhi and Dholavira (both in India) are ranked as the first to the fifth biggest Harappan sites.
“With the discovery of two additional mounds, the total area of the Rakhigarhi site will be 350 hectares,” asserted Professor Vasant Shinde, Vice-Chancellor/Director, Deccan College Post-Graduate & Research Institute, a deemed-to-be university in Pune. The two mounds are in addition to the seven mounds already discovered at Rakhigarhi, about 160 km from New Delhi. The eighth and ninth mounds, spread over 25 hectares each, are situated to the east and west of the main site. Villagers have destroyed much of these two mounds for cultivation. A team of archaeology teachers and students of the Deccan College discovered them when they surveyed the site in January.
Dr. Shinde, a specialist in Harappan civilisation and Director of the current excavation at Rakhigarhi, called it “an important discovery.” He said: “Our discovery makes Rakhigarhi the biggest Harappan site, bigger than Mohenjo-daro. The two new mounds show that the Rakhigarhi site was quite extensive. They have the same material as the main site. So they are part of the main site. On the surface of mound nine, we noticed some burnt clay clots and circular furnaces, indicating this was the industrial area of the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi.”
Dr. Shinde had earlier led the excavations done by the Deccan College at the Harappan sites of Farmana, Girawad and Mitathal, all in Haryana.
On the surface of mound eight were found terracotta bangles, cakes, and pottery pieces, typical of the Harappan civilisation, said Nilesh P. Jadhav, Research Assistant, Department of Archaeology, Deccan College.
Artefacts found
From January 10, the Deccan College team has excavated five trenches on the slope of the mound four and another trench in the burial mound numbered seven. The excavation in mound four has yielded a cornucopia of artefacts, including a seal and a potsherd, both inscribed with the Harappan script; potsherds painted with concentric circles, fish-net designs, wavy patterns, floral designs and geometric designs; terracotta animal figurines, cakes, hopscotches and shell bangles, all belonging to the Mature Harappan phase of the civilisation. The five trenches have revealed residential rooms, a bathroom with a soak jar, drainages, a hearth, a platform etc … The residential rooms were built with mud bricks. The complex revealed different structural phases, said Kanti Pawar, assistant professor, Department of Archaeology, Deccan College.
Much of the Harappan site at Rakhigarhi lies buried under the present-day village, with several hundreds of houses built on the archaeological remains. The villagers’ main occupation is cultivation of wheat and mustard, and rearing of buffaloes.
Making cow dung cakes is a flourishing industry. There is rampant encroachment on all the mounds despite the Archaeological Survey of India fencing them. Amarendra Nath of the ASI had excavated the Rakhigarhi site from 1997 to 2000.
An important problem about the Harappan civilisation is the origin of its culture, Dr. Shinde said. The Harappan civilisation had three phases: the early Harappan from circa 3,500 BCE to circa 2,600 BCE, the mature Harappan which lasted from circa 2,600 BCE to circa 2000 BCE, and the late Harappan from circa 2000 BCE to 1,600 BCE.
Dr. Shinde said: “It was earlier thought that the origin of the early Harappan phase took place in Sind, in present-day Pakistan, because many sites had not been discovered then. In the last ten years, we have discovered many sites in this part [Haryana] and there are at least five Harappan sites such as Kunal, Bhirrana, Farmana, Girawad and Mitathal, which are producing early dates and where the early Harappan phase could go back to 5000 BCE. We want to confirm it. Rakhigarhi is an ideal candidate to believe that the beginning of the Harappan civilisation took place in the Ghaggar basin in Haryana and it gradually grew from here. If we get the confirmation, it will be interesting because the origin would have taken place in the Ghaggar basin in India and slowly moved to the Indus valley. That is one of the important aims of our current excavation at Rakhigarhi.”

T. S. Subramanian for the Hindu

Friday, March 14, 2014

ARTICLE 1354 - Eyes on Balgladesh

A local television journalist reporting last spring from the opening of an exhibition at Drik, a photography center, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  The art scene in the Bangladeshi capital is expanding to include nontraditional themes. CreditAmy Yee

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Political turmoil and violent nationwide strikes regularly disrupted life in Bangladesh last year. But on a hot night in Dhaka, the capital, hundreds of people crowded into Dhaka Art Center for the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Rafiqun Nabi, an esteemed Bangladeshi artist famed for his newspaper cartoons.
Children with parents, young men, couples, elderly visitors and entire families crowded the center and spilled into its brick courtyard in Dhanmondi, a neighborhood known as Dhaka’s thriving arts hub. Art lovers posed for photos next to an expansive painting featuring a jumble of geometric, blue-skinned men playing cards, blowing a flute and napping in the lee of a wooden boat.
Boats and rivers are ubiquitous in Bangladesh, a river delta country between India and Myanmar, and were common motifs in Mr. Nabi’s paintings. So were lively street scenes, such as a family of three on a bicycle.

