Humanity as Refuge

10 April 2019Vinita Bharadwaj
Humanity as Refuge

Fabric(ated) Fractures, a collaboration between Samdani Art Foundation and Alserkal at Concrete, Dubai, ran from 9-30 March 2019. The seminal exhibition featured works by 15 artists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Pakistan, who were also part of the Foundation’s Dhaka Art Summit initiative.

In this two-part series of Conversations on the Avenue, we discover Fabric(ated) Fractures with its curator Diana Campbell Betancourt, and speak to exhibiting artists Reetu Sattar, Ayesha Jatoi, and Joydeb Roaja about some of the issues they explore through their poignant, powerful practices.




Transcript: Humanity as Refuge, Part I

Diana Campbell Betancourt: “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter. My refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” Rabindranath Tagore.


Vinita Bharadwaj: That was Diana Campbell Betancourt, curator of Fabric(ated) Fractures, a collaboration between Bangladesh’s Samdani Art Foundation and the UAE’s Alserkal. Marking the debut of the Samdani Art Foundation in the UAE, Fabric(ated) Fractures ran from March 9th to March 30th. It featured 15 artists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Pakistan, who were also part of the foundation’s Dhaka Art Summit initiative.

I’m Vinita Bhardwaj and you’re listening to Conversations on the Avenue, a podcast brought to you by Alserkal. On this two-part series will be discovering Fabric(ated) Fractures with Diana and some of the artists who participated in the show at Concrete in Alserkal Avenue.

Vinita: Although Bangladesh is at the heart of the exhibition, for the visitor it’s a powerful exploration of the notion of spaces. Spaces that are physical, emotional and intellectual and how they’re challenging the idea of nations, states and territories. When colonial Britain first partitioned a united Bengal in 1905, using religion as a tool to subjugate rising Bengali nationalism, intellectuals such as Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first non-European to be awarded a Nobel Prize in literature, was deeply affected by the partition of a region that was united by language, art, culture and traditions.

In 1947 along with the two-state partition of India, Bengal was also divided. The western part of Bengal joined India, while the eastern part was added to Pakistan, in spite of it being completely different from Pakistan in terms of culture and geographically separated by the Indian landmass.

Today, most of us recognize Bangladesh as the clothes manufacturing outpost of the globalized world. But Bangladesh’s location, sandwiched between India and China makes it both an important geopolitical force and vulnerable to regional hegemony.

That’s something that came up a lot in our conversations with Diana, when talking about South and Southeast Asia, because it’s not exactly easy to paint all of the region with the same brush.

Diana: In my past years coming to Art Week, I noticed that um, platforms about regionalism and people coming together are really important here, be it the MENASA, Middle East, North Africa, South Asia. And I started to think about, actually while we talk about regions coming together, we also need to talk about how they came apart.

A lot of these, divisions or fault lines across the region were fabricated and a way that you can see sameness across this region or a continuity across the regions, across those fractures can be seen through fabrics or through textiles. So it was a play on words. And when I was invited to envision a show for Concrete, I thought about how could we, rather than focusing on a flashpoint exhibition in a particular period of time, look at the last six years of the work we’ve been doing at the Samdani Art Foundation to complicate how people see regions, specifically how people see Bangladesh from the vantage point of Dubai,

Vinita: Diana says that Bangladesh’s contemporary art packs a punch in spite of its diminutive size. The diversity of work is staggering, evocative and powerful as the exhibition proves. However, it typically takes a flood, a building collapse or a factory fire for mainstream media to take notice of anything emerging from Bangladesh.

Diana: It’s really at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia. So, something that we have really fought against, is how to look at Bangladesh in a way other than the little brother of India. And actually, the art scene in Bangladesh is far more similar to the art scene in Indonesia than it is to India, because most artists who practice individually also work collectively. That’s not the case in India. People mostly have individual studio practices, which doesn’t translate in Bangladesh.

And, the Rohingya crisis obviously blew up and that was actually a very poignant and clear sign of these bottlenecks that come between thinking of Southeast Asia as one region and South Asia as one region. And I think part of it is because, the centers of funding for South Asia are in India and the centers for funding for Southeast Asia are in Singapore. And, there are slippages in between these two. And so, I tried to kind of hack into our budget to look at becoming that node that could connect the two. And I think we did that quite successfully in the 2018 summit, which is leading to a more South-South hack for the 2020 summit.

