When most people think of Bangladesh, extreme poverty, environmental disasters and political turmoil instantly come to mind, overshadowing a thriving arts scene that has always existed at the core of Bengali culture. A team of young Bangladeshi-American photographers in New York City is working to change that perspective with their new project, Eyes on Bangladesh.
Eyes on Bangladesh is a free photography exhibit being showcased in Queens, New York, starting March 26 through March 30. The exhibit features the work of nine prominent Bangladeshi photographers whose work has appeared in TIME Magazine, National Geographic, The New York Times and more — Shumon Ahmed, Taslima Akhter, Rasel Chowdhury, Shamsul Alam Helal, Jannatul Mawa, Saikat Mojumder, Sarker Protick, Rashid Talukder and Munem Wasif.
The Aerogram reached out to Eyes on Bangladesh (EOB) co-curator Ayesha Akhtar to learn more about the project.
What is you role on the Eyes on Bangladesh team?
My role is curator. That involves choosing what photographs/artist will be chosen and how they will be displayed, contacting artists, and making long phone calls to Bangladesh trying to convince artists to participate. Since we are such a small group, we all have our hands in everything. I have done quite a bit of fundraising/marketing/and advertising too. Roles at EOB are fluid.
How did you get involved with Eyes on Bangladesh?
I got involved with Eyes on Bangladesh through Nabil Rahman (EOB founder & co-curator). We were friends for a while and he knew I really loved art and photography.
How did you choose the artists featured in the exhibition?
Since Nabil was able to attend Chobi Mela (Bangladesh’s annual international photography festival) and he interned at Drik (a multimedia organization in Bangladesh), he had an idea of who he wanted to exhibition. He introduced their work to me and we decided from there.
Describe the current state of photography and art in both in Bangladesh and Bangladeshis communities around the world.
That’s a loaded question. Bangladesh has an incredibly rich art culture. When I went there for the first time this year since I was born there, I was touched by how poetry, stories, and song were interwoven in everyday conversation in the villages. My dad is from a village an hour outside of Sylhet, and I spent a lot of my time there. The people loved that I took photos of their huts, and they took pleasure in posing for any portraits or sketches I asked them to be in, and they even helped me draw.
So that’s the first layer.
However, Bangladeshi-Americans are not known for their rich culture. The perceptions of Bengalis here in the US is that they all own restaurants, they are taxi drivers, and their children all strive to be doctors and engineers. And to be fair, that is what many of our parents want us to do — become doctors, lawyers, and engineers.
That is certainly what my parents wanted from me, but to be fair they do come from extremely difficult economic circumstances and this just comes from them wanting the best for their children.
So that is the second layer. Now there is also a third layer.
I think that generally people don’t really know anything about Bangladesh, and this is not just Americans but Bangladeshi-Americans are guilty of that too. I don’t think there is enough art, stories, or literature from Bangladesh that makes its way into the west. Why that is I’m not sure because what has made its way has been very well received by the western art world.
I also don’t think that there is a platform for artists in developing countries. Just as an example, if you search “Bangladesh” in Artstor Digital Library, a database of 1.8 million images, you don’t get any images from Bangladeshi artists. You get photographs of Bangladesh from Iranian photographer Abbas, or American photojournalist Steve McCurry, which is great, but we really need our story to be told by Bangladeshi artists.
There needs to be a platform for them, and in doing so we create a platform for us, lost, hybrid Bangladeshi-Americans floating here and abroad.
The exhibit includes female photographers. How are they perceived in Bangladesh?
Photography in Bangladesh is generally not very well received, and to be a woman and a photographer is incredibly brave! I’m really glad that I have Jannatul Mawa and Taslima Akhter as role models now. Because if they can do the work that they do over there, there is no reason I cannot do the work that I do here.
What future plans do you have for Eyes on Bangladesh?
My own secret desire is for Eyes on Bangladesh to become a platform for art. Maybe next year we can do the reverse and exhibition Bangladeshi-American photographers in Bangladesh. The sky is the limit.
How can people get involved?
There are several ways people can be involved.
1. Sponsorship. We are at the halfway mark to our goal and we are really cutting it close. We need people from out community to give. www.eyesonbangladesh.org/sponsorship
2. Spreading the word like wildfire. Tell the world. That’s what we want. Spread the word to your campus, your business, your organization, your mom, and your dad, and family.
3. Volunteers. We really need volunteers to help us serve food and drinks. We are also looking for a sound check/ DJ person for events during the exhibition. We need someone to fill each day. If anyone is interested please contact team.eyesonbangladesh.org
Jennifer Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi-American freelance journalist and fashion copywriter based in New York City. She blogs at http://brownandlovely.net.