Dhaka Art Center shows work by new artists, too, such as drawings by a young artist named Arham ul-Huq Chowdhury. The compact works shown a week after Mr. Nabi’s exhibition creatively used calligraphy to illustrate Bengali proverbs, like one of a cat rendered in coils of elongated Bengali letters.
Bangladesh lays claim to a legacy of Bengali arts and culture shared by the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal, the birthplace of Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and Nobel laureate who wrote the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh.
A contemporary arts scene began to grow in Bangladesh 20 years after a bloody war of independence separated the country from Pakistan in 1971. Since the 1990s, more artists have graduated from the country’s arts academies and universities, and new art venues have sprouted up. Now art openings happen weekly in Dhaka’s galleries, clustered mostly in Dhanmondi — though getting to them is a challenge in a city of seven million that is choked with traffic.
In spite of the momentum, artists and patrons are still trying to push contemporary art beyond the country’s traditional notions. Some also strive to create an identity apart from grim scenes too easily associated with Bangladesh: cyclones, violent political protests, and bleak factories exemplified by the deadly collapse last year of the Rana Plaza building.
Founded in 1986, the Bengal Foundation was one of the first private arts institutions in Dhaka. Today it hosts exhibitions, concerts and other cultural events at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts in Dhanmondi, as well as the sleek new Bengal Art Lounge in Gulshan, the diplomatic enclave.
The business magnate Abul Khair Litu started the foundation out of personal interest in the arts, and “the vision of projecting a culturally rich Bangladesh, rising above clichéd portraiture of a country steeped in flood and famine,” as he wrote in a 2011 book by the Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam.
Mr. Alam founded Drik, a photography agency and archive, in 1989 to use photography as a tool for social justice and to show Bangladesh in a different light.

“I wanted to ensure that the only identity of Bangladesh would not be an icon of poverty,” he said. “It’s not a P.R. campaign, but the world has a very narrow understanding of this country.”
Mr. Alam’s photographs have appeared in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pompidou Center in Paris and other museums around the world. After earning a doctorate in chemistry from the University of London — a useful degree for mixing darkroom chemicals, he noted — Mr. Alam stumbled into photography while hitchhiking in the United States with a borrowed Nikon. He was hooked and returned to Bangladesh in 1984. Eventually he founded Drik in his parents’ home in Dhanmondi. Today, Drik’s three-story building houses the agency, archives, a book publisher, and multimedia initiatives, along with galleries.
Drik put Bangladesh on the map for photography, as did Pathshala, the photography school nearby that Mr. Alam founded in 1998. Pathshala has trained hundreds of Bangladeshi photographers, including award-winning photojournalists.
Since 2000, Drik has hosted Chobi Mela, the largest festival of contemporary photography in Asia to be held every other year. In 2013, 130 international photographers converged in Dhaka for a week of talks and exhibitions. Some displays even took to the streets on bicycle carts. “Art has been confined to experts for far too long,” Mr. Alam said. “Social engagement is part of what we do.”
In spite of Drik’s prominence, Mr. Alam said that art in Bangladesh was associated primarily with painting. The Asian Art Biennale has been held at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy in Dhaka for 30 years, yet photographs are still not accepted into the art fair.
Others agree that acceptance of contemporary art must be broadened and internationalized. The art collectors Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani started the annual Dhaka Art Summit in 2012 to showcase contemporary art by Bangladeshi and international artists with a more avant-garde bent. The second summit, this past February, attracted 250 artists from South Asia and international curators for three days of exhibits, talks and experimental films.
The Samdanis, both in their 30s, hope the event becomes a platform for the region and brings Bangladeshi contemporary art onto the global stage. They started collecting art in 2008 and their ultramodern home in Gulshan looks part-gallery, part-nightclub, with striking contemporary art displayed throughout the house.
In the lobby, a life-size sculpture of a corpse by the Pakistani artist Huma Mulji lies on the floor grotesquely clutching at the air. Ms. Mulji modeled the sculpture on bodies of the “disappeared” found dumped in rivers in Pakistan. Upstairs, an outsize rack displays dozens of shiny metallic bras made of razor blades by the Bangladeshi arztist Tayeba Begum Lipi. Ms. Lipi’s work of a bed frame constructed of razor blades was recently acquired by the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Ms. Lipi is part of the Britto Arts Trust, a group in Dhaka founded by Bangladeshi artists in 2002 as an incubator for experimental work like video and installation art that remains largely alien to the city’s traditional venues. “When we started, galleries didn’t give us space,” recalled Mahbubur Rahman, one of Britto’s six founders.
Britto has gained ground since then. It hosts workshops every two years for local and international artists, and has a new arts space near Dhanmondi where Britto’s 11 members work and exhibit.

In 2009, Britto also helped stage 1mile2, a display of films, public art and installations focusing on ecology over one square mile of Old Dhaka, the capital’s chaotic historic district. For one day, works by 40 artists spotlighted the environmental and urban degradation so prevalent in Old Dhaka. Works included a life-size replica of a traditional wooden boat made of empty plastic bottles that carried passengers onto the black, fetid waters of the Buriganga River, and a photo installation depicting Dhaka’s wild urban monkeys.
Mr. Rahman said that 15,000 people had viewed the show in a single day, including laborers who work and live in Old Dhaka. “They didn’t understand what was going on, but they are very much curious and enjoying,” he said.
Although pockets of contemporary art are thriving in Dhaka, challenges remain. Bangladesh’s fine arts academies and universities tend to neglect teaching the subject, and there is still more respect for older, traditional artists. “No one wants young people to get recognition,” lamented Mr. Samdani of Dhaka Art Summit.
Art patrons spoke of the divided, fragmented arts community in a country known for cutthroat politics. “It’s a pity,” said Giorgio Guglielmino, the Italian ambassador to Bangladesh and an avid collector who lectures on contemporary art. “If you want the country’s art to emerge, they should put together forces.”
Those who attend art exhibitions in Dhaka seem oblivious to this infighting. Back at Mr. Nabi’s exhibition at Dhaka Art Center, a 35-year-old banker named Sazzad Islam admired the paintings. Mr. Islam studied accounting at university. His fondness for art has grown by visiting Dhaka’s galleries.
“When I get any time I try to go there,” Mr. Islam said. “Day by day, I myself feel devotion.”

AMY YEE for The NY Times