Vinita: In the absence of an actual market for contemporary art galleries that represent artists, creative expression is really fighting against the grain in very difficult circumstances. Artists don’t have studio practices and yet they’re producing potent artworks that stand up to the reductive international requests for global south exotica.

Diana: There was a piece of writing and that came out in our 2016 Critical Writing Ensembles book and it was a Swiss writer, and she was asking, well, ‘What could contemporary art do in a country without clean water?’ And I thought that was absolutely ridiculous. Like what can … what’s the … I’m American… What can contemporary art do in a country without gun control laws?

Sometimes it’s easier to see problems in other countries and looking at problems in your own backyard. And I think that good art also comes out of people responding to the times that they’re in, not responding to a market.

If you look at this exhibition, it’s not glossing over issues. In fact, it’s bringing to light issues that, that seem to get swept under the rug and artists can do that. And you know, as long as artists can do that, I’m here to back them. And I think that what’s really important, um, you know, now there’s a lot of interest internationally in Bangladesh shows, but sometimes those really cater to this exotic idea of rickshaw painters, cinema banner painters, Dollywood … [sighs] … that kind of exotic stuff doesn’t resonate with local audiences in Bangladesh.

So most of the works, actually, all of the works in this, exhibition have shown in Bangladesh to Bangladeshi audiences and I therefore feel very comfortable sharing them here in Dubai. They weren’t created to create a kind of nationalistic view of Bangladesh. And also, it’s not just about Bangladesh because again, these borders, Bangladesh is a delta, they’re shifting.

Vinita: Fabric(ated) Fractures came together at Concrete in Alserkal Avenue. An imposing unmissable structure, Concrete is the Office of Metropolitan Architecture’s first building in the UAE and was mostly built by workers from South Asia.

On opening night, traditional Bengali alpona or decorations made with rice paste, were painted at the entrance by the artist Joydeb Roaja. A folk art, alpona is traditionally painted on the floors on auspicious occasions and typically comprises sacred motifs and symbols. Visitors to the exhibition, however, were greeted by life-sized drawings of women with tanks on their heads, dwarfing soldiers. A befitting teaser of the show that lay ahead.

Joydeb Roaja: I heard, uh, in my grandfather or grandmother, our Tripura community, woman is the leading in the family.

Vinita: That’s Joydeb.

Joydeb: … but it’s becoming now like my grandfather, my father, the the situation is changing.

Vinita: Growing up, Joydeb remembers a childhood fraught with tension and armed conflict. He was surrounded by friends, who were either with the army or with Shanti Bahini, an armed wing of a political resistance that was fighting against government forces over land rights and autonomy. He sought solace in art. The militarization of the Chittagong Hill tribes profoundly inspires his work.

Joydeb: We have fight them some time and Army also every time come to our village. So, we are afraid and many times we go to the jungle. In my childhood, it’s a very, um, how can I say, uh, attract this situation for my life. I did not play football, cricket something because we have no need … no option to play because I live in hill area and some friends army, some friends Shanti Bahini. So it’s one kind of play in my, in my childhood.

Vinita: Women feature prominently in Joydeb’s work.

Joydeb: In the army torture or our political many thing, uh, is uh, go through the women. When our political party come our village, our uh, women working for them. And when Army come our village, all men, uh, to uh, go to the jungle for hide and um, women face the army. So, I hope, uh, sometime we need to salute our women. So that’s why, uh, uh, soldier salaaming our women like that, that’s just my dream. So, I applied like that to my drawings.

Diana: Joydeb is making work, primarily geared to his community in the Chittagong Hill tribes. He doesn’t exhibit so much internationally. I think that the work is super strong and I’m here trying to share it, but he’s not creating things for international audiences because that’s not who he’s trying to communicate to.

Joydeb: When I create my artwork, uh, is contributes other people or some people, uh, I just throw my own feelings.

