When Joydeb Roaja travelled from Bangladesh to Dubai, where his work was showcased as part of a collective exhibition at the recent Art Dubai, he was stopped and questioned by immigration authorities on both sides. A part of the indigenous Tripura community of Bangladesh, the authorities at home couldn’t identify him as Bangladeshi; when he arrived in Dubai, they demanded to know if he could speak Bengali or if he was Rohingya.
“Indigenous communities get written out when you’re looking for sameness,” says Diana Campbell Betancourt, the curator of Fabric(ated) Fractures, the exhibition that brought together the work of 15 artists from Bangladesh, South Asia and Southeast Asia. “The way we identify the world today is based on fractures created by colonial powers. We wanted to look at all the strands of difference that get written out when you’re only looking at these majority narratives.”
Not a little brother
Roaja’s pen and ink drawings echoed political conflicts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), which straddle the borders of Bangladesh, India and Myanmar. These depicted female subjects engaged in mundane tasks and traditions, fused with military tanks and equipment — a disturbing portrayal of how violence has been absorbed into the everyday. Equally telling was Ashfika Rahman’s Rape is Political , a series of portraits depicting rape victims from the CHT’s Khagrachari hills. Words in ethnic languages were strewn across their faces, as if to conceal their individual identities while reinforcing a sense of communal resistance. Kanak Chanpa Chakma’s Soul Piercing , which dealt with the ironies of religious violence, drew from the 2012 mob attacks against the Buddhist community in southeastern Bangladesh.
In these works, and in many others, Bangladesh’s many threads of connection with Southeast Asia came to the fore. “The longer you look at Bangladesh as the little brother of India, you miss its connections with Myanmar and Thailand,” says Betancourt. “Bangladesh is very interesting, with all the rivers, how it is this cross section between South and Southeast Asia. Other than the word ‘Zomia’, there’s no word that really looks at that connection.’”
- Also on display as part of Fabric(ated) Fractures were collaborative pieces by Delhi-based photographer Gauri Gill and warli painter Rajesh Vangad from Maharashtra. From their series titled Fields of Sight , their works fuse photography and warli folk art to capture scenes of environmental degradation and their impacts on indigenous groups. Hitman Gurung’s This is My Home, My Land and My Country was a striking and paradoxical series of portraits depicting women from the Tharu indigenous community in Nepal, faces bandaged, and holding up identity cards. Alluding to the larger narrative of the Rohingya was the installation of Thai artist Jakkai Siributr, The Outlaw’s Flag . The work was produced by embroidering material from the beaches of Sittwe in Myanmar and Ranong in Thailand, points of departure and arrival for Rohingya refugees, to create fictitious flags, challenging the notions of nation and belonging.
Between the weaves
The Rohingya crisis perhaps highlights the crucial nature of this relationship. Since August 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled atrocities in Myanmar to take refuge in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar. Embodying this and linking it with the plight of Bangladeshi migrants was Kamruzzaman Shadhin’s, Haven is Elsewhere . The work, which joined together the discarded clothes of these communities, collected over a period of time, used traditional kantha embroidery to create a colossal piece of art — one which contained within it imprints of pain, suffering and longing. “What’s interesting is that some of the works that deal with the Rohingya crisis actually pre-dated it blowing up,” observes Betancourt. “So artists are really on the pulse of what’s going on, and see things sometimes before we see them.”
The element of fabric tied together many of the other pieces. Rashid Choudhury’s intriguing tapestries depicted stories from his village in Faridpur district (now Rajbari, Bangladesh) — “woven constructions of the magic that can be found in plurality in village cultures,” as Betancourt describes them. There’s also the work of photographer Pablo Bartholomew (Untitled), which captured the common identity of the indigenous Chakma community, split across Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, through interpretations of the community’s DNA patterns by Chakma weavers. “Politics change, languages change, religion changes; but weaving processes change a lot more slowly,” says Betancourt. “If you look at Pablo’s piece, the communities might not be meeting now because of political borders, but their weaving history talks to a shared past.”
Fabric(ated) Fractures was a collaboration between the Samdani Art Foundation, a private arts trust based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Alserkal Avenue in Dubai.