Archeology of war memories
Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.
– John Lennon
The upheavals in art which took place in a quick succession throughout the twentieth century simply have no parallel in any other times. There are obvious reasons behind such feverish fluctuation. That the modern epoch has entered a highly technologized stage, and the social-political thoughts strung with revolutionary spirit of change, seemed to have impacted the very nature of art-making. On the peripheral countries under the rule of 'capital', the line of ascent can be traced following the way every community was transformed from a feudal society into a modernized nation-state freed from the clutches of the colonizer only after sufficiently absorbing the modern ethos prevalent throughout the years of colonization until the final independence.
In the twenty first century, we witness an unprecedented expansion of the capital-driven culture across the globe, which enforces gradual homogenization of cultural traits. The overall state of every city across the world testifies to the fact that geo-politically they are all becoming alike. Even the ethical frameworks have been brought into alignment with the global centers. Social media digitally energizes bodies enacting subjecthood across the world in a synchrony of actions – one tweets, watch YouTube or explore the web as a global citizen. In the context arising out of the global flow of capital and technology, societies across the world cannot afford to remain insular. The 'users', who take to computer technology out of necessity and as an outlet of leisure, are the emerging tribe through whom the current process of virtual/actual homogeneity is now seen to have been set in motion. The contemporary 'digital tribe', irrespective of their conscious aspiration towards the creation of a 'global village', is a member of the same global circuit. Each is operating within this hyperreal ecology, and artists cannot afford to be any different. They too are affected by the global surges in technology alongside the languages and practices of art that keep emerging from the centers. Sharad Das appears in the art scene of Chittagong with a keen awareness of all this. He harks back to the 'story telling' mode of expression which has a long history in Bangladesh – a country that was once East Bengal, before the Partition of India divided the people along religious lines.
This time around, Sharad is given to historical excavation: he has unearthed the atrocities inflicted upon a people who had to fight the ogres (the Pakistan army and its cohorts) in a nine-month-long war which ended in the independence of Bangladesh. An artist inclined to sourcing his images from the immediate reality – one who has been watching with an observant eye the desecration of the ethos of independence by both the people who sat at the helm and the quislings who kept bruising the polity with their excesses in the name of religion and in turn affecting the social equilibrium. His recent solo exhibition Memory Saga releases the otherwise occluded (in the aesthetic context) haunting vistas of the war-time atrocities. Sharad courses the viewers through the scene of the crime as he zeroes in on the deaths of our valiant intellectuals who were killed on the eve of independence – on December 14, two days before Bangladesh was finally freed.
What serves as Sharad's point of departure are the images of the skulls and bones found in myriad mass graves across the country. The series of photo-manipulations, in stark black and white, exuding gothic energy, comes under the rubric Memory Saga. They stage a remembrance of the brave intellectuals who were killed on the brink of independence as part of the design to eliminate the apex brains of a nation about to realize its claim to sovereignty. The assaults against the intellectually endowed people continue to this day, four decades after Bangladesh came into being. Murderers are still targeting the people who may be dubbed as the articulators of dissent. Recently we have lost scholars from the intellectual landscape whose crime was to challenge the bigotry that still exists in our midst, and as a consequence of which our existence as a united people is continually fraying at the seams. Sharad's thoughts are critically informed by this continued saga of murder and mayhem. 'The genocide of 1971 has returned to haunt us again, we have witnessed the murders of Rajib Haider, Avijit Roy and Ashikur Rahman in succession, and this is how we are witnessing the demise of an ideal through the murder of free-thought – which is also a form of genocide,' Sharad asserts.
Today there are too many countries and places where genocide and conflicts are regular phenomena. Sharad's response to this world which is reeling under interminable violence is externalized in a lexicon which easily translates into both depiction and interception. The haunting images play into paintings and installations setting them in a position of negotiation with reality felt and observed. Everything You Can Perceive by Smell is a series where Sharad tackles the entire spectrum of violence which stretches from Bangladesh to the rest of the world.
Buddha serves as a potent sign enabling his own reconnaissance of the landscape of human failures to memorialize the zones of manmade disaster. Failures/disasters that one witnesses in the way states run their affairs, the terror that rise out of political expediency and the resultant chaos – is examined in light of the progress we had once envisaged. An epic devaluation of human mores in relation to the centralized power of capitalism and other forms of scourge have fed Sharad's works which are composite in nature as they often consist of a number of paintings and sculptural pieces. One notices a beheaded Buddha, in the work Everything You Can Perceive by Smell- 3, that commits itself to voicing a conscientious objection to the intolerance and injustices unleashed upon societies across Asia. Sharad issues forth such an objection by way of bringing back the figure of Buddha to annunciate, address peace on earth. The artist puts his headless Buddha on a painted pedestal referring to the burning of monasteries in Ramu, a few years back. Another locus of violation of the community's religious harmony is exemplified by the attacks on mandirs, which are on the rise; the artist lets a head of devi Kali appear on a canvas in the same installation. In that painting burned wooden pillars stand in ghostly silence – a direct reference to the horrors of communal intolerance.
Reference to Buddha, who once stood for the dharma, or a 'path' leading to the resolution of the tumults of the world (both internal and external to the self) and the idea of harmony (to be achieved in the social sphere), recurs in Sharad's language where direct allusion to violence enters via a relay of images sourced from the media. Three medium-specific layers appear in his language – the photomontage exemplifying his engagement with the digital media, popular images rendered in pop-like two-dimensional signs revealing a taste for the kitsch, and lastly, the sculptural elements that explore the tragedy and the cause of the tragedy by reproducing the language of militarism. The sculptural pieces are treated with a certain degree of playfulness – a number of small tanks topped with hands pointing to something invisible represent military aggression.
The 'here and now' of Sharad's mediation comes overlapped with a 'nowhere' represented by Buddha and his tenets of non-violence. Through the language, or facets of language Sharad plays around with to construct his visuals seem to carry the spirit of 'contemporaneity' where his own concoctions ferry the trends that have surfaced in the region very recently. The latter he negotiates with a keen sense of time and history, or by revisiting the locus of wounds which history help to bring to light. The language he employs has its own transgressive force released as a disapproval of the majority's silence vis-à-vis the political-social excesses of a small group of people. Thus the expressed alignment with the victims assumes a form of fervent 'reminiscence' of the traumatic events, rather than bringing into view the artist's own aesthetic activism. One realizes that Sharad is here to remind us of the urgency of 're-reading' the past through the lens of the 'present' as he quotes his favourite writer Garcia Marquez who once said, 'What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.’
The exhibition entitled ‘Memory Saga’ ran its course from March 25 to March 31, 2015, at Rashid Chowdhury Gallery, Institute of Fine Arts, University of Chittagong.
PHOTOS COURTESY: THE ARTIST