Quickly writing some thoughts. May revise / review later.
Writing, reflecting, working, in this current time has been rather difficult, for all things considered. Hearing, reading and seeing the bravery of key workers, doctors, nurses, hospital cleaners, city cleaners, waste pickers, supermarket staff, warehouse staff, delivery people, all across the world. I’m engrossed in keeping up to date, paranoid almost, about missing the latest updates. It reduces us down to basics. It seems an out of body experience, watching myself, watching my dreams flicker between odd memories, watching the news, watching, watching. My eyes have not been more tired. As am currently, it feels like with the rest of the world, obsessing over COVID19 updates, looking at surreal exponential graphs of death and spread that are reduced to curving lines and , without real awareness of the lives lost and the memories that can no longer made.
I wonder about friends, family and lovers am unable to meet, even across neighbourhoods, or in nearby towns or cities, or distant countries, across continents. Of the thousands of people who have passed away already, alone, or the inability of many to say goodbye properly. Am accustomed to Skype and video chats, and some of have the privilege to have those conversations online, but I also know, they never measure to the real thing. Of being with a loved one and enjoying their company, in a physical space, sharing, being.
I wonder, and am afraid, for those living now in the fear of perpetual potential violence cohabiting abusive people in their home, but now, no ways of escaping or being far away from them. Yes, overwhelmed. I wonder about people who, having left home to live their best queer lives, are perhaps locked in with homophobic family members, unable to breath, in fear of trauma, of triggered actions and detonation of mental health. I read about India’s situation and their negligent approach to shut down, leaving many thousands, if not millions stranded and no way back to villages. Of starvation. A real, wake up call to some of us not exposed to vulnerable communities in the past, but our own communities becoming fragile now.
My twitter feed is filled with both hope and tragedy. Full of wonderful news of community building, sharing, caring and supporting each other – be they queer, homeless, struggling with mental health, livelihood precariousness and beyond. Its also full of numbers, of deaths, of cases, of the exponential rise among countries, China, Italy, USA, UK, France, Iran, it grows, with no clear understanding when this pandemic will end, or whom it will spare.
Here in Bangladesh its near impossible to critique or comment usually, and in a situation where leaving the country is almost impossible for absolutely anybody due to lockdowns globally, being critical of the way government is responding to this situation is also not advised. So, we have limited cases that we know of. and few deaths that have been accounted for relating to COVID19, and we are awaiting more testing capacity in the coming weeks. It’s Overwhelming. Precisely because of the above. How do we shut off from it? we cannot. It is overwhelming. And I can only say, that it is ok to feel that overwhelming burden of responsibility, of helplessness, of anxiety.
I worry over the potential of elderly relatives contracting the virus in the UK, US, and Bangladesh. The threat is both imminent and real. At the same time, I wanted to take an hour to dump my thoughts – archive them. Journaling hasn’t helped as much, perhaps its because it seems futile. There is despair, I accept it in moments – not in totality.
Yet, they are feeding into something that I cannot understand yet, but can perhaps recognise as being overwhelmed, anxious, scared. When news of Layli’s father contracting Covid-19, then consequently passing earlier in the week came. It hits; a friend’s father passed away from the virus that has plagued the world. I offered the very little and at the same time the most that I could of me, a text message with condolences, and that those of us in an extreme privilege are able to give away, freely, my time and willingness to listen whenever she needs or wants it. I cannot imagine what she is going through, she has posted some thoughts on her facebook wall. In the midst of it, her spirit shines through. I am in Dhaka, she is in London. I send what seems a norm to us all, virtual hugs.
‘I was the last family member to see him on the day he died. It was for a mere 15 minutes. How I wish I had been allowed to ruffle the few strands of hair or kiss him on his forehead just to let him know that he was loved. How I wish I had been allowed to clean his yellowing teeth or the dry skin around the corner of his eyes. I couldn’t do any of those things. I am now left with these thoughts and images, and they will never go away. I can only hope that they soften with time.
