Despatch from Dhaka | International

Remember the dead and fight for the living

An art summit in Dhaka touches upon a broad set of themes from geological to social and feminist

Rahela Khanam was not an artist, never meant to be. After losing her 19-year-old son, Fazle Rabby, to Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster in 2013, Ms. Khanam found her life hollowed out. To carry the memories of her son into the future, she embroidered her sorrows into a handmade quilt, a seemingly permanent space in her fleeting life. It’s part of Memorial Quilts, a moving collection of statements from the families of those who died in the Rana Plaza collapse about seven years ago.

Taslima Akhter, a documentary photographer and rights activist, put them together at the Dhaka Art Summit, renewing global attention to the struggles of garment workers, who drive Bangladesh’s stellar economic growth, but themselves fall by the wayside.

The stories of those families upended by the disaster emerged as a collaborative effort to remember the dead and fight for the living. A counter-narrative to disasters, these quilts empower families to memorialise their loved ones and bring together a growing number of allies who demand better wages and safer workplaces.

Habiba Nowrose explores complex human relationships and the ambiguity of identity through photography. The Life of Venus, an ongoing project that started in 2014, portrays veiled women in a dazzling burst of colours and offers glimpses into their faceless world. “My photography is true to myself. I’m inspired by the patterns and colours women wear in Bangladesh all the time. I have been fascinated by those patterns and colours and wanted to include them in my works. That’s one of the reasons my works are vibrant and colourful,” Ms. Nowrose said in an interview.

The images of women shed light on the loss of identity that Ms. Nowrose felt in her life as a woman. “I was experiencing a lot of pressure from my family and peers to express myself in a particular way. I had a feeling that I was losing myself.”

Freedom or the lack of it took centre stage in the theme, Seismic Movements. The art summit touched upon a broad set of movements from geological to social to feminist. The movements create the conditions that “move us to act and the power that comes with moving collectively,” said Diana Campbell Betancourt, chief curator of the summit.

Chitra Ganesh expands upon her exploration of gender and power in a futurist imaginary that takes the 1905 utopian, sci-fi, feminist novella Sultana’s Dream by author and social reformer Begum Rokeya as a point of departure to consider a world where men stay home, and women innovate new ways of being by harnessing the power of the sun.

Throughout the world, people of colour, indigenous peoples and people of diverse sexual and gender orientation continue to fight for space to express themselves. They immerse themselves in fantasy and poetry to reimagine new territories that emancipate them from the everyday violence of capitalism, patriarchy and religious fundamentalism.

Sense of alienation

On the other hand, Tahia Farhin Haque, a Dhaka-based photographer, traces the broken lives in the brutal aftermath of the Partition of India in 1947. Through the images of veiled women, Ms. Haque explores the public gaze and prejudice that follows a Muslim woman in a country where she happens to be part of the religious minority.

It is a jarring reminder of the turmoil and terror her grandmother had suffered more than seven decades ago, running away from her home in Kolkata with a child in her womb. The oppression of minorities has always existed and is evident even today. “Strolling through the streets [in Kolkata], I was always acutely aware of the eyes on me due to my identity and the pang of alienation that accompanies it,” Ms. Haque wrote in a booklet on the overarching theme of her works.

In another corner, a vast canvas scroll by Nilima Sheikh, a prominent visual artist from Baroda, reflects on the tragedies in Kashmir, the epicentre of the destruction left in the wake of the Partition and later exacerbated by rising Indian nationalism. The narrative scroll immerses the viewer in a sense of loss and mourning often articulated in silence. Ms. Sheikh has been visiting Kashmir since she was a young child, and has envisioned a pluralistic society through her works since 2002.

As the nine-day summit came to an end on Saturday, Ms. Khanam’s memorial quilt will be removed from the gallery at the Shilpakala Academy just like other exhibits, and she will continue to come to terms with the eternal absence of her beloved son in her own small world.

Arun Devnath is a journalist based in Dhaka

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 7:44:18 PM |

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