Ashfika Rahman talks to the art historian and writer Maja Naef about the broader context of her first European solo show ‘The Typology of wounds, the mapping of healing’ at VITRINE, Basel. The conversation took place in mid-September 2021 in Basel.
Maja Naef: As a photographer your concern is to use the medium to serve minority populations in Bangladesh whose stories and experiences are unknown, suppressed, and even annihilated. Your photographic practice is driven by a deeply political intention and intertwined with aesthetic decisions. Can you elaborate on your practice?
Ashfika Rahman: For ‘The Power Box’ series (2016-2021) I document outmoded TV sets in private houses. Within this community, in the Chalanbeel area in Bangladesh, the TV is the only access to the outside world, with only propaganda programs available, mandated by the state. In this context, I see the TV asa cultural object that is understood globally and is used here as a metaphor for information control and power politics. However, it is the most precious object of their belongings. They cover it with colourful fabrics like a shrine. The covering emphasises the frontality of the TV screen; it appears almost like a character within a household. Yet, at the same time it becomes a sculptural object. The uncovering is reserved to certain moments in daily life; and in that sense, it aligns daily routines and art, private and public domains, its use, and the gesture of covering/uncovering, marks a passage.
MN: Similarly colourful are the most noticeable works in the show which are part of the ‘Redeem’ series (2020-ongoing), two large maps made from handcrafted fabrics. ‘Redeem’, and your work in general, is grounded by long term collaborations with minority communities. The maps are one part of the series, the other includes small portraits of the local community in black and white. How are these different parts in the exhibition related to each other?
AR: I always work in series. In this respect, continuation is important for my practice. My work is based upon collaborations with indigenous communities. I also see my artistic practice as a continuation of the socially engaged work my mother did who was an activist; as an artist I am following her path. I started working on the first series of ‘Redeem’ in connection with the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh 2020. The project started already about six years ago: it points back to a series of incidents between the indigenous communities and the Locals in the Northern part of Bangladesh. When I went to Dinajpur for the very first time to document what happened between the indigenous and local communities, I noticed that the village had been completely emptied. Some of the indigenous people were even in fear of the local people. The media censorship does not allow coverage of these incidents, even though the oppression and confrontations are often violent. I became interested in finding out why they left. I discovered that they all went to the church of the Christian mission despite the presence of security forces. Obviously, indigenous communities don’t trust the security forces to protect them. The observation of this situation and the importance of the Church was my starting point for the work ‘Redeem (Sirajganj)’, ‘Redeem (Natore)’ and ‘Redeem (Dalit)’. The confrontation was about land, as it often is, but maybe it is more accurate to see it as a conflict about cultural territory.
I realised that the lower caste Hindus are converting to Christianity because they get free education, access to food, to medical treatment, and to security. It is not about belief at all, it is about security and the promise of a better life. I started digging into these issues further: conversion started long ago, but mass conversion started right after the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, even though, in this case, the mission had been there before. The community living there – the Santal, Dalit, Oraon – are the lowest in the rank of the caste. They are called untouchable. It means they are not allowed to touch anything like a chair, which class members of a higher caste could use, so they sit on the floor, and pray in a different place. They work in the lowest paid jobs with no status or reputation. Untouchability is the term society always used to describe these people. Because of the caste system, there is no opportunity to get any social standards in Hinduism for them. Accepting Christianity is an opportunity for social and financial change and stability. Their support system is also a way of politics; it is a form of cultural imperialism. As an artist, I wanted to find out how I could deal with this ambiguity, and so I turned to the map. I got most interested into the archival geographical maps from 1971, the year of the liberation of Bangladesh, which represents single villages and their religious background: it makes evident where Moslem and Hindu houses were located. After the liberation war in 1971 – exactly 50 years ago – there was a deep cultural crisis.
