Critical Writing Ensemble: Day two at the Dhaka Art Summit

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As the second day of the Ensemble begins, participants and audience members make their way to Shilpakala through a variety of local transport; some clambering from CNGs (Auto Rickshaw/Tuk Tuk), others descending from Cycle Rickshaws, while others emerge from the comfort of air-conditioned taxis. It is Marianne Burki, Head of Visual Arts department at the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, who welcomes everyone to the second day of talks which will explore the theme, Staging Words and Flowing Letters, which will examine the various literary forms of art writing and the archival relevance of more informal accounts within art criticism. To close, Marianne asks the audience to consider where today’s platform is for this thing we call Art Criticism?

To open, Belinder Dhanoa’s paper was read by Sabih Ahmed from the Asia Art Archive, in her absence due to ill health. Titled Notes on Process: Writing a Life, the paper formed a collection of exerts from the script Belinder wrote for artist Vivan Sundaeam’s exhibition-as-play 409 Ramkinkars which opened in 2015. A performance which paid homage to one of India’s most charismatic artists Ramkinkar Baij, the performance took hold of the age-old question, what is fiction and what is non-fiction as the work seamlessly merges the fictional and the unchangeable autobiography.

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Next up, Quinn Latimer, an American Poet, Critic, and Editor based in Basel and Athens opens with an explanation of how her continuing search to find a working style between poetry and criticism. Reading passages from both her published and in-progress books, Quinn’s experimental style and her search for the space in-between her two chosen media becomes prevalent as she takes liberties with language twisting reality into a new form which smashes the format ridden reviews critics can often become entrapped within; perhaps leaving the audience to question what format arts criticism should, and could, take.

Lastly for the morning session, Salima Hashmi enters stage left to read directly from a series of letters by her father, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in a presentation titled Letter – ‘The long awaiting morn’. An opponent of the Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s government in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case, for which Faiz was detained for four years. Originally only destined for his wife, these private letters have now been published, and as Salmia reads, there is a sense that perhaps these letters were performative scripts used by Faiz to address the power of the epistolary form as a critical tool for resistance. The blurring of private and public writing within Faiz’s letters poses the question of how we write when we know who we are writing for?

Reconvening after lunch, Nida Ghouse takes to the stage waking anyone who might be flagging after a heavy lunch by vigorously reading from her series of powerful essays about the multi-lingual Afro-Asian magazine Lotus which was a Soviet-funded forum for short stories. The project was a fascination around the idea of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s time in Beirut when he worked with Lotus (then called Afro-Asian Writings). Looking closely at the depravation and loneliness Faiz experienced during his time in the city, Nida’s research closely questions what it means to be from a language and how this might effect a writer’s interaction with their audience.

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Next up Artist and Writer Rosalyn D’Mello, who played a central role in the research and editing of The Art Critic, theatrically pulls a chair to front-center stage ensuring that everyone is fully focused on the subject to hand. Reading the biography of the late art critic, poet, writer and painter Richard Bartholomew from the front of the publication, the delivery of her paper appears to be part performance. Addressing particular aspects of Bartholomew’s legacy which have a personal significance for Rosalyn it’s a chance for the audience to see how this critics work documented modern Indian Art history and opens the question; does having more of a relationship with an artist make your critique of their work different?

To close the day’s talks, Chantal Pontbriand, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto, took to the stage with A Letter From the People. Discussing how writing, editing, publishing and curating words as well as works is a continuous process for her, Chantal explains the critic’s task in sourcing and communicating arts hidden elements and gestures. Succinctly describing art writing as a way of transferring emotions and knowledge from one person to another, Chantal reminds the audience that you cannot only write for yourself as writing is a gesture that reaches out to others.

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