Diana: What I get excited about with working on the Summit is that we have 300,000 people in nine days coming to see the show. So, if we have families coming home and talking about indigenous rights, that’s great. Right? It’s success. So, and I think, you know, I keep saying this and you know, you only notice these things as you’re working over time, but the Summit is not about individual editions. It’s a cumulative project. So, if we look at the kids that have been going to the Summit since 2012, what kind of education would they have had by the time this is over?

Vinita: Fabric(ated) Fractures raised several questions on the notion of identity and space. At the centre of the exhibition were two performance pieces that appealed to our sense of nostalgia and longing.

Reetu Sattar: This is Mrityur Agey written by Jibanananda Das.

Vinita: Reetu Sattar is a theatre actor, director and performance artist. And in our next episode, we sit down with her and Ayesha Jatoi to discover how loss, memory and identity shaped their multilayered performances.

Reetu: The poem’s name is Mrityur Agey, just right before death.

[Bengali recital]

Reetu: We, the people who have actually explored the beauty of nature, and the smell of straw, and felt how to walk on the dew drops, on green grasses and have seen how owls have taken their shelter in the corner of our, corniches. And I’d also like, you know, we have seen like village girls, uh, in the evening, came to the pond and cleaned the hands having white bangles. You know, this kind of intricate beauties of nature, who have enjoyed and have seen, they are not afraid of death. They can die any day.


Vinita: This episode was brought to you by Alserkal Avenue and was hosted by me, Vinita Bharadwaj. Editing & Production by Chirag Desai. We’d love it if you could subscribe to the show in Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or any podcast player, as well as streaming apps like Spotify and Anghami. And if you really enjoyed this episode, share it with your friends. For more information about the exhibitions and events on the Avenue by visiting or follow Alserkal Avenue on Instagram. That’s


Transcript: Humanity as Refuge, Part II


Vinita Bharadwaj: You’re listening to Conversations on the Avenue, a podcast brought to you by Alserkal. I’m Vinita Bharadwaj and we’re continuing our series on Fabric(ated) Fractures, a collaboration between Bangladesh’s Samdani Art Foundation and the UAE’s Alserkal.

If you’re joining us for the first time, check out our previous episode where we introduced the exhibition and spoke to its curator Diana Campbell Betancourt. Fabric(ated) Fractures was held at Concrete in Alserkal Avenue and featured 15 artists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Thailand and Pakistan, who are also part of the Foundation’s Dhaka Art Summit initiative.

Vinita: Fabric(ated) Fractures is a multisensory experience. Textiles layer the tall concrete wall paying an homage to Bangladesh’s traditional weaving heritage and are a symbol of its inextricable place within the modern political globalized economy. The enormous collage is the work of Bangladeshi activist and artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin and it is a monument to the victims of human-created catastrophes. Made from clothing belonging to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and Bangladeshi victims of illegal human trafficking to Southeast Asia, the colorful installation was stitched together by internally displaced climate change refugees. It is a stark and grim reminder of the traumas inflicted on people by people.

Thai artist Jakkai Siributr collected fragments of clothing belonging to Rohingya refugees that washed up on the shores of Thailand and Myanmar to create flags of imaginary nations that could offer safe passage and refuge. The textiles in Indian photographer Pablo Bartholomew’s installation represent the shared identity of the geographically fractured Chakma communities in Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh. And modern Bangladeshi master Rashid Choudhury brings together motifs from Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, and Animist folklore into jute tapestries.

But on opening night, the whispers of audiences are drowned out by a monotonous, repetitive droning, created by 36 musicians playing a series of three notes on their harmoniums.

Reetu Sattar: I was just interested into creating noise, not really a rhythm or even, um, even a music.

Vinita: Reetu Sattar is a theater actor, director and performance artist. Her piece Harano Sur or |”Lost Tune”, is a film that focuses on the harmonium, a musical instrument tightly integrated into the culture of Bangladesh, but one that is fast disappearing. The film documents performance that brought together musicians, each playing the same three notes, as Reetu used the sustained droning sounds to explore the violence and social upheaval affecting Bangladesh. For the opening and closing of the show, Reetu gathered South Asian male and female musicians from across the UAE to perform the piece live.

