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     Volume 8 Issue 57 | February 13, 2009 |

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Moral Fibre

Nader Rahman

Chobi Mela IV was themed around 'Boundaries', while V has been entitled 'Freedom', more often than not the difference between a boundary and freedom is a thin line. That is the line Munem Wasif straddles in his first solo exhibition in Bangladesh as he goes beyond documentary photography to produce a heart wrenching story of struggle and survival in the era of globalisation. Who needs jute, when plastic will do?

Wasif's exhibition is set in the heart of what used to be the Jute industry in Khulna, but takes place on the narrow winding streets of Dhaka. He chose to exhibit his work at Kalpana Boarding in Shakhari Bazaar, not in one of the more fashionable galleries around town. This is seemingly becoming a new trend in the Dhaka art circuit, opening up ones art to the real public, the passers by, the strangers, the beggars, the lovers, everyone from the disillusioned to the delusional. Art has never been more open than this Chobi Mela, and at the centre of the centre lies Wasif's exhibition, beating through the heart of Dhaka.

As one walks into the exhibition, there is an overwhelming sense of space and without privacy. Wedged in between two six storied buildings, is what can best be defined as a cavity. With dozens of windows on both sides, a sea of eyes peer down into the hole, there are murmurings and whispers both about the pictures and the visitors. It is eerie to say the least. His black and white pictures tell a story without feeling like documentation. Pictures of workers rebelling and taking to the streets over a certain matter could be ideal fodder for a documentary photographer, but Wasif never forgets that after it is all said and done he is an artist. That is not to deconstruct his pictures as simply aesthetically pleasing, he mixes the story with picture and then the picture with art.

Jute has long been a topic of discussion in Bangladesh, the golden fibre has lost its hue and with it hundreds of thousands have lost their livelihoods. Wasif travelled extensively throughout Khulna to come up with his exhibition titled Blood Splinter of Jute. The pictures detail every facet of life of those who worked and work in Jute mills. From the subtle picture of a boy lying down doing his homework to the communal bathing place, the photographs breathe a certain solitude which hangs over the exhibition. Even the picture of hundreds of people sitting at a protest carries with it a sense of loneliness which is easy to understand when put into context. Those people may have sat collectively to fight for their jobs and their livelihoods, but their pain and suffering is not the same. While one thinks of how to keep his family afloat without a job, another may think of how to start one without a job. While some think of the present and to put food on their table today others think of the past and how good times were before. In the end even the collective sit in is individual and while the pain may be amplified by their numbers, the real suffering is done in solitude. That is what Wasif has brought out of his pictures, the individual as a part of the collective.

Some pictures stand out the minute one passes them by and Wasif produced more than a few along those lines. In one a lonely woman sits and stitches a bag, while the background opens up to an immense factory with just a few people milling around. Desperation is written all over her face and to understand the root of that feeling one only needs to look at the desolate background. The plant will not be open much longer, but she soldiers on, working till she is told to leave.

The signs of desperation are everywhere and the protest pictures paint the situation in a light one hopes soon to forget. The overcast conditions only add to the melancholy, as labourers take to the streets, fighting anything that will come their way. Those same protests have even claimed a life, and the picture of than man's family without him is as telling as they come. Losing one’s job is one thing, but losing a father, a husband, a bother and a son, that is a different matter altogether. Wasif's exhibition is a call to arms, it both depresses and invigorates. The sad state of our golden fibre is best summed up by the picture of a sweat soaked shirt left to dry by a window. Many thousands have toiled in the name of jute, some have even given up their lives but at the end of the day they have been left disenfranchised and destitute. The government has left them with nothing but the shirt on their back, which as it stands is soaked in blood and sweat. Our country has lost its golden fibre and seemingly our government lacks moral fibre. I leave it for the audience to decide which is of more importance.

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