MAGAZINES IN THE (EMPTY) FOREST
 
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- by naeem mohaiemen
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Jamini was recently searching for a guest editor, and I was asked for suggestions. It was the second time I received such a request, and the sequel signaled the continuing lack of candidates to take over that masthead. The crux of the problem is thatJamini publishes in English, and finding an English-fluent art critic in Dhaka is a significant challenge. Not impossible of course, but always a challenge. English-fluent writers have migrated elsewhere, most significantly to high-paying INGO jobs. 

This situation raises questions about the viability�or even necessity�of English-language writing projects about the visual arts in Bangladesh. Who is their imagined audience? Who is our imagined audience (because most of my projects are also in English)? 

The hegemony of English and German (and to a lesser degree Spanish and French) as an international art language has reinforced a Biennial�Art Fair�Museum arc that orbits around established centers of power. Bangladeshi art's attempt to enter this so-called "globalized" space has produced stylish English-language art magazines. But are enough people reading or thinking in this language here? Should they be? Why aren't there more Bengali language art journals with the funding, marketing, and visibility of the English publications? 

There are two main English-language art journals in Dhaka, the older Jamini and the younger DepartJamini has traced the modern-day inheritors of painter Jamini Roy (crucial to the development of modern art in South Asia), particularly the generation who trained at Charukala�Dhaka's main fine arts school, started by Zainul Abedin�and came to prominence between 1960 and 1980. It has, however, been slower to discuss photography, video, or mixed media works. Depart started partially as a rival magazine to fill that gap.

 

Jamini_cover


Both magazines are resolutely Dhaka-centric. Although Chittagong's art scene has received attention, the activities around the magazines (e.g., launch events, copies with bookstores) are mostly focused on Dhaka. 

The post-1971 "shorbosthore Bangla/Everywhere Bengali" policy meant English has never developed as a primary, or even significant language of discourse. That is changing gradually, partially under pressure of English language publishers such as UPL, English language private universities such as ULAB and NSU, and new institutions such as the much-debated Hay Festival. But the change is tiny, and one need only contrast the impact of a newspaper op-ed written in English in Daily Star (where I wrote for a long time) and one written in Bengali in Prothom Alo. Since these are sister publications, we can presume they have similar infrastructure and support� yet, the Bengali newspapers' circulation dwarfs that of any English newspaper. Travel outside of Dhaka, and you will rarely see an English language newspaper lying around in a tea stall, restaurant, or any other public venue. No space for serendipity, or transmission. 

Which brings us back to the question at hand� since the English language occupies a microscopic space inside Bangladesh, what is the impetus for two English-language journals? What are their futures? 

When the Bengali literary journal Kali o Kolom (Pen and Ink) hosted a discussion on the "mongrelization" of the Bengali language, the ensuing debate was explosive, lengthy, and played out entirely in Bengali. On one side were next-generation creatives such as Anisul Huq and Mostafa Sarwar Faruqi, blamed or cheered for inserting "realist" slang into television plays. On the other side were professors, such as Dhaka University's Syed Manzurul Islam, who warned that the poetics of nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore were being obliterated by a coarse, nihilistic hybrid of Bengali, English, and "D Juice" mobile phone slanguage. 

One example of a newer innovation is "para khayyo na" or "don't get para-noid." You either cheer on these new innovations, or you shiver. 

Like it or hate it, the hybridization of Bengali is underway, and it will be debated for a long time to come. Why aren't such debates happening in the English-language journals? 

There have been solid essays on visual art developments in both Jamini and Depart. But there are no letters written to those journals expressing vigorous counterpoints, nor any discussions anywhere else. Is everyone in smooth agreement on all aspects of the contemporary? I do not think so. I often listen to debates over photography's future (especially the documentary vs. speculative strands) among Pathshala students standing at the tea stall near Shukrabad bus stand on Panthapath. Many other discussions circulate on Charukala campus, mostly during cigarette breaks after class (sadly, the professors don't join these debates). But those debates don't intersect with the pages of these magazines. 
One problem is the economic engine that defines publishing in English, which doesn't as yet reflect demographic realities inside the country (although private university graduates may start to impact that trend for Dhaka, at least). English is the lingua franca of the "global" art world, but at what cost to local movements? Are local movements in danger of being obliterated, swept away by faster moving platforms that benefit from global linkages? 

Those of us who have written for both Depart and Jamini are acutely aware that we often see these magazines at international venues (especially art fairs), but we would be hard pressed to find copies of them at local homes�except of course in a very tiny circle of artist friends and art patrons. This is not viable in the long run, and unless Dhaka's art magazines find some way to generate real dialogue�perhaps by publishing bilingual editions�these magazines will languish as latent art objects. Viewed and collected, but missing the vital energy of friction and discourse. 

 
 
was published in November 2016
 
 
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