Bangladeshi artist Begum Tayeba Lipi’s unconventional choices reflect in her artistic career and food choices too

It is a warm May afternoon made warmer by the warmth of one of my favourite Bangladeshi artists Begum Tayeba Lipi. And this warmth is undoubtedly welcome. One of the most impressive voices in contemporary Bangladeshi art, Lipi braves the heat to come down to Connaught Place all the way from Khoj in Khirki Extension to have a meal with me at TC Bar & Restaurant. Lipi is in India for ArtThinkSouthAsia (ATSA), a programme in Arts Management and Cultural Policy aimed at developing skills, knowledge, networks and experience of cultural practitioners in South Asia. And Lipi, who co-founded Britto Arts Trust, an artist run space for alternative art in Dhaka, has been selected as an ATSA fellow for 2014-2015.

Contrary to her art practice, of which grandeur and scale are integral elements, Lipi’s apetite is modest but the restaurant really wants to indulge her. So an array of snacks is brought out. Golden fried baby corn, sliced sole chilli, chicken dimsum, crispy konji lamb, chilli mushrooms, veg sesame toast, crispy corn potato salt and pepper, grilled chicken suvalaki....phew!

Graciously accepting the hospitality, she samples a bit of everything. It comes as a surprise that even after possessing more than decent culinary skills, Lipi doesn't really analyse the food her table is brimming with.

“As an artist you can’t be fussy about food. Whenever we have these residencies outdoor projects, I insist on eating local food. Once we were working on a project involving different communities in a village - Santhals, Rakhains, Khasis etc.- and we always tried to eat with them. We give them money and they arrange for food,” says Lipi, who was in Singapore to participate in a Guggenheim show along with her contemporaries from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and other countries from South and South East Asia.

The acclaimed artist known for highlighting feminine concerns showed her famous love bed - a bed made of razor blades. Yet another famous work of hers is ‘bizarre and the beautiful’, a steel rack with hangers on which hang bras made of razor blades, which has been acquired by Rajeeb Samdani of Dhaka Art Summit. “Back home, they love to call me a feminist artist. Why label me? I would rather be happy being called just an artist. I am a woman so it is natural for me to understand her body, her mind, her concerns well,” says Lipi.

Appreciating the spice in her food, she recalls one of Britto’s recent projects, “No Man's Land”, done at Bangladesh-India border. “There were 15 artists from Bangladesh and nine artists from India and we lived in these villages across the border. The idea was to see each other without any passports. We stayed in a village where we made our own toilets. We had two cooks who would prepare food for us. It was difficult to get all the permissions but while we could cross over to the Indian side and meet the Indian artists, they couldn’t come over to our side and that also happened at the last minute,” says the artist adding that there was a particular community in the village that just wouldn’t eat with them. “They prepared lots of food for us and amazing local dishes but realised that they wouldn’t eat with us. What happens when we eat in their homes is that it establishes a bond. We work with these communities and it opens up a way of having a dialogue with them.”

Upbeat about the two-edition-old Dhaka Art Summit, Lipi feels the affair has really helped the country garner attention on the contemporary art world scene. “This edition of the summit was very different from the first one. Rajeeb took it to another level. He has been travelling and meeting important art administrators and practitioners from around the world and that’s how we had people from Tate, MOMA, Documenta, Guggenheim. The government doesn’t give any kind of funds for art activities, how it supported it was by giving a venue like Shilpakala Akademy for hosting the summit absolutely free. Otherwise it is indifferent to our art. They don’t care what kind of art we make. Probably that’s why I have never faced any censorship,” quips the artist, taking a spoonful of half steamed rice with sliced chicken and black mushroom in burnt chilli with wine.

And just like her unconventional art practice, here too she ends on not a ‘sweet’ note. There is absolutely no scope for a dessert.