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     Volume 7 Issue 51 | January 2, 2009 |

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To Erase
Not to Erase
Tangible Forms

Mustafa Zaman

The irregular spate of iconoclasm we are often witnesses to in this clime, especially in Bangladesh, has recently enjoyed a field day. Two consecutive attacks on two site-specific sculptures is certainly something of an achievement. Yet the deshi brand of iconoclasm can at best be defined as discriminatory in respect of the choice of target and timing.

The so-called Islamic forces behind it are categorically pointing their guns at the site-specific structures, which have little symbolic value in the broader landscape of national pride. Perhaps these fanatics miscalculated the impact of their recent erasure of the nearly completed baul sculpture erected on the road island in front of the Zia International Airport. They either simply failed to take into consideration the middle class's sentiment surrounding the bauls, or deliberately sought to test the might of the inheritor of ethnic creed, which is the middle class.

If the iconoclasts' agenda is to target every sculpture built with or without expressly mimetic intention, then the task awaiting on them is to efface all traces of figurative representation scattered all over Bangladesh. However, their apparent discriminating choice reveals that they are only out to test the tolerance of their opponent.

It is safe to conclude that behind the hostility towards sculpted reality, be that a soft target or otherwise, lurks a minority with a political aim of transgressing the space of the majority. The minority here is a band of people who in the name of fidelity to Islam puts to test the power or weakness of the majority, represented mostly by the middle class.

Skirting round the issue of class, we can look at the flimsy foundation of the knowledge that drives these sculpture-hating groups of people. If the prohibition is on life-like imagery, then art is the last thing that comes to mind. As for sculptural structures, they make up only a small part of Modernism's project of mimesis. Most Modernist sculptures are even abstract. When otherwise, they are made to go through a degree of mutation, and as a result can no longer be called representational, even if they do not sever the tie with reality completely.

Moreover, there is an expanding horizon of life-like imagery out there serving the most worldly of all causes. The unwavering efforts on the part of the news and the electronic media to harness the real through the camera-generated images are what we can call actual mimesis.

Print journalism had to endure some lesser form of umbrage for producing photographs of women at the onset. That was way back in the early 20th century Bengal. In the 1970s, television evoked outrage among some believers for its precision in imitating real life, and that too in motion. But these resentments never took the form of any political backlash, never inspired any communal aspiration.

Machine-made images photography and videography -- have been, and will remain, mimetic in intention. If this fact does not perturb the most devout of all Muslims any more, why should sculpture be the sole source of dispute?

In the advent of Modernism, mimesis has seen the most novel of all uses. It is now employed to the service of promoting business with astonishing results. Every advertisement with the intention to coax the potential buyers, and every PR job to convince the masses of a particular issue, are mimesis either serving the cause of profit, or helping someone secure a public mandate. Both ethical and unethical projects are heavily dependent on representational images. Good examples are found aplenty, where unethical businesses are thriving with the reliable assistance of photography as well as word.

Naturalistic art (or realistic art according to common parlance), on the other hand, is based on the idea of producing pleasant or/and emotionally fraught imagery and that too “for its own sake only”. It never perverts us, as does an advertisement by way of manipulating the unconscious hub of the mind, thereby wreaking havoc with the mechanism we use to make discerning choices.

Is it that the past is still haunting the mode of art called sculpture? Historically sculpture carry the baggage of a belief system grounded in worshipping of idols. Is this the sole reason for sculptures provoking intense negative emotions in some people in a Muslim-majority country like ours? We can add another facet to the nature of resistance art faces in Bangladesh. It is looked with suspicion by people constantly living in fear of being overwhelmed by fitnah or spurious ideas.

But these are the excuses one belonging to the iconoclastic minority may come up with. The real motive lies in the fact that political Islam needs subjects for its initiators to pigeonhole, and opportunities to flex muscles.

Many among the so-called progressivists equaled the removal of structure on the road island in front of the Zia International Airport, which purportedly encapsulated the spirit of the bauls, with the assault on the culture of cyncriticism espoused by the bauls. Some declared it was a manifestation of the resentment some quarter of Muslims harbour towards the bauls. The fact that bauls are a sect, which draws heavily from the Sufi and the Vaishnav traditions, a recipe that challenges, if not completely annuls, the values of the purists, informs the actions of many Islamists. But, are the recently active iconoclasts aware of such brainy issues? If one says that the present spate of sculpture-breaking spree is tied only to ignorance, one would not be exaggerating.

