Britto Arts Trust is an artist-run, non-profit collective founded in 2002. As part of the Triangle Network, an international network of artists and visual arts organizations, it has a global reach. Britto Arts Trust is based in Dhaka but works extensively in different locations across the country. Britto attempts to understand Bangladesh’s socio-political upheaval by exploring missing histories, cultures, and communities and collaborating with various partners.
Britto seeds and promotes multiple interdisciplinary practitioners, groups, and networks. It provides an international and local forum for the development of professional art practitioners, a place where they can meet, discuss, experiment, and upgrade their abilities on their own terms. In response to the lack of suitable educational institutions in Bangladesh, Britto functions as an alternative learning platform for many artists who have gone on to produce highly experimental work.
Britto Arts Trust is a lumbung member of documenta fifteen.
Leilani Lynch: How did Britto Arts Trust begin? What were the conditions that brought about its founding?
Britto Arts Trust: Officially, we started in 2002. Unofficially, earlier. We were six founding trustees, all artists. We wanted to have this platform because Bangladesh didn't have anything like this during that time. Bangladesh had few galleries. One large government platform, which had their own agenda. So they were a public place, but not exactly, just like any big government institution. We founded Britto Arts Trust to experiment, to do things that we wanted to do because there was no platform for it.
In the early 2000s, we both visited Europe after our education, traveling to different countries, such as England, Ireland, Germany, and Finland for residencies. There, we were seeing and experiencing new things like artist-run organizations and galleries. That was pretty interesting for us. We are young and thought we could do that. Why not? But actually in Nepal in 1994, we did an exhibition when we were still students, which was also organized by a kind of artist-run gallery with studio spaces. That was our first experience [with these types of models]. But afterwards in Europe, it was then that we understood the situation and we understood that it is possible for artists to make their own space.
So, after coming back, we were talking to our friends, and thought if we could share some money, we could rent a space to work, working on whatever and however we like. Where we can explore and experiment. Where we don't need to wait for the galleries to exhibit our works or promote us. We [could] promote ourselves and promote others, too.
That is how we thought in the beginning. And that was back in 2000. But surely there was also Triangle Network, who around that time was founding small organizations in South Asia like Khoj International Artists’ Association from India, Vasl in Pakistan, and Theertha International Artist Collective from Sri Lanka. Pooja Sood from Khoj was assigned to grow more organizations in South Asia because Triangle had a big connection with Africa already, but had just started connecting with South Asia. So, it was kind of a coincidence or matching the time or something that actually moved us and moved them. We got to know their activities and saw firsthand how they were running the workshops or residencies. Coming back with all these experiences, we thought we were ready to found an organization or platform such as Britto.
Mahbubur Rahman: From the beginning, we have always worked as a group, not individually. We were practicing collectively, but we never thought we would make a registered organization, with accounts, banking things, or funding. So, from the beginning, it was a very organic process. We had been working for about six years in different groups and trying to shape an understanding between them. And then finally, the six founding trustees had the same ideas to develop Britto.
Tayeba Begum Lipi: Finally, Robert Loder (co-founder of Triangle Network) and Pooja Sood actually gave us the courage and kind of convinced us, with their words of mouth, that we should start something, which we wanted. They were looking for people like us who wanted to do something different, and they were searching for the proper artists to start with this new idea.And they found us, and we found them. So, it was a good connection. A good match.
MR: Then we got confident. Because we are more like Bohemian people. We didn’t think in any shape or any form. We didn’t want to take on more responsibility, much less our own [laughs]. There was a lot of debate and confusion, a lot of conversation between us, even after we formed Britto. We were really confused about how to run, how to shape ourselves. Then finally we decided, no, it's like a life: if it works, it will work. And, if not, don't think that much. Just keep engaged.
The collective was not only about our work, we thought about the artist community in Bangladesh. So that was the target. But, from the beginning, we told anyone associated with us that you have to be an artist and you have to work hard. For your individual practice, you have to be supportive of the artist community who needs your support. Our (Bangladesh’s) educational system is very rigid, very academic.
There is less space for the experiment, but from the beginning, when we were students, we would do the experimenting in our educational life. We were becoming an alternative educational platform somehow… In the traditional system, they did not teach us about community-based work; there was sculpture, painting and printmaking. This kind of production-focused/oriented practice. So, then we started to explore our ideas related to the community, nature, and the land. It was more about the process and developing the concept and going through the process. The process was more than the product.
LL: What was the reception among the local community and local artists when you started? Was there any kind of resistance?