Reetu: It is lost tune I’m saying, but it is kind of like, you know, the way our habits, our traditions, the way we grow up, also the way, wannabe artists um, drifts away into the time, uh, with life, with the necessity of life and all of this.

So, when I literally explained to them why I really need the artists from the locality wherever the performance is going, the artists who wanted to be artists in their life, but because of migration, because of the necessity of life because of, um, of not recognizing the true art, um, at the right moment, they just become a minority even in their own families, with the want of being an artist.

Vinita: Now, there’s so much about the notion of space in this particular exhibition. Is there a space for musicians in Bangladesh? You’ve sort of articulated it in a way that it’s a shrinking space. What, what is happening to that space? What’s that larger space being filled up with now?

Reetu: The work is not actually about musicians particularly, um, it’s about artists in general or it’s about, uh, people who have open thoughts. So, the musicians or the instrument is a metaphorical representation of that kind of thoughts. Like the noise is also to me, is a noise like, you know, living in a small country beside a big country, also struggling with the big, uh, catastrophes happening all around you. But as an individual, when you just, you know, stand and watch happening, all of these, and you cannot really do anything. Also, like the, the, like the way modernity just you know, comes to you and just, you know, um, takes everything away. Uh, without even you noticing.

Vinita: It’s like a flood.

Reetu: It’s like a flash of light coming to you and suddenly you were just, you know, you just went with that light and suddenly you noticed, ‘oh my God, where am I?’ So, everything I wanted to contain with this very slow process because although I’m saying it like a flash of flight or a flood, uh, things happen very slowly and we just, we, we say ourself, we’re adjusting, we’re coping, but at the same time we are also actually getting used to it.

Vinita: You, you talk a lot about noise. There’s also a lot of noise on social media.

Reetu: Yes. Social media is you know, I really, it’s not that I liked it. But somehow Arundhati Roy was in Dhaka and she was saying social media is the toilet of uh, what happens in real. Maybe it’s really outrageous to say it this way. But again, sometimes we use social media as the mirror of what happens in real.

Vinita: Social media in South Asia in particular, is falling under greater scrutiny as it’s demonstrated a punishes capacity to misinform and whip up mob frenzy. Bangladesh has not been immune to its insidious impact as witnessed by the tragic Ramu incident of 2012, when a fake social media message led to the destruction of Buddhist temples and loss of many Buddhists lives and homes. It features within Fabric(ated) Fractures. through Kanak Chanpa Chakma’s collage entitled ‘Soul Piercing’.

Reetu: The noise created by social media in these countries, it’s also lack of education, lack of awareness. And the kind of things happened in Bangladesh, it was hard to imagine. The way 150-year-old Ramu Buddhist temple was burned down, uh, just from a social media, um, incitation, it’s unthinkable. And many things happened in Bangladesh and India and, and, you will see like most of the things happen in villages and in remote areas. This kind of knowledge is, this kind of incidents are the biggest example of, you know, how we have created disparities between the, you know, upper class, middle class, lower class, by education, by money, by social status and everything.

Vinita: Given the power of WhatsApp and its ability to ferment trouble, the responsibility at the curatorial level is tremendous. And Diana Campbell Betancourt is extremely conscious of her role as the artistic director of Samdani Art Foundation and Chief Curator, Dhaka Art Summit.

Diana: I have a huge responsibility as a curator and navigating those lines. So, I have to constantly know when they’re drawn. And I really like the title of this Sharjah Biennial, which is, what was it, ‘Leaving the Echo Chamber’. So, I think it’s real important to leave my echo chamber. So, for example, if there’s a work that, that I think might be sensitive, I will show it to like the guy who makes me tea in the office. I will show it to people outside of my kind of, you know, for lack of a better word, class bubble. And I’m actually usually positively surprised.

Vinita: And yet, as we return to the notion of space as characterized by nations, states and regions, what does it mean to be Bangladeshi and is there space to accommodate the diversity within its borders?

Reetu: It is discussed here, even in Harano Sur. Prior to 1971, the kind of music we used to practice, the kind of language we fought for in 1952—Bangla—and um, the kind of clothes we always liked to wear, saris. Post 71, we’re still actually uh, fighting with our diverse knowledge of identities because we are actually not like any, you know, stereotypical one-religion country. We actually lived side by side with other religions, other religious identities and that’s what made us so special. And this last 48 years, it is now actually trying to find it’s a one mono um, identity that is also influenced by the world politics.