During my research I was meeting the woman who was the first of the community Oraon to convert to Christianity. I learnt about her spiritual concept, and she shared it as a description in colours: blue stands in for the sky, green for plantation, white is air, purple the colour for festival, red is the hot sun, and so on. Her explanation of her culture and her belief was a theory in colours. The entanglement with this colour theory triggered my interest in the landscape after 1971, especially in indigo, because it stands for spirituality. I matched the colours of this concept to the houses in the village. While being there, I discovered the main activity of these communities is the making of Sital Pati, which they use as mattresses. They are made of leaves from a tree. Everything is stitched together. I was looking how they are making it, as I found it fascinating how they are bringing all the fragments and parts together. I tried to transfer this observation in a broader context as a metaphor for a social structure, and it became the perfect example for togetherness, the mattress as a social form, and a tool. How do parts create wholeness in a map? This was one aspect of my exploration. The binding of the map is important because the parts relating to each other is crucial to creation of the whole. This is how society works. What is standing out in the maps in the show is the making of the margins of each part. I made the border, or ‘framing’, of the map out of their traditional clothing, the border of Dhoti and Saree, its decorative hem. They are still wearing Saree and Dhoti, the traditional bound trousers worn by men; this is another way of connecting with their customs and beliefs. I reworked the fabrics essential and familiar to them as a mode of sheltering their bodies. There is also stitching on each part of the map, performed by the community. The map provides the dimension, direction, and orientation, but they decide how to order the colours as it relies on their colour concept which is spiritual: the sun, plantation, festival, all life is made of. Spirituality, materiality, physical labor, and art are intertwined. I came there as an artist; the series ‘Redeem’ opens the question of how I can serve the community and tell their story through my practice.
In the exhibition at VITRINE, Basel, I show the maps of two villages, and I bring them into a dialogue with six portraits of members of the communities I was working with, the Santal and the Dalit respectively. The surface of the photographs is also stitched. The largest portrait in the show, ‘Your Holy Name I’ (2021), which I present like the entry to the exhibition, belongs to another series of portraits I had done previously with members of the Oraon community. I use it to mark the continuity of this ongoing project for which I plan to work with other communities as well. They follow the custom of tattooing their bodies with needles. This is how they claim their identity and mark it. Each tattoo is different, it is a mark of identity and singularity. The patterns sometimes relate to plantation, to healing, to food, to animals, to shared fears. I translate the marking of identity into the stitching of the photographs. I stitch the skin of the medium with a word derived from a prayer in their indigenous language. It is essential to know that this prayer in the local language is not written by the community itself, because they don’t know how to write. Ironically instead, it is the Father of the Christian church who is acquiring the language and helps them to write it down. There are many translation processes in play, also different forms of belonging, and cultural processes. This is my main interest. It is crucial that the word goes over the space of the image and their faces. It’s also pointing out the importance of the oral language, the spoken word, and the voices of each individual coming together like a chorus in a prayer. At the same time, it alludes to silence, and the violent silencing
of the minorities.
The position of the word across their faces and the space of the image recalls another aspect of cultural colonisation; converting to Christianity must be confirmed by an official registration, it involves an administrative act, it becomes visible and therefore public and stands for highly political action. The conversion is confirmed by stamping on their face reproduced in an identity card at the registration office. The registering is also followed by the act of re-naming, which erases their prior identity. To emphasise this administrative process, I use a small format, related to the registration form, reminiscent of the passport. Somehow the stitching on the photograph radicalises their conversion. The skin becomes the canvas to re-write the identity.
MN: Thinking about your decision to work in series, and to present your work as something that is evolving and continuing, connecting past stories with an actual artistic/activist practice to build awareness for a future to come, I wonder what are your thoughts about the term “archival impulse” coined by the culture critic Hal Foster? In his essay from 2004 he describes a specific artistic practice he was observing dealing with archival strategies and material in order to point out to “alternative knowledge”, as a way to build a “counter memory”. Your work addresses complex dimensions of history, memory, and community.
AR: As an artist and activist, I have the responsibility to listen, understand and promote the culture of those who cannot, especially against the ongoing colonisation of their culture and language coming from within. It’s about asking for attention and building consciousness around these issues. I navigate their process of retelling their story, their identity, their culture, and besides, I also try to reflect the relationship between the community and myself. Therefore, I want to work with the community over a certain period of time, and to try to include their specific knowledge, craft, colour concepts, in order to bring it into different contexts in the broader art world.
I am deeply invested in language. Within the Bangladeshi culture, oral and written languages are one of the biggest challenges as they are disappearing and there is an urgency to archive them. Language is more than speaking or writing, it is entangled with music, theatre, dance, poetry, image-making. When a language changes or is falls into oblivion, everything changes as if its basis breaks away.