BAT: The reception was mixed. Some people connected with what we were doing instantly, some—even in the artist community—did not. Some people did not quite understand what we were doing, but they personally knew us and gave us moral support. Some people did think that we were establishing an NGO or something similar, which is not our background. And some were actually shocked that we started a platform because they thought that artists should do their own work only and not organize something different. In fact, we did not bother at all because we were very clear about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to proceed from the beginning. We always invited people to talk if they had any confusion; if you don’t have this kind of conversation, there is always a gap that cannot be covered. Before we founded Britto twenty years ago, we were working as artists in different ways, and people got habituated with our own practice, but they were not familiar with what we are doing on a bigger platform like Britto. Since we worked very hard and after experiencing this long journey, that kind of broad recognition is there now, and people know how Britto works in Bangladesh. They would actually feel really shocked if Britto would need to close.
Anna Wälli: So how important has the physical Britto Space been for your practice? What kind of advantages did the physical space bring to the community?
BAT: Mahbubur and I have been together since 1996, and our house was always an open space for friends. So, we didn’t mind starting Britto in our living room. After a while, we started to look out for small spaces where we could have a small office or residency. During approximately seven years, we had around seven spots, all located in residential areas. They were hard to keep, and we had to move constantly, because new buildings arose on those properties. Every time we moved to a new house, we knew that within two to three years we would have to move out again. But all of a sudden, the owners would say that we have to move out earlier because the house will be demolished. This was a very tiring process, and in 2004/05 we applied for a grant which we managed to receive for six years. We did not have any money at that time and were really struggling to arrange the funds for different kinds of projects, because Bangladesh does not have any local or public funding at all. So, when the first grant got approved, us Trustees decided not to take any salary. We didn’t want to live on Britto—all of us had our own work. We gave our time, our energy, and ideas to it, that is how we could save money and put it in the bank for a fixed deposit with good interest. We thought that if we maintain that scheme for the next six, seven, eight years, we could actually get a space for Britto, which could run forever, even if we are not there anymore. Half of the work would have been done with this, and we would have to organize money only for the projects and not for rent, etc., anymore. There were many sectors of work included such as design, photography, documentation; we did everything by ourselves and in-house. We saved all this money and donated our salaries and all remuneration to the house—that is how this money grew and why we were able to buy the space in 2011.
Furthermore, we applied to several institutions for funding, and Robert Loder [one of the founders of Triangle Network] also donated some funds, and we saved some money from our artworks, too.
LL: That is really interesting. Let me ask you how you identify yourselves? We are talking to a number of collectives and practitioners—but you define yourselves as “trustees.” Why “trustees”?
BAT: Actually, for technical reasons. If you want to organize yourselves officially, there are mainly two possibilities: foundation and trust. We chose “trust” as an organizational form. Trustees are responsible for everything; for example, if the trustees are in debt, the trustees have to pay for that, or if there is something coming up in terms of law and order and all other things, they are in charge and have to solve the problems. There were six founding trustees in the beginning; after a while two of them left Britto, and we had to include two more, as according to the rules, we need to have six trustees. In addition to that, we can take members—they can join us temporarily and they are renewed every two years. So, the members are a changeable number, but we cannot have more than 100. At the moment, we have around seventeen or eighteen of them and the six trustees who are the decision-makers.
AW: Is it always the trustees that decide for the group?
BAT: Most of the decisions are made by the trustees, but it really depends on the project. Usually, the official activities or administrative tasks are decided and organized by the trustees. But also the members are welcome to contribute, also in different projects. It’s usually the members who are really engaged as well—in the projects, it’s mostly the teams, which are put together by trustees and members, that decide. Some of the members also work as part of the administration directly and are always there. We have several working groups, and it does not matter whether you are a trustee or member, whoever has time can join them. There is a group for the residency, one for the workshops and projects, and so on.
LL: Do you meet very regularly, or a few times a year?
BAT: We have an official meeting once a year where all the trustees and members meet. But other than that, it is very organic—we love to party, so we meet for drinking, cooking, and so on. We have a social kitchen in the middle of Britto Space. It is important to mention that it’s not only the trustees and members that are gathering, but there are so many young artists who might not be trustees or members, but still are associated and connected with Britto through different projects. We try to make them feel at home, and if they want to be part of the project, they need to have and feel ownership; if they have an opinion or anything to share, they can share.
A good example is documenta, because most of the artists are engaged with the whole process, but not so much the members. As the participation is process-based, we keep it open. The engagement in the process is the most important thing, rather than reaching the mountain. We tried to engage a lot of artists and members in this project. We like to work in a broader ecosystem and not exactly holding things together or making documenta to our own thing only.
Because of Covid, we need to maintain distance; that is why we have a big studio now. Britto Space is in the middle of the city, and it is rather small. So, the whole documenta project is done in our studios, and all the artists are staying over. This is the main part of the studio, but we have another one not far from here, and there is another workshop in the forest, in a village. So, there are several locations, and there are also many artists engaged for the documenta project—so it is a large ecosystem, we are working with too many people. We actually need to make a list of who is involved [laughs].
AW: Because we are so curious: could you tell us what you are planning for documenta, or is this a secret?
