Munem Wasif was one of the curators of Chobi Mela VII in 2013. The internationally acclaimed photographer won ‘Bengal Practice Grant’ (2015), ‘City of Perpignan Young Reporter’s Award’ (2008) at Visa pour l’image, Prixpictet commission (2009), F25 award for concerned photography from Fabrica (2008), and Joop Swart Masterclass (2007) among other accolades, too numerous to list here.
Wasif took up the monumental work of curating Chobi Mela again, for the ninth incarnation of the biggest photography exhibition in Asia. This year’s exhibition, Chobi Mela IX, has been curated by ASM Rezaur Rahman, Mahbubur Rahman, Muenm Wasif and Tanzim Wahab, along with guest curators Alexander Supartono, Salauddin Ahmed and festival director Shahidul Alam.
We spoke with Munem Wasif to know more about what it was like to arrange and organise such a gigantic exhibition.
How long did it take for you to lay out the plan or the exact arrangement of the exhibition?
We have been working for 14 or 15 months. The process devised was to determine what exactly we want to show thematically. So, we had a research procedure that we followed. Curators presented different proposals, and then we sat down with those proposals to short list them. We had online submissions that we needed to evaluate. Having taken all of this into consideration, we then spent about two to three months discussing what we finally want to exhibit, and what we don’t.
Another important aspect was that, we have a program called Chobi Mela Fellows, through which Bangladeshi artists can produce unique pieces of work with the help from the curators. These works will then be exhibited at the Chobi Mela. We provide partial financial support to these artists, and that’s where the work begins.
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Visitors looking at the exhibit at CHobi Mela IX, Photo Credit: Rajib Dhar[/caption]
After that, it is important to decide how each of the work will be exhibited, because the way in which these works are arranged has a profound impact on the viewers. We have to anticipate the viewing experience of the audience – which direction they should walk in, the order of the artists, who should come after whom, etc.
After we decide on the layout, we start designing the main exhibition. We have a big curatorial team, where each member of the team works with certain artists to prepare their own proposals. We talk to the artists and share the proposals over Skype, and we ask for sample works by these artists from previous exhibitions. We then decide how we want to project the work of each artist, based on all of these. We come to these decisions three or four months prior to the event. And then, we start working on the final layout. We make an analogue layout, spread the pictures on table(s), and discuss among ourselves. After several long discussions, we make a virtual layout, only when everyone approves. It’s a long process.
That sounds extremely gruelling. What was the most challenging aspect of this work?
The most challenging aspect is to be able to show the works of the artist in a way that will have the most impact on the viewers, so that it makes most sense. A piece of work needs to adapt to the place where it is displayed. It becomes particularly challenging, as we do not have a prevailing industry standard. We have all sorts of production limitations. We work with limited budget, so we have to figure out how we will go about implementing our ideas.
But our advantage is that we have a team of architects, artists, writers, and many different types of people who work with us. We have a very special human resource, and we are able to do what we do because of the tireless work of these people.
One of our venues is in Old Dhaka. It can be very challenging to set up installation work there. For instance, we exhibited works by Pushpamala, at the Bulbul Lalitakala Academy. Her work required lights, set up 25 feet above the ground. Since there wasn’t enough gallery light there, we had to design the whole lighting. This is just one example of thousands of subtle and big problems, that we have to solve along the way. You don’t see this from the outside, but people behind the scene work for months just to bring the exhibition to a minimum acceptable standard.
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Visitors looking at the exhibit at CHobi Mela IX, Photos : Mahmud Hossain Opu & Rajib Dhar[/caption]
How do you think then the whole exhibition turned out? And what kind of response are you getting from enthusiasts and the general public?
Actually, we are getting more international response than we are getting at home. But this time, we are particularly focusing on engaging the general public. We have an educational part in Chobi Mela, as Pathshala is one of the hosts. We have five workshops, so that local artists can learn from the acclaimed international photographers.
We also have two open sessions – one is on the safety and security of journalists, and the other one is on how photographers from here can work internationally. Moreover, the education session for school children started on February 10, where 12 schools will participate. We have created an education kit for the students. We have spoken with the teachers about why children need to learn and engage themselves in arts.
We also have a travelling exhibition, which is carried on rickshaws and vans. This will reach the marginalised areas in Dhaka city, so that people who don’t visit the galleries can see these works. We have tried to engage people on all levels in this way. We think it is most important to reach the young generation and the general public.
I think, we probably underestimate the audience. I think the general public is very interested, and they have sophisticated thinking. In my opinion, the problem is not with them – it is with us. The Bangladeshi audience is capable of appreciating all kinds of interesting work
What do you want viewers to take away from the experience of coming to the exhibition?
There are many aspects to this. For example, we are doing a big exhibition on the 70s works, after a long research. One of the first questions that we encounter is about our poets, thinkers, and artists in the 70s. People want to know if they were truly great visionaries. This exhibition answers that question in many ways.
There are other aspects too. A photo can appear differently to different people. Some may think there are many stories inside the photo, while some may find a photo as pleasing as a song. We have designed the exhibition in such a way, so that it speaks to people from all kinds of backgrounds. But at the same time, we have not compromised the integrity of the exhibition in order to make it accessible.
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Visitors looking at the exhibit at CHobi Mela IX, Photo: Mahmud Hossain[/caption]
Finally, can you tell the general audience in simple words how to see/look at a photograph?
I don’t think people have to be specifically educated at all in order to appreciate photography. I believe a viewer has to see the photos first, and having seen them, he or she can think about the ones that invoked his or her curiosity. He or she may think about why that photo attracted him or her. I would ask the viewers look at the composition and the light, and read the text as well.
If the Classical Music Fest by Bengal hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have known that the general audience will stay up till 4 in the morning, to listen to classical music. But it has happened. The Bangladeshi audience has proved that kind of prejudice to be false. I think, we probably underestimate the audience. I think the general public is very interested, and they have sophisticated thinking. In my opinion, the problem is not with them – it is with us. The Bangladeshi audience is capable of appreciating all kinds of interesting work.