The people in favour of uprooting sculptures with recognisable features, are not discriminating them on the basis of subject matter. The baul sculpture drew from human figure, and the other sculpture, which still stands in front of the Biman Office, as the Islamists' bid to uproot it was unsuccessful, represents a group of herons. It is obvious that these people are against sculptures, however, there is a certain quirk to it their iconoclasm is heavily burdened with alertness. They act so as not to stir the nationalistic zeal to a degree that may result in retaliation. Notice, there has been no attempt to destroy sculptures that are considered national symbols, and the structures built in and around the cantonments.

Though the issue of sculpture seems bogged down in the debate against the pre-modernist cause sculpture once served, it really is about power politics. Today's iconoclasm is selective and is a way to bring to the fore the might and the muscle of the political groups using Islam as either a cosmetic component, or an ego-boosting ingredient. On the creative front, the secularisation of Modern art has made possible the independence of forms or images from any past faith once associated with them. So, there is no point in looking at the issue as being related to idolatry. It is an exercise in futility. One can be sure of that if one focuses on the fact that Muslims in both Iran and Iraq the two leading cultural and political powerhouses in the Muslim world (before the invasion of the latter by the US, of course) resolved the issue long ago. Their cities thrive on outdoor sculptures mostly of the kind we refer to as figurative.

So, if one must urgently seek a basis for opposing sculpture, it can never be for its likeness to reality. Rather, the modernist intention to create art by sidestepping its tie with the collective aspirations of a society may deserve some lesser form of antagonism, but never complete disapproval.

The secular form of idolatry too draws its strength from art that is subservient to politics and power. But that is played out on a whole different chessboard, where artists are used as pawns in the hands of the few -- the power brokers. And that sad consequence is certainly part of the modern-day pathologies.

Modernism's failed project to bring the scientific and economic fruits to the masses has been the cause of many scourges. When money rules, human integrity as well as hunger for knowledge and truth, which has nothing to do with income generation, are pushed aside and the primacy is given to greed and exploitation. Caught in the same cogwheel, faith too has been unable to hold its ground. Proof of that is in every sphere of life. Certain businesses and trades that used to be the hallmark of the secularists are now witnessing a hitherto unseen wholesale rubberstamping by religious groups, to make them kosher for themselves. Perhaps, these acts of acquiescence has only worsened the situation and helped lend mileage to the politics which bases itself on our collective fear of “losing it all”.

Now, one should look the baul sculpture in the eye. Long been denounced by artists themselves on the ground of aesthetic anemia, Mrinal Haque's sculpture constituted the softest of all targets. Though, politically-motivated sections of secular hues are demanding reinstatement of the so-called sculptural piece, which Mufti Amini's followers attacked to clear the square in front of the Zia International of what they thought of un-Islamic traces, many artists are against such a move. The artists and art students under the banner of Banglar Sangskrity Andolon have launched a programme not only to encounter the threats of the iconoclasts, but also to denounce the arbitrary installation of structures on city roads in the name of beautification.

They have also launched a movement to press the demand for renaming the square after Lalon, the 18th century bard of baul school of thoughts, and are determined to continue to agitate in the hope that the previous structure would be replaced with the one that represents the spirit of the baul philosopher that was Lalon. They also favour assigning an artist to accomplish this task maintaining transparency at every step.

In the end, one must remember that true art is iconoclastic in nature. By way of questioning the flimsy basis of some social and political norms and laws, art, by design, positions itself against the status quo. Amini and his followers need to be aware of the fact that they are the ones, along with artists like Haque, who remain prostate vis-à-vis the authoritative power by not pointing their guns at where the true cause of all the pathologies lay. There is no escaping from the forces of the existing social order, which exerts a tremendous pull on all of us. Confrontation is inevitable, but not in the form that aims to satisfy the ego.

One remembers how the Dhaka beautification drive provided a chance for hard cash to be transferred from one coffer to another without any solid achievement in the aesthetic arena. It's a pity that artists with strong economic motivation were allowed a free reign in the name of beautification by the city authorities. Corporate money had been accessed and mostly wasted on an ill-devised programme, which resulted in some expensive and ugly structures.

If we are to oppose any “form” that runs counter to true faith, we must stand against the corrupt system that is categorically facilitating artists, architects, city planners and even contractors with the only motive to serve their own ends.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008