I went in wearing a mask, gloves and a flimsy apron, PPE that falls far short of WHO standards. I was willing to wear it because I desperately wanted to see my dad. But why should doctors, nurses and other NHS workers put themselves or their loved ones at risk? Their job is to save lives, not to put theirs or their loved ones at stake. This is not a war, a language and tone used by this government to cover up their immorality, irresponsibility and incompetence. This is work and we should demand decent workplace conditions for people to do their job.’ Collected from Layli’s facebook wall post, 30 March 2020.
There are no dress rehearsals for life, we are given our lot and we must do the best we can with it. There’s plenty of nitpicked quotes we can use, share, read. In times of such abject and disastrous realities, its hard to not be continually overwhelmed. Who next, when will it be over, how does the world look post covid19?
Those of us able, are doing the best possible within the means we have – its been devastating to see and read so much of the damage being done. However, this language that some politicians have adopted, of war, rings hollow. It’s another PR exercise, to build both fear, and to pretend we are all in this together. To pretend that all lives are equal after all. We are being sold a lie, as we have been for decades now, about the wonderful capitalist system, one that has been co-opted and ripped out and replaced with yucky, na, grotesquely immoral and unethical practice, on the premises of economic growth but at the cost of our own communities and nature, and more.
As we have seen, political will and mobilisation, which is aiming to aspire towards egalitarian and socially just society, often means a serious, aggressive battle. This battle, now, seems rather a bleak one in my view. Economic bailouts of large corporations, whilst many thousands lose jobs, homes, and ultimately lives, again brings to mind the pretence of equality. Many others have written great critique of the fallacy of this pretence, and many more, continue to advocate for it.
Yet, this systemic, economic, structural inequality that has plagued much of the world, shows its truth in ways most cannot imagine. The understanding of the concept of home and shelter. Of having a home to be isolated in. That home being big enough so that there is space of separation between people, especially those that may have contracted the virus. Or the insecurity of tenure that, in this current situation will become horrific for many who are unable to afford to pay rent, or to buy food, to survive due to inability to, or no work being available as they are forced to wait, as governments across the world enforce lockdowns. To suggest to go for walks as exercise, but not having access to any public space to do so. And so it goes. Basic. Human. Rights – it seems an aggressively radical thing to aspire to.
Amidst it all, what is, and has always been true is the spirit of most humans to do good by their neighbours, their communities, to prop and support and share. In Bangladesh, many groups have been established already on facebook, there are youth movements in distribution of soaps and sanitisers, there are thousands of people volunteering to distribute emergency food parcels, basic needs etc. Many thousands more, mobilising to support where they can, with creative solutions, with innovations, with energy and spirit of caring, of listening and socialising via the various apps available to us in the internet age.
This often means very simply; accessible and universal healthcare, free education up to university, affordable and good housing for all, affordable and safe public transport systems, and commitments towards developing eco-systems that do not harm nature ( which can also be translated to going away from fossil fuel consumption and having affordable energy ) and people, those able to, working to their best ability. This is verbatim, its information that is available everywhere – from the Green New Deal, to United Nations SDGs, to various countries that do have genuinely progressive policies, that others can, should and often are not, learning from. Decentralised, local and regional development is so crucial in this, and there is so much amazingly good things happening out there.
Historians, especially those that study across centuries and millenniums, will perhaps say that the change we seek, is going to happen but in natures timescale, not human ones. Rapid development has taken place since WW2. yet, in the meanwhile, people continue to be oppressed, to suffer, to be denied basic human rights, in the name of economic progress and growth. A growth that has inherently harmed much of the planet, and its people in ways we are only beginning to see. Climate scientists are screaming and shouting for decades now, only to be told often, their science is wrong. Even in this current situation, many climate advocates are writing and asking the simple question; why are we not taking climate change seriously still?