BAT: We are certainly not disclosing everything, but the concept is about food politics. Everything is related to food and food politics. In the beginning of 2020, when we all were shocked with the Covid situation, we did a project called ZERO WASTE-FoodArt which was done in sixteen different locations with sixteen different groups of artists—some of them individuals and some collectives. We could not actually meet with each other due to Covid, but we managed to get a small amount of funding for that project, and the artists got supported through that. Many of the artists had done really dynamic projects; all sixteen projects were really unique, and every project told its own story.
When we started to talk with the artistic team of documenta, that time we didn’t actually know that we were talking about documenta; they got curious about what we are doing and wanted to know more and more about it. That’s how it started.
That was an eight-month project. We were busy gardening and using the soil or growing and distributing the food to the people and managing the waste and creating artwork out of the whole process. Meanwhile, we were getting very engaged with food politics, and did a lot of research, watching films and documentaries, etc. This is how we started working on the project that will be for documenta.
We have five different projects for documenta on the same concept—food and food politics. One is a huge mural in Documenta Halle. We’ve done 90% here and 10% will be done over there (Kassel). It’s influenced by hand-painted cinema banners and posters that used to be seen at theatres. This culture is already gone, but there are a couple of painters still alive and practicing. So, we thought, why don't we take that style, the cinema banner “attitude,” and make something food-related.
We were interested in how film moves with culture, in terms of the costumes, features, and location. So, we thought, let's start to do research on food-related film. We watched about six or seven films and collected screenshots from the films, which we then developed with the eighteen artists into the mural. We will also show films related to food politics and colonial suppression. How coloniality has had an ecological impact—for example, that famine is a man-made phenomenon.
After doing several projects with artists, through the Britto ecosystem, we came up with a final list of artists to present at documenta. We have made around 2,000 objects, which we are installing that in the middle of Documenta Halle. Then the large wall nearby will have the mural, and then we are creating an organic garden outside the Halle. It will have an organic garden, whose structure is made of bamboo. In the middle of the garden, we will have our own bamboo kitchen run for 100 days by 100 people of different nationalities. They will be cooking, telling the stories of their food, and sharing memories.
We also have a very old project where we worked with different ethnic communities from the countryside of Bangladesh, which are mostly remote areas where there is no electricity or running water. We started this project in 2009, so we wanted to revisit all these places today to share at documenta. We have chosen seven locations and have been revisiting each during the last year, finding their culture once again. We are learning about each ethnic group’s food habits, environmental issues, and how political issues are suppressing them.
So, this will be shown as a three-channel film, which we are working on now, along with photography about this journey. And we are also planning to do some graffiti in the city.
Lastly, we will be publishing a book working with a young researcher who has been following us from the beginning of Britto. This will be published during documenta on the occasion of Britto’s twenty-year anniversary (next year).
LL and AW: How exciting and ambitious! You've always been part of Triangle Network, but how has it been to be connected through the documenta project to other collectives across the world? Did you already know a lot of them, and did it change anything for you?
MR: Yeah, of course these networks are so important. The Triangle Network gave us a lot of tools, and we're happy to involve them in Britto’s upcoming twentieth anniversary. Through Triangle Network, we had a platform to connect with collectives from all over the world, which gave us a lot of experiences and opportunities to share ideas. Many of the lumbung members we knew already, but others were new to us, so it’s been a great experience working with them. Having conversation with them and making a discourse, exploring how they cross borders of defining beauty and modes of exploration.
We are always at the boundaries, and it's very difficult to come out from them, being based in different geographical locations. This network is meant to be more than a one-day experience; it's more of a long-term journey with others.
TBL: I think this documenta is completely different from any other documenta we’ve seen because it is run by non-profit, artist-run organizations. We organized the first Bangladesh Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, but that was more like presenting an individual artist, not thinking about the ecosystem or involving a lot of other people or communities. As Bangladeshi artists, you can have space to reach out and introduce Bangladesh to the global art scenario, but at the same time, you don’t make any network to organizations because that is not really related to artist collectives. It’s more about individual practitioners.
MR: For documenta, we thought why don’t we go for an organic process, you know.
TBL: If it’s right, it’s right, and if it’s not, we just go another way.
LL: Just take another path.
Leilani Lynch is Curator at the Bass, Miami Beach. She has organized recent solo exhibitions with Naama Tsabar, Mika Rottenberg, Karen Rifas, and Aaron Curry, in addition to co-organizing exhibitions with Abraham Cruzvillegas, Haegue Yang, Pascale Marthine Tayou, and Paola Pivi. Before joining the Bass curatorial team in 2015, she was Exhibitions Project Manager at Locust Projects, Miami. Lynch has participated on panels and lectures for STPI – Creative Workshop, Singapore, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, ArtTable, and ICOM, and served on juries for the Association of Art Museum Curators, Oolite Arts, FL, the Hopper Prize, and others. She holds a BA in Art History from University of California, Berkeley, and an MAS in Curating from Zurich University of the Arts.
Anna Wälli is a curator and project manager with a background in art, history, and literature.