Bangladesh: National Pavilions, Inside or Outside Green Zones?
It is a strange time for a revival of that contentious, “national” pavilion concept. Recent events have converged to underscore an unruly national that supersedes the biennial platform. News headlines have made the “Made in Bangladesh” clothing label tag a global signifier (check your collar, you may be wearing one). How many people knew, before a garments factory collapsed in Savar, that Bangladesh was the world’s second largest exporter of clothing after China? Shameema Rahman’s lament for the Savar dead is more powerful than anything you’ll see in a gallery: “Assuming that this boy was unaware of the theories of Kierkegaard I shall say that this is the natural instinct of a person about to be gobbled up by the overwhelming horror of becoming non-existent – in the socioeconomic context of post-second world war, neo-capitalism and neo-liberalism.”
How many United Arab Emirates residents knew who was building their skyscrapers, until Bangladeshi workers led a strike protesting labor conditions in Dubai construction projects? Did anyone ever ask the rose sellers of Rome if they missed Bangladesh, deep in the heart of Europe? In Siena for System Error: War is a force that gives us meaning, a show I had curated with Lorenzo Fusi, the post-opening dinner was interrupted by a Bangladeshi flower seller. The restaurant owner seemed uncomfortable with this intrusion – as if “national” should only be in the form of the visiting curator or artist (who will eventually leave), not the working-class migrant who will insist on his right to become Italian-Bengali.
The Chittagong art scene, where my mentor Dhali Al Mamoon is from, is healthy and dynamic because it is far from the madding crowd. It resists the siren call of the Euro-American curator on “discovery” tour. But, let us not also remove ourselves from the local reality outside the studio. Will artists speak of subaltern lives (not glamorous, but quite essential), forcing national pavilions to break out of green zones?Naeem Mohaiemen