It often seems so simple, yet when I look at the realities – the challenges of being tactical, strategical planning and negotiations that organisations and individuals are doing to push forward progressive agendas. Navigating political arenas, it is so difficult, the positioning of evidence based policy research and strategy papers that perhaps I believe in, often does not get a shoe in. Why do we choose not to invest properly and fully in this? Why is there ideological resistance of this evidence based policy planning still? Why do we want to continue supporting, aiding perpetually unequal systems that harm the most vulnerable in society?
Questions, that have been answered well, and by many. Yet, critique of capitalism, doesn’t mean I want to over throw it. However, Social Justice does need to be at the heart of it.
A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed my youngest sister’s tax dissertation. It was interesting to both read it and perhaps, a key reminder to myself, that mainstream economic thinking for governments has always been about growth, often at any cost. However, Without real, equitable, egalitarian redistribution systems in place, the economic growth simply does not translate to a prosperous and balanced society.
I’ve had a bit of an absence on the blog – an entire year in fact! partially due to other activities and work, and not creating time to reflect. This reflection is aimed primarily on a few instances of interaction at the Dhaka Art Summit that has just finished.
I’ve had a few days to sift through some of my thoughts in relation to how art and culture continue to be a disconnected at times from real life. Unpacking it all seems impossible, at any given moment – I am akin to dare to attempt to understand the convoluted layers related to the art world machine- the economics, politics, socio-cultural, the class privileges, the language barriers, the gender, age, ableist concerns, race and identity- it becomes to much to dissect and reflect upon here. Many others have written about these issues and have done it much more justice.
Am reflecting on the Dhaka Art Summit 2020 – on the one hand, a large ( if not one of the largest ) gathering of artists, collectives, practitioners from various parts of the world (mostly the Global South) in Dhaka for over a week – the programme was filled with much that even aligned with my own interests – exploring and understanding political movements, artist movements, indigenous cultures, how collectives form and in different parts of the world, how collaboration occurs, there were workshops, interactive and engaging activities etc. Yet – despite that, for me, it felt like one giant kichuri of confusion, cramming in everything under the sun. Those privileged enough to be able to afford the time to be present everyday for the talks, events, and activities will, I hope have gained plenty of inspirations, contacts, knowledge to continue on their journeys.
I’ll focus on two examples, that perhaps shaped for me, what the summit is – and thus the need to write this post – a) about translation, and b) access to young people.
a) In scaling up the activities and in providing space for diverse creative practitioners, a fundamental and difficult truth, is that what was left out of the curatorial narrative was translation and translators. Understandably – art speak text is aimed at a particular educated, elite individual whose experience of the curatorial, critical space required some serious ego feeding. It reminds me of often incomprehensible texts that is the beginning of various small fine art graduate shows. It’s important perhaps to acknowledge here that there were many complex ideas and projects put forward to the summit – many got lost in translation. Simply, the fact that there wasn’t a Bangla version of the programme readily available – even to download – whoever made such a decision – shows some apathy to the majority of the gallery visitors. I think I partially understand – the cynic in me will say the event was mainly intentioned to impress the various international curators, critics, collectors who’ve come to boost the market value of the art.
I’ll add an example – on one of the panels, there wasn’t a Bangla to English translator for an artist, nor a translator to be seen, and the panel was talking about indigenous art making and the struggles related to this. Friends then asked me to help translate ( although native to Bangladesh, my Bangla understanding is not fantastic and I hoped to have done the artist justice ). The conversation fettered into the moderator wanting to understand struggles, the institutional lack, or perhaps the political will of governments to support indigenous art making. With military presence in the space, it became a very challenging space to have conversations about the military, and in a governmental art space, difficult to talk about identity and indigenousness. To be clear – it was not my job, nor a friends job ( who was roped in to translate another session for the same artist) to translate, or to then inform the audience that there was presence of military in a conversation that was quite sensitive and the artist didnt feel comfortable talking about how to disrupt institutions. This disturbed me a lot. Apparently in a summit aimed to promote, inspire and engage radical movements and practices –
From the programme:
‘DAS 2020 touches upon geological movements, colonial movements, independence movements, social movements and feminist futures, spatial movements, the conditions that move us to act and the power that comes with moving collectively. We do not just consider forms of artistic production, but also forms of institutional production that enable artistic practices and pedagogies, generating new vocabularies of social organisation and building better ways to create and live together. What do the stirrings of a movement feel like and how do we learn from the experience of living through one?’
