It takes a powerful and visually arresting body of work to compete with the structurally counterintuitive galleries of the Broad Art Museum in East Lansing (moviegoers, incidentally, may even recognize this museum’s uninhibited interior as one of the sets in the recently released Batman vs. Superman). Bangladeshi artists Tayeba Begum Lipi and Mahbubur Rahman don’t disappoint. This husband and wife duo combine social activism with an impressively diverse array of multimedia work, speaking to social issues through art that’s both visually compelling and finely crafted.
They’ve acquired international recognition, representing Bangladesh at the 2011 Venice Biannale. But this show, The Artist as Activist, is the first ever to offer a retrospective survey of both of their works, which impressively span drawing, sculpture, video-art, performance, installation, and photography, and more. Visually and conceptually, the artists pair well together. In sculpture, they disconcertingly work with surgical scissors and razor blades, offering, quite literally, sharp commentary on Bangladeshi social issues.
Tayeba Begum Lipi’s work presents us with the welcoming apparatus of a domestic interior, ironically rendered with razor blades, thus metamorphosing objects of the home into something sinister and dangerous. Her razor-sculptures depict, with lucid detail, a shoe closet, a baby’s crib, a bed, a sewing machine, a vanity, and a bathtub. These works are augmented by a two-channel video installation in which the artist goes through the motions of marrying herself, subverting the still-current practice of arranged marriages. Elsewhere in the exhibit, her collaborative installation with Rahman, Toys are Watching Toys, allegorically depicts arranged-marriages as ritual animal slaughter.
Mahbubur Rahman offers similarly unsettling sculptures. In his kinetic Sounds from Nowhere, an automated hacksaw violently swipes away at the fragile strings of a violin. The work obliquely addresses the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory, in which hundreds of menially-paid workers died; in the aftermath, hacksaws both helped rescue people and, alternately, amputate limbs. Perhaps his most disconcerting work is a helmet and facemask comprised entirely of surgical scissors, their handles pointed inward and their blades menacingly sticking outward. The work is accompanied by a photograph of the artist wearing the grisly mask during a performance.
Both artists use material that carries booth personal and political resonance. While Lipi works with razor blades because of their associations with violence, they also recall her childhood, during which, on occasion, she assisted midwives by sanitizing the razor blades used to assist delivery. For Rahman, scissors evoke partition and division (recurrent themes in the post-colonial Indian subcontinent), but they also reference the loss of one of his own fingers in a childhood accident.
Though their work addresses issues specific to Bangladesh, much of it carries global resonance. Rahman’s confrontationally large charcoal drawings addressing forced migration, for example, certainly speak to the current migration crisis in Europe, asking us to pause and consider the individual humans behind the headlines. And Sounds from Nowhere incriminates the global garment industry, which almost universally exploits cheap labor. Matisse once wrote that he wished to create art “filled with balance, purity and calmness, freed from a subject matter that is disconcerting … similar to a comfortable armchair.” For Rhaman and Lipi, the armchair would be made of razor blades, and The Artist as Activist is about as near the opposite of Matisse’s halcyon vision that art could possibly get.