On 8 August 1998, we have the honour to have Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam from Dhaka University, Bangladesh to hold a dialog with us.

ATTENTION   ...............   ACHTUNG

Am 8. August 1998 haben wir die Ehre, Herrn Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam von der Universität Dhaka, Bangladesh zu einer Gesprächsrunde bei uns zu haben.


I reached Germany on the last day of July, 1998, in what appeared to be the height of summer. The days were hot and oppressive, but the nights were cool and pleasant. It was unusual weather, by most reckoning, and I naturally made the best of it.

My first stop was Germersheim where I was invited to attend a seminar on the literatures of regions and nations organized by the Scottish Studies department of the University of Mainz. There I spent a few hectic days in the company of scholars from three continents, discussing topics and sharing ideas. The seminar itself was a round of deliberations in plenaries and small groups, held in the cool and comfortable rooms of an old, stone building. But no less important as venues were the beer gardens across the street which most participants actually preferred! The seminar was a kind of intellectual feast that tends to drag and become overwhelming towards the end. I was therefore looking forward to my few days in Bonn and Cologne, where, in the company of my artist friends, I'd have a first hand exposure to German art. Maruf Ahmed, who lives in Bonn and has a studio at Cologne, was to be my host. He has already made his mark in art circles in Cologne through more than two decades of dedicated work. Jay Koh, another artist friend of mine, who lives and has a studio, Arting, in Cologne, had invited me to give a lecture on contemporary South Asian art and the post-colonial situation to a selected group of artists-- not just painters, but creative people working in different fields.The audience was also expected to participate, and cover the other end of the spectrum, i.e., the German/European situation, and how they see the art of other countries. Jay had himself done this in a number of countries in the past few years, including Thailand and Bangladesh. I was present in his last colloquium in Dhaka, where many young artists turned up. There were many questions, many queries. In the end, everybody had spoken out; there was general consensus on some areas (the role of an artist in a developing society, the need for cross-cultural understanding), but there were individual opinions, too, which the others appreciated. In another such colloquium, Jay used video footages to launch his discussion, and encouraged participants to propose their ideas in a visual frame. It was an invitation to come out of the set pattern of discourse, and the participants enthusiasistically followed up.

My meeting with the creative people of Cologne was set in the afternoon of a rather hot and steamy day, and it was no fault of those who chose to remain out of door, since on such days the riverfront and watersports become vastly more attractive than a lecture on the post-colonial experience in art. The gathering was therefore much smaller than expected. A few artists, film makers, a philosophy student, and one or two interested people made up the audience. Jay was there, and so was Maruf, who had to drive me all the way from his flat in Bonn. The discussion began rather uncertainly, as I found the task of introducing my topic a bit ponderous, given the outdoorish mood in the air. But soon I overcame this initial uncertainty, as I began to see that the small audience was not only attentive, but also quite well informed. As I finished my presentation, the audience began to join in, first by asking questions, then by giving their opinions. I found the responses and reactions most illuminating, since I had laboured under the illusion that German artists, like most of their European counterparts, were not much interested in what went on around the world, except for some stereotypes and mythic frames of reference. For example, I expected them to have known about the Indian painter Maqbool Fida Hussein , or the fim maker Satyajit Ray, but not about those belonging to the so-called fringe. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the 'fringe' is not that an unknown quantity with this group. I myself am particularly interested, as part of my subaltern historiographical research, in exploring the art of the 'fringe,' since so much of the truly remarkable art is being produced by the artists sidelined by the mainstream and the academies: women, ethnic artists working with their own motifs and themes, the amateurs, among others. My colloquium was thus quite satisfying at the end, although I wish there were more people in the audience.

My thesis that afternoon centred round three cognate ideas. I wished to make a case for the so-called third world artists as victims of neglect and misinformation because of their political-economic situation. My point was not that the west's assessment of these artists is a pre-requisite for their acceptance in its galleries and academies, but that that assessment, if and when made, should be based on terms of reference unique to their situation. The west's preferences and prejudices should not colour its perception of these artists. Mine was an attempt to get rid of a mind set (which some critics see as a hard to get rid of orientalism) that sees virtue only in the exotic and the mythic, and disregards anything that resembles the west's very own constructions, such as western modernism. Taking the case of modernism as an example, we may see subtle operations of an ideaology that places the east at the other end of the assembly line-- as consumers-- of this modernism, not as its manufacturer. The term third world is also something that I dispute: it is a coinage made by the west, solely on economic and political considerations, and is therefore, immensely restrictive. I tried to point out that the artistic productions in the east should be taken on their own terms. If the east formulates a western form of modernism, it is ultimately not an imitation, but a reformulation of the concept, since every interpretation of an experience (including the 'modern' experience) is a new creation. And as a new creation, it always charts out its own distance from the existing opus even while contributing to it. The western stereotyping of non-western art is therefore, a fundamental negation of the creative mind, which, in every geographic, ethnic, cultural or political region, refuses to perpetuate sameness, and is content only when a new configuration of experience or feeling is achieved.

I have tried, in many of my previous writing on art, to propose a new understanding of Asian, particularly South Asian art. My task became rather difficult at one point when some Bangladeshi artists began practising a form of art that, in the absence of suitable 'labels' (art critics, art galleries, and even some artists themselves like to have such labels for comfortable classification and categorization), was called postmodernist. Now, postmodernism has been a particularly western formulation, which the Marxist critic Frederic Jameson has called 'the cultural logic of late capitalism,' and therefore quite specific to the late-capitalist cultural ethos of the west. But both modernism and postmodernism have relevances and resonances in the east that are very much local. These are determined by a cross current of social-cultural and historical events that cannot be understood if the context is taken out. It can also be argued that the economic, political, social and other forces that created conditions for modernistic or postmodernistic ideas to emerge in the west are also operative in the east, though in different guises and forms.To insist on their watertight division is to ignore (or even deny) the forces of global change.

Jay Koh's video presentations also emphasize this point. The media, more than anything else, and especially after their globalization, represent such forces of change. In my discussion, the film makers expressed their point more enthusiastically and forcefully than the paint artists, although the artists too, at the end, agreed. The meeting ended with some shared understanding and realizations that would, I hope, help in the promotion of a new understanding of Asian art.

Syed Manzoorul Islam