It seemed to ring slightly hollow, in curating, and creating spaces and places for conversations and discourse to take place – especially those of a political nature, it felt the continuation of crass fetishising, postcolonial politics, not decolonised debates – ‘hey come look at these indigenous artists, gosh, don’t they make pretty things.’ I reflect on it, as, having worked with diverse communities of various vulnerabilities over the years, the politics embedded in Bangladesh needed to be understood. It seemed it was not – not by the moderator, nor by the curator. If you dont know the politics, don’t pretend – it puts lives at risk, in ways, oft privileged white people visiting, can never understand. It scared me. My friends in the conversation were frantically texting me to tell me about the military presence.
b) On Friday 14th, we ( paraa ) took ten young children to the summit, to explore and engage with whats there. We’d spent the morning walking around in pairs and discussing and attempting to engage with the exhibits. We discussed, wrote and drew elements that were interesting and tried to talk to people, artists that were there. This is in part, to help the children in designing the micro art festival we are curating together in March ( www.paraa.org.uk/artfest2020 ) In part, this was relatively simple. I appreciate the challenges and difficulty of understanding art, from first appearance, to the subject matter, however, when from a team of architects who’ve worked with communities, we struggled to translate the written text on the walls explaining some of the work, it became quite frustrating. The children became tired, and we continued to find it difficult to translate written words to spoken and understandable bangla. Access is an issue – and will always be an issue in the art world. I appreciate the need to support, promote and give space to artists to do what they do best – create art. However, it is one of the roles of the curator to communicate the artists work as best they can to their public. Calling it a summit, a gathering, a collective etc. but making it accessible to a select audience, again makes me a cynic. There is not an expectation to understand and engage with every piece. For the children, however, when there were exhibits they wanted to understand better, by reading the text on the wall, the complex bangla, the untranslatable english, we were collectively perplexed. One may argue that actually it wasn’t designed with children in mind. ( labelling of exhibits that may be sensitive etc. ) and the cynic in me – nor with the everyday Bangladeshi in mind.
It was a long day, however, with the children, it was clear what they wanted to have and what they did not want to have, in their festival next month- so we had a very positive outcome regardless of the challenges of the exhibitions themselves.
I acknowledge that the two small incidents are by and large unique experiences, and perhaps dont reflect the wider everyman experience of the show. I appreciate the curatorial challenges involved in bringing relatively famous artists to exhibit things, to commission and produce pieces etc that will add value to the summit overall. Dhaka has more than 15 million people, in a very tightly packed area. Getting tens of thousands of people to attend events that are free, is not impossible – in a city often starved of decent art and culture for the mass. There are many things that were intriguing – and as a visitor to the summit – I appreciated the attempt to bring in so many diverse collectives and I am sure they will take away a massive amount of learning in their various practices towards the future. There was much missing in terms of the concept of collectives ( as an art speak ) versus perhaps various grass roots movements that we are aware of, and didn’t see included or represented from a Bangladeshi perspective – it makes me question the discourses presented and omitted. The Summit project is a sensitive one, having had to work directly with the ministry of culture, I imagine, many things were clipped to appease and conform ( and get approval ). However, the points I noted above, are not related to the sensitivity of selection – indeed why pretend its Art for the people / collectives / movements at this instance, if actually, it’s about the Art Market. Call it a fair, and keep it simple.
On Odbhut. reflections on Bangla Queerness.