The language of the indigenous communities is not understood by outsiders; it is an alien language to most of us, and also myself. I connect through my visual language, my socio-political, and educational approach to address this inner-political situation, which is mainly one of cultural colonisation. These measures of understanding or addressing certain issues go in both directions: in the gallery space, visitors have little or no knowledge about the circumstances of indigenous livelihood and practices. My attempt is to work in a way that everyone can sense a feeling of anxiety and injustice. Art is a method of sharing, and inquiry.It may not be possible to talk about trauma directly, something that is addressed more directly in two of my other series,
‘Rape is Political’ (2016-ongoing) and ‘Files on the Disappeared’ (2018). Instead, my work as an artist and activist is to find a form that points to the violation of human rights even though I don’t show it in a literal way. I connect with the community and the structural violence against them through a specific handling of materiality that are familiar to them and through art making: How can we explain what is happening in other less visible parts of the world? I try to engage and enable a conversation around this concern. Mostly for reason of censorship, I can’t write a manifesto or contribute a journalistic investigation.But I can bring an issue in the white cube, the institution, out into the world, veiled as art, and concealed it becomes possible, graspable, and to a certain extent visible. A lot of the conversations I am having –like this one – happen because of an exhibition. This is activism as I understand it. It is what I can do, and there is something powerful in doing this. In this respect, coming back to your question, I am attempting to establish an “alternative knowledge” and a “counter memory”. Speaking of archival practices, I see an archive as a tool to remember, and to promote a culture and its history at a specific moment: It is one way to encounter cultural colonisation.
The series ‘The Power Box’ deals also with the idea of an archive. It is probably the last generation having the experience of having a TV in the house, and I am trying to archive that history through photography. It’s similar to my earlier series ‘The Last Audience’ (2016), where I worked with the remains of a movie theatre to show how it is used today for many different purposes by people being pushed to the margin of our society.
MN: How do you see your own position as an artist reflected in your work?
AR: I see my own teaching in The South Asian Media Institute, as an equal part of my practice. Teaching is about sharing knowledge, not just about the history of photography, but of all aspects of working with the medium that matters to me. Teaching is also a specific way of doing research, as it challenges myself to make references and to put ideas forward into my current and future practice. I owe this approach to my own teacher, the photographer and activist Shahidul Alam, who has personally experienced violations he and others portray and critique.
I am an observer and a medium: I help to navigate the stories of minorities in my own country. My position is always in-between, as I have grown up in this particular political and cultural situation: It haunts me. I want to talk about it. It is someone else’s story, and exploring the possibilities of art, I become part in this navigation.
Carrying a camera gives you a status within a community, even a kind of power. But as an artist, you must do something for the communities. I am not a reporter or journalist. It is not about being intimate with them or to live at their house. If you really care, you figure out a way to do something for them. This is my concern. I try to work on the basis of what can benefit the community or what you can do for the community other than spreading awareness – actually creating an income which supports the community. From the sale of work, I give a percentage back to the community. I am always asking who is telling and listening the story, and why. Is it because I am a photographer? How do those who tell the story know about it? I justify my work and the reason I tell these stories through the connection these events have on my own life, even if I am not involved directly. My goal is to expose the story outside of where it has initially belonged to.
The presentation of a work in a museum or gallery context is never innocent. Institutional attention comes with influence, and with visibility. Once a work is shown, it is connected to other works created by other artists. When the work, the story, and its process become accessible, it means that indigenous culture is being archived, even if it’s not in Bangladesh itself. The “archival impulse” you are referring to, is also a reason why I work in series. Certain series like ‘Redeem’, or ‘Rape is Political’, need to reach a critical number of photographs in order to gain their socio-political relevance. Generally, my work is related to the disappearances, abductions, cultural colonisation, and violations that minor communities are made to endure and suffer from. My work is simultaneously precarious and urgent, it goes beyond image-making.
Dedicated to Maja Naef (12 September 1973 - 23 November 2021).
Maja Naef was an art historian and art critic based in Basel, Switzerland.
Her words, ideas and conversations will be deeply missed.