Vinita: Does that worry you?

Reetu: That doesn’t worry me. It’s a matter of observation. How a nation changes and uh, which route it takes, and how does it take, and how you find your identity in a very volatile world politics and economic situation.

Vinita: Is it complex in terms of having to keep art for art’s sake or try and make a statement with every piece?

Reetu: Isn’t it natural that you react to unjust inequalities? Isn’t it natural that you know, you will talk about when your freedom of speech is attacked. So, what makes you activist? And then if you’re an artist, how you are actually in a different space?

I totally deny it because as a human being, I cannot really avoid what happens around me. And as an artist, I am really more sensitive to this. But again, when I’m sitting in my room, I cannot really avoid what my subconscious tells me. It can be totally different than what is happening in reality, but that is not art for art’s sake.

[Reporter 1] Many children are feared dead in an attack by the Taliban on a military run school in northern Pakistan… [Reporter 2] 141 people killed, 132 of them children.

Vinita: Ayesha Jatoi’s installation called Residue is her response to a deadly 2014 attack on a school in Pakistan. 132 of the victims were school children between the ages of eight and 18 years, making it one of the world’s deadliest school massacres.

Ayesha Jatoi: This was a series of terrorist attacks that were happening in Pakistan and Pakistan is known to be like the terrorist, I don’t know, home and like all Muslims are terrorists and bad or something like that. And at that time, we were scared to go to the market. We were scared to send our children to school, to walk on the road, at bus stops, at schools, markets everywhere.

So, I did this kind of research-based work where I’ve recorded where all the terrorist attacks happened since 9/11 and there were like tens of thousands of attacks and many people had died. And I just wanted to bring to light how it’s not about Muslim versus the world or it’s like when humanity turns on to humanity, how bad the consequences can be. And really that’s where terrorism is like, to bring you into this fear so you can live.

Vinita: In the piece, folded white clothes including school uniforms and other garments belonging to children, women and men, lie in piles on the floor reminding us of the fragility of life and serving as symbols of grieving for the missing, or dead.

Ayesha: I can’t get over this idea. And just innocent children, and people in markets, and elderly people. Someone in an act of worship who’s being killed is just very difficult to comprehend.

Vinita: White is the funereal color of South Asia. And the piles lend a corpse-like presence to the piece, bleached of color. It is a visual provocation of someone missing, something lost and someday to be remembered. For the opening of the show, Ayesha is surrounded by her installation, moving slowly between the piles, folding and unfolding the clothes. It is a reflective performance, insisting we pause and absorb, as we watch her fold and unfold carefully, meditatively.

Ayesha: I had done a performance piece before, which was talking against state violence in… In our intersections in Pakistan, we have a fighter, jets and symbols of war. And I had done a piece called Clothesline where I had used the fighter jet at an intersection as a clothes line. So, I had hung dyed red garments on it. And that was in 2006 and for 10 years I’d never even thought of doing any performance.

I mean, there was nothing that moved me so much to do something. And exactly like you said, folding is meditative. And I think it’s kind of like where you’re trying to make sense out of the senseless and just, I don’t know, zoning out and doing something reputative. And it’s an act of love to wash someone’s clothes, because you’re in a familiar sort of environment and to put away things after someone’s gone.

It’s like how do you put away love and longing and like a bond which, and then you have these physical remains left.

Vinita: Fabric(ated) Fractures ran from March 9th to March 30th at Concrete in Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. This episode was brought to you by Alserkal Avenue and was hosted by me, Vinita Bharadwaj. Editing & production support by Chirag Desai. We’d love it if you could subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast or any podcast player as well as streaming apps like Spotify and Anghami. And if you’ve really enjoyed this episode, share it with your friends. For more information about the exhibitions and events on the Avenue, visit Alserkal or follow Alserkal Avenue on Instagram. That’s A-l-s-e-r-k-a-l-a-v-e-n-u-e.

We’ll be back soon with more from the Avenue. Until then, thank you for listening.

Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter. My refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” — Rabindranath Tagore.