I have been absent from the blog for a while now. It is a shame as the blog does help me stay focused with many of thoughts. However, in an afternoon of reflecting on one topic, I decided to share some thoughts. We’re organising an event this Friday, 16th November at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Here is a link to the event:
Its an oddity, an absurd statement to start with – But my Queerness has everything to do with my Bangla-ness, or Sylheti-ness, or indeed, British-Bangla-ness, or my South-Asian-ness. The loaded view and appropriation of Queer, and for me the idea of #odbhut being translational to some definition of queer. It isnt as loaded thats for sure.
In a round-about way, my homosexual identity, and my gendered role and my desire to challenge and explore them have a lot to do with my socio-cultural upbringing or my religious upbringing. Having rejected some aspects of that upbringing, and grown to appreciate that other forms of community, of belief and love are possible, it is only fair to say that I uphold not any traditional Bangla values, but rather a sea current of values that are interlaced from these heritages. The child of a restaurant worker in one place, the child of a landowner in another, but in both places, the child of a hardworking, articulate stoic woman. Yet, to be percieved as many different things in these places, to be ridiculed in some place for my colour, in other places for my sexuality, and yet in other places for my lack of religion, has been unnerving. To defend my values isnt so easy, but having surrounded myself with support that surpasses these delineations, am lucky to be accepted. However hotchpotch that acceptance may seem to others.
I qualify this with this reflection, as the eldest son in a relatively conservative first generation British Sylheti muslim family, I haven’t done as was deemed the path for such a son. I gave in to my curiosities of the world, my roots, and took flight at the first opportunity to London. Fast forward 15 years, that queering of my role, challenging the perceived role of the elder son, continues to haunt me. As my younger brother has just married, my sexuality & my inability to commit to something society deems necessary, has put into spin many thoughts of self-doubt. One of which questions whether my curiosities or questions are founded in any truth. Is my own desire and ability to love and be loved, not enough? and am I still that stuck in societal feedback, in ideologies of past, that no longer align with my present, or possible futures? The answer in short is No, but as soon as I go on to unpack, then it unravels, and guilt, shame, and other things can quickly take form.
So, on the back of much work in Dhaka Bangladesh over the years, and my own passive participation in LGBTQ activism in the previous year. I was emboldened to co-host Odbhut. A chance to celebrate our Bangla queerness, whatever that may mean. Not knowing is OK in this particular instance, and the depth of heritages, the diversity of the histories that we share with our South Asian neighbours, but also our colonial masters, and more importantly, the global Bangla diaspora intersects many of the fragments that we call life, and many fragments that will become our Queer self.
Getting to the point of co-hosting Odbhut, for me, has been a personal journey, of many years, as much as it is a public endeavour, to understand those of that do identify within a spectrum of Bangla / Sylheti / LGBTQ+ and beyond. It also is serving the potential to have conversations that cannot be had elsewhere in such a free way, namely in Bangladesh. As the reversing of Section 377 in India shows, the West Bengal cohort now have certain freedoms that we in Bangladesh will continue the need to struggle for a while longer. It again posits a confusing narrative, one that has strongly shown the legacies of colonialism to be so cruel.
Having marched in London Pride for the first time with friends this summer, having spoken with, discussed and explored the meanings of queer in Bangladesh, in talking about what it means to create queer spaces and by/for whom, it is clear that there is much to be done.
The leader in me wants to blazon forwards, but the pragmatic, critical reflexive person in me, wants to stop and say, what the Fuck are you doing and why? Why rock any boats? why do this at all? why create potential enemies? why create confusions? Why challenge at all? Why is it important to do this, and now?
The questions are endless, sometimes very painful to see the realities that do exist, and the challenges that need to be overcome for a minority section of a community. Does it mean it is too difficult? not worth doing? & does it mean that we have to wait for someone else to lead? I get tired of critiquing other peoples and groups practice, as important as it is to use this time to learn. It is only when you go to practice, does the reality smack you properly. Until then, its very wishy-washy about what is or isnt possible.
