To be effective, political art must be able to rise above curatorial gobbledygook. This was barely achieved in ‘Barbed Floss’, curated by Veeranganakumari Solanki. Including sculpture, installation, works on paper and a video, the show positioned the work of five contemporary artists against the modern history of their country, Bangladesh.
In 1947, after partitioning from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan were known as East Pakistan and West Pakistan but jointly governed as one state. In 1971, after fighting a War of Independence, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. While the Pakistani army killed a million Bangladeshis, ten million sought refuge in India. Immigration debates about new arrivals were recently reignited by India’s attempts to complete the barbed-wire fence across the 3,800-kilometre border it shares with Bangladesh. According to the show’s companion text, which takes the fence as its point of departure, the art in the exhibition pays ‘homage to the resonating hollow cry beyond politics, beyond countries […] across borders and over wires […] to floss homes, families, oceans, fields, land and skies’. Elsewhere: ‘The word “floss” behaves as a thorough cleanser with a fine thread, which removes, cleanses and free blockages.’ Together, ‘barbed’ and ‘floss’ refer to the cathartic effect of the exhibited work’s critique of partition and war as they relate to Bangladesh.
The installation Twin (all works 2013) by Promotesh Das Pulak consists of a transparent incubator containing life-size figures of two infants whose chests throb visibly to a soundtrack of heartbeats. Fake flowers resembling thermocol in colour and texture, but made of the spongy shola plant, decorate the figures. Yet the floral symbolism and relevance of material remain unclear. Though ostensibly an elegy to kinship, the work is also bafflingly devoid of perceptible links to the historical partition. Even more abstruse were Mahbubur’s Rahman’s rigid but lacy sculptures: made of surgical stainless steel scissors, Pocket, for example, was hard to accept as a metaphor for ‘the dissection and pressures of the spirit of (Bangladeshi) freedom’.
By contrast, Anisuzzaman Sohel’s white drawings on black paper more obviously the theme. Leap Across Time-1 depicts a screaming head, a rape and a battle scene colliding on a dark substrate. As the images do not site the violence in Bangladesh, nor date it, and the artist includes his own likeness in the work – despite being born two years after the 1971 war – it was not convincingly related to the theme. The biggest disappointment was From 1.7 million mi2 To 55,598 mi2 by Tayeba Begum Lipi, one of Bangladesh’s most prominent artists. The work comprises four circular steel panels whose reflective surfaces are etched with maps of the partitioned countries. Each panel’s frame embedded with shaving razors is suggestive of clichés about borders cutting to the quick.
Molla Sagar’s Borders, the Name of Politics was the most astute work in ‘Barbed Floss’ and is unequivocally about Bangladesh. Shot in a brothel near the bustling Port of Mongla in the south-west of the country, the eight-minute video features two blind singers performing a Bichchhedi Gaan, or a ‘Song of Estrangement’, about yearning for Bangladesh while in exile. The song belongs to a set of semi-autobiographical ‘Songs of Estrangement’ written by the revered Bangladeshi composer, Bijoy Sarkar. After the 1947 partition, Sarkar remained in East Pakistan during the 1971 war, but left for India in 1974 when the country’s secular leader, Sheikh Mujib, unexpectedly embraced a conservative Islamic politics. Sarkar never saw his homeland again. ‘It may be that I will never return’ – the emotion of Sarkar’s refrain is echoed by the blind singers’ expressions and vocalization. A brief dialogue before the song prepares us for the film’s narrative punch. When asked where she considers home, a time-worn prostitute, her eyes moist, answers, ‘Back there in India, in Jatunagar, now Bangladesh’. Sarkar’s lament echoes the predicament of many contemporary Bangladeshis. Sadly, the film lacks the testimonies that might explain why Mongla port was the chosen backdrop.
Aside from Sagar’s, most of the work in ‘Barbed Floss’ avoids specific reference to Bangladesh. In turn, the show suffered from its lack of real engagement with the curatorial premise of political critique as a way to achieve some kind of catharsis. So, while it constituted an admirable attempt to humanize discussions about immigration from Bangladesh, the biggest letdown of ‘Barbed Floss’ was how little historical understanding it offered.