The Samdani Art Foundation (SAF) based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is welcoming visitors to its first exhibition in the UAE, Fabric(ated) Fractures, in the traditional Bengali way — with ‘alpona’ or decorations made with rice paste at the entrance to the exhibition at Concrete in Alserkal Avenue. But unlike traditional ‘alpona’ designs, the drawings created by Bangladeshi artist Joydeb Roaja depict women with tanks on their heads towering over soldiers, indicating the kind of issues the show deals with.
SAF was founded in 2011 by art collectors and patrons Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani. It supports contemporary Bangladeshi artists and architects through grants, residencies, education programmes, commissions and exhibitions in the country and abroad, and promotes South Asian art by loaning its collection to institutions around the globe. SAF also produces the bi-annual Dhaka Art Summit, a non-commercial research and exhibition platform for art and architecture related to South Asia. Most of the works in this exhibition were originally commissioned for various editions of the summit.
The exhibition is curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt, artistic director of SAF and chief curator of the Dhaka Art Summit. It features artworks by 15 artists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand. Their artworks explore the long-term consequences of the fractures created in the socio-political fabric of South Asia by foreign rulers who partitioned the land along religious and linguistic lines for their selfish interests; and celebrate the shared cultural history of the region that still connects people across man-made borders.
“The aim of the Dhaka Art Summit is to continuously challenge how the world sees Bangladesh and how Bangladesh sees itself. The works we are showing were created for a Bangladeshi audience and offer a South Asian perspective of the region. We are happy to extend this conversation in Dubai through our collaboration with Alserkal. We need to have platforms without the West as an intermediary. Hence, although we usually announce the Dhaka Art Summit from Venice, this year we took a conscious decision to announce the 2020 summit, titled Seismic Movements, from Alserkal Avenue because we believe the place that connects South Asia and the rest of the world is Dubai,” Betancourt says.
Explaining her curatorial vision for the show, she adds, “This show considers ‘sensitive spaces’ that challenge ideas of state, nation and territory. While it was born within the borders of what is now considered Bangladesh, the lines demarcating this young country are constantly shifting. The waters that move across its edges are shared with India and Myanmar, flowing into wider border issues that extend into Thailand, Pakistan and Nepal — the countries our artists come from. Their works break down reductive national and regional narratives to construct a more local and human perspective. Regional lenses, including overarching headers such as South Asia or MENASA tend to filter out the many traces of difference found on a local level, and this exhibition aims to weave a more complex picture of the vibrant and diverse threads that comprise a yet-to-be crystalised identity in the wounded border areas related to Bangladesh, which cannot be defined with a single framing device.”
Visitors are confronted by these issues right at the entrance with Roaja’s ‘alpona’ drawings. The artist belongs to the Tripura community from the Chittagong Hill Tracts on Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar. His surreal drawings, also shown on the walls inside, depict women with tanks on their heads and children playing war games, surrounded by soldiers. They allude to the memories of militarisation and violence that have become part of the mental landscape of the indigenous people in this area, and the artist’s desire to imagine a different existence.
The show, which is about fabricated fractures and fractured fabrics features many fabric-based works such as Bangladeshi artist and activist Kamruzzaman Shadhin’s collage Haven is Elsewhere. The monumental work is made of clothing belonging to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and Bangladeshi victims of illegal human trafficking to South East Asia. They have been stitched together with traditional Kantha embroidery stiches by Bangladeshi women who are internally displaced refugees because of flooding of their villages. The installation is a monument to the victims of these humanitarian and political catastrophes, stitching together the experiences of all these communities in a gesture of bonding and healing.
Thai artist Jakkai Siributur has collected fragments of clothing belonging to Rohingya refugees that washed up on beaches in Myanmar and Thailand and used them to create flags of imaginary nations that could offer them safe refuge in his installation, The Outlaw’s Flag.
In Pakistani artist Ayesha Jatoi’s installation called Residue, piles of white garments lying on the floor are a poignant symbol of funerals and mourning for the missing or dead.
And the textiles in Indian photographer Pablo Bartholomew’s installation represent the shared identity of geographically fractured Chakma communities in Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. The artist worked with weavers from this minority community to create textiles with patterns that look like DNA profiles to show that the community still retains a common cross-border ethnic identity.
Modern Bangladeshi master Rashid Chowdhury’s beautiful jute tapestries bring together motifs from Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Animist folklore and mythology to celebrate the cultural pluralism of Bangladesh. But other artists have commented on the rifts in the country’s ancient pluralistic civilisation caused by the two partitions of Bengal along religious lines in 1901 and 1947.
Debashish Shom’s photographic series, In the Rivers Dark, speaks about the fears of his Hindu community as they struggle to hold on to their ancestral lands and homes, against attacks from Muslim vigilantes. And, renowned Bangladeshi artist Kanak Chanpa Chakma’s collage, Soul Piercing, recalls the tragic Ramu Incident of 2012 when a fake social media message led to the destruction of Buddhist temples and loss of many Buddhist lives and homes.
Reetu Sattar’s video, Harano Sur (Lost Tune) documents a performance by musicians from different communities playing the harmonium to defiantly state that shared musical traditions and cultural identity will endure despite the rising fundamentalism in Bangladesh.
Hitman Gurung’s portraits of faceless Nepali women holding out their identity cards and Ashfika Rahman’s portraits of rape victims in the border areas between India, Bangladesh and Myanmar are about the suppression of minority indigenous communities from border areas across the region.
Gauri Gill’s moving photographs of artist Rajesh Vangad, from the Warli community in India in his environment, are superimposed with traditional Warli style paintings by the artist, expressing his memories of his land before it was taken over by mining and energy companies.
Other works deal more directly with borders and border disputes. Munem Wasif’s haunting photographs from the series, Land of Undefined Territory, capture areas around the India Bangladesh border that are being eroded by mining for stones for construction in Bangladesh. The images speak about blurred man-made borders and the difficulty of defining a homeland.
Shilpa Gupta has focused on the surreal situation of Bangladeshis and Indians living in tiny enclaves surrounded by the other country, a problem that has been recently resolved by India giving up some of its land. Gupta’s work travelled to exhibitions around the world giving voice to 51,000 people stuck in these in-between places.
“This milestone exhibition brings to life the longstanding collaboration between Alserkal and SAF, and builds on Alserkal’s mandate to support regional talent, and to further foster a growing South to South dialogue,” Vilma Jurkute, director of Alserkal says.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.
Fabric(cated) Fractures will run at Concrete, Alserkal Avenue until March 23.