In writing these thoughts, for me, its clear to stress that despite approaching my identity with a magnifying glass and critically reflecting on my being as a person in a microcosm of socio-politics, culture and economics- and temporality. That my time here is temporary as a human being, makes me also take my underlying privileges, of being a man, of having ability, and an education, pivots me forwards and often ahead of my contemporaries within the LGBTQ+ community. I put words to my feelings, or at times, drawings to feelings, yet most often, these feelings are articulated in many conversations across the diverse entourage of support that I have. its a unfathomable privilege, one that I aimed to unpack over time. The Odbhut part of my identity, relays some musings for now. TO be revisited in time.
I have an exhibition on currently in NSH Arts in 439 Mile End, on Thursday 7th June, we are going to have a private event hosted by Ash Kotak and a special guest from Bangladesh who will be speaking about LGBTQ issues there.
Please RSVP to email@example.com if you want to come! See you there.
Kukut Fundraiser: Live music and book launch
Sunday 6th May 2018
Venue 1, (4th Floor ) Rich Mix Centre
35 – 47 Bethnal Green Road
Doors open 6pm, to start for 6.30
Tickets: £10.00 on the door
Paraa invites you to the Kutkut Fundraiser, an evening of conversations and live music by the Ballad singer Jennifer Reid, as well as the chance to get your limited edition book of portraits by Ruhul Abdin. The evening will be hosted by Fahmida Islam and include a Q&A with Ruhul and Jennifer on their work. There will be light refreshments available and all proceeds from the evening and sales of the books will go towards the development of Paraa’s Kutkut project.
Kutkut is a new mental health and wellbeing project that will be piloted in Kamalapur in 2019. The project aims to develop innovative, flexible and creative ways to address extreme urban poverty, with a focus on health and well-being for women and young people.
Kutkut will be led and facilitated by Paraa; a participatory design research studio based in Dhaka, in collaboration with Shoshannah Williams; an occupational therapist and researcher who has conducted a year-long ethnographic study with the women of Kamlapur. Kutkut is the result of the team-members learning from, spending time with, listening to, supporting and drawing the women and young people in the station.
The Portraits of Kamalapur project is an on-going art project by Ruhul Abdin, and forms as part of a series of portrait drawings of people at the Kamalapur Railway Station, in Bangladesh’s capital, the megacity of Dhaka. Drawn from life, in conte charcoal and pencil on A2 drawing paper and studies across sketchbooks, the portraits express what the artist sees, and feels at the time. There is a rigour of revisiting the site, and re-drawing the same sitters, if chance permits. The book is large publication, containing a small collection of the drawings, along with two essays, including a reflective piece by Dr. Shoshannah Williams and a longer thought piece by the imminent poet and environmental activist Farhad Mazhar of UBINIG.
Dhaka is one of the most rapidly urbanising and dense megacities in the world, with a population of over 17 million people. Women and young people are particularly vulnerable to homelessness in Bangladesh, which may occur following exploitation and violence within their families and places of employment. Coming to the streets is often the only option, due to limited social protection mechanisms and barriers to them accessing safe & secure housing and employment.
Kamalapur Station is the largest and one of the most important transportation hubs between Dhaka and the rest of Bangladesh. On any given night, several hundred people can be found sleeping in the station – some spend a few nights whilst others remain there for decades. Violence, trauma, broken trust and relationships are everyday realities of women and young people living in the station, with ongoing physical and mental health ramifications for those experiencing chronic homelessness.
Jennifer Reid is a performer of 19th Century Industrial Revolution broadside ballads and Lancashire dialect work song. After volunteering at Chetham’s Library and the Working Class Movement Library, Jennifer completed an Advanced Diploma in Local History at Oxford University. Jennifer’s work now takes her to Bangladesh, where she is testing the idea that the Industrial Revolution never stopped, it just moved to Dhaka.
This event is kindly supported by the RIchMix Centre, The Nicholas Berwin Charitable Foundation, The Gandhi Foundation, Paraa and Openvizor.
Media images available upon request
Contact for more information:
+44 7775192199 / firstname.lastname@example.org