Tuesday, May 21, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Alternative pathways of living in the anthropocene

A look back on the Dhaka Art Summit 2023

Update : 07 Mar 2023, 05:19 AM

This year's Dhaka Art Summit exhibition was themed as Bonnya (Flood). As its name suggests, the theme was employed to evoke the natural occurrence with which most Bangladeshis (even foreigners at this point) are familiar and can even deeply relate to, which could be why it was chosen to represent the general theme of the exhibition -- climate change.

The theme successfully united a broad range of artists and art forms, responding in unique, often oblique, and thought-provoking ways to the current challenges of climate change as faced by our country as well as the rest of the world. In doing so, most artists had strived to engage with the core of problem, thus being mindful to the social character of the age in which we now find ourselves, namely -- the Anthropocene.

It's been some time (more than two decades) since it was first claimed that we have entered this new "geological epoch" where human beings and their constant, extractive, and harmful activities are causing irrevocable shifts in the Earth's climatic compositions, bringing about drastic and uncertain changes in the environment all over the globe.

With major natural disasters which abound us in recent years, when news of extreme weather events such as volcanic eruptions, unprecedented snowfall or floods, or earthquakes become a daily part of our lives, the claims for a new age barely sound ludicrous anymore (as it may have to many a decade ago). 

In such dire times which are calling for major shifts in the social practices and the economic and political arena, we could anticipate sincere efforts to direct ideological transformations that would begin to emerge in our societies. And who better than artists and writers to lead the turning tide in favour of (re)moulding our perceptions, rejuvenating our sense of connection to the planetary elements, and ushering in the much needed changes?

Indeed, the artists of the DAS 2023 make full use of the opportunity to make contributions to this timely cause, critiquing the socio-politics of our crumbling age of Anthropocene, and at the same time seeking alternatives to the destructive forces of modernity by way of looking to the past and roots, and other forms of being in the world. 

DAS this year saw enthusiastic crowds throughout its run in the Shilpakala academy

The attempt to take the visitors to their roots, both their own and to that of the Bengali culture and the ecology of Bengal in general, was quite strongly manifest in several exhibition halls in the works of many artists and collectives. A hark back to the nostalgic past of the typical Bengali childhood and ancestral village homes is echoed in the works of Anpu Varkey (Summer's children) and Yasmin Jahan Nupur (Home). Both presentations evoked memories of childhood and encouraged us to return to those days to remember the very different, closer-to-soil experiences we all had and now risk forgetting in an increasingly urbanized environment.

A particular exhibition hall titled "Very small feelings" (VSF) hosted several artworks of sketches and installations, including a video playback of a short-film by Satyajit Roy titled "Two," and cartoon strip and children's drawings exhibitions designed to create a kid-friendly space for the many children visiting the DAS with their families. 

Photo-installation project by Abir Abdullah focusing on lives entangled with river erosion

The unilinearity of this space, however, was broken up by the immersive installation project created by the Anga art collective titled "Khaal gaaon." Visitors were invited inside a structure made of mud, whereby they found themselves inside a room, made intimate with signs of life such as a mattress and cultivation tools tucked on the wall. To be more attuned to the experiences of displacement of the village people of Assam due to river erosion, to whom this installation alludes, there were videos playing on screens as well.

This gritty approach to engage viewers through recreating a space was also seen in other exhibition halls, notably in the photography series and installation works of Abir Abdullah and Ahmed Rasel. Their series of images retold the stories of rivers and the precarity which they weave into the lives of those living near them, and were accompanied by what seemed like a broken boat lying on the side of the hall. The boat and the life-size images of eroding rivers were to become popular backdrops for portrait pictures of the visitors, however.         

A similar approach was taken in the nearby exhibition of paintings by eminent painters and artists of Bangladesh, named "The duality" (Doidha). The entirety of the floors of these halls were covered with straws, invoking a rural atmosphere intentionally created to take the visitors to an ideal agricultural past, while adorning the rooms with artworks of women artists. These paintings and video installations told the stories of the lives of working women, and how they were essentially connected to the soils of our land.

The visitors were also reminded of the six seasons of our country, which gave shape to much of our cultural life, depicted beautifully by six paintings of different painters. The artists altogether were intent on emphasizing the history of our harmonious relation with the environment, as well as the dark times that nature impinges upon us. It is this duality that characterizes our delta-life, even though it can be very easy to forget about these realities living in the urban jungle. 

'Mirage' by Fazle Rabbi Fatiq

Urban life was a simultaneous topic of many artworks, typically approached from a critical viewpoint by most artists. Just by assembling a number of pictures of unfinished bridges, the project "Mirage" manages to demonstrate the nature of the (in)convenient pact between development and corruption in our country. In a similar vein, the photo-installations of Munem Wasif (Collapse) makes the contradiction of nature's forces and stark structures of modernity readily visible, while clearly posing the most potent question of our day: "What is the definition of development?"

The nature of the ongoing patterns of development and urbanization was also brought to the fore by the powerful artworks of Joydeb Roaja (Liquid roots), which depicted water streams lost to plantation projects in Rangamati that keep flowing through the liminal life-worlds of indigenous peoples.  

Liquid Roots by Joydeb Roaja

Critiquing the prevalent development paradigm rampant in Bangladesh that seems to be heedless to both people and other species with whom we share the planet, the collection of paintings titled "A tale of eighteen tides" carefully depicted the non-human beings (both species and spirits) of the Sundarbans, as well as the dark threats posed to them by agents of rogue industrial development.

This multi-species approach saw quite a noticeable presence in the exhibitions, both in the works of Bangladeshi and international artists- paintings like "Paradoxes of plenty," which paid attention to the grave situation of marine plastic pollution; "Transtidal," a series of paintings that enmeshed birds and animals in an imaginary landscape; and "Irrelevant field notes" that used straw-figures and video installations to evoke a fantastical realm of the non-human beings who are driven away from their former homes as industrial farming sets in, replacing traditional rituals related to agricultural land and the seasons. 

The artists of the DAS exhibition this year thus sought to lay bare the fraught relations between people, land, and ecosystems that emerge under the auspices of modernity, leading ultimately to the current predicaments defining the present transitional epoch. Their artistic endeavours appear to be in direct opposition to the Western response to the Anthropocene, which so far has been science-centric and technocratic, relying on governmental measures of provisioning ecosystem services, landscape-engineering and re-wilding, among others.

Instead, the artists decidedly revisit our traditional practices, giving importance to our roots while paying keen attention to local lives and the non-secular, more-than-human perspectives they can offer. By way of making the by-gone reappear and recreating the sufferings and wrongs that affect people discriminately in the capitalist order as sensory experiences for the visitors, the artists took on the challenge to make sense of the ensuing chaos and hold up their visions with which to probe into the darkness that lie ahead of us. 

The question then remains: Are we ready to look through their lenses, really engage with these visions, as individuals, institutions, and as a society? 

Fahima Al Farabi is a poet and a teacher in the Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.

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