24 November, 2017 – Deepanjana.com
“How much can you contain in a seed? In the biological sense, an entire culture, despite its tininess. The same holds true of Jomin o Joban — A Tale of the Land, Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif’s debut show in India. It’s a small show with just four works, but Wasif has packed into it a multitude of ideas about history, borders, ecology and economy.
Jomin o Joban, which translates to “land and promise”, begins with a set of photographs (“Land of the Undefined Territory) taken in what looks like a nondescript, barren stretch of land. It’s actually border territory between India and Bangladesh, which despite being strictly demarcated in theory, remains disputed. The ground reality is that rather than a country, it belongs to industry with the area being aggressively mined for limestone. This series is the only predictable part of Jomin o Joban. You would expect a Bangladeshi artist showing in India to include a hat-tip to the border that’s so neatly drawn on maps and regularly blurred by the footprints of those who criss-cross it illegally. Once Wasif has got that out of the way, Jomin o Joban gathers strength.
The promises that an industry makes to the land are examined in “Machine Matters”, perhaps the most powerful work in Wasif’s show. To reach it, you go past a table that displays tools and instruments. They’re all rusty and old, foraged from factories that have shut down. Filmed at a languorous pace, “Machine Matters” is rich with melancholy irony as the camera gazes upon machines in a derelict jute mill. From symbols of modernity and profit, they’re now just junk. Pacing the film is a soundtrack of silence, mechanical sounds that the machines no longer make and the chirrup of birds we don’t see. At regular intervals, Wasif shifts focus and zooms in so close on the body of a worker that he no longer seems human. The skin becomes a terrain that’s twitching, heaving and eerily beautiful. All of this is shot in black and white, with light sinking in and bouncing off to nuance this palette with greys and shadows.
“Machine Matters” reminds you that these jute mills (and indigo plantations, which are referenced in the cyanotypes) took over the livelihoods of farmers and contributed to famines that shrivelled Bengal’s population. To the land and people it exploited, the mills gave little back and when artificial fibres and shipping containers were introduced, jute mill workers were reduced to nothing. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see any faces — only bodies that are no longer recognisably human in the way that they’re viewed by another machine, the camera. The empty factory floors that Wasif shows in “Machine Matters” are haunted by history.
Against this bleakness is the blue-tinted vitality of nature that’s surviving as fragile, inanimate blueprints in “Seeds Shall Set Us Free”. In the 50 prints of rice, seeds and other natural elements, Wasif offers a coded history of agriculture in the eastern part of the subcontinent, where agents promising progress have come with seeds that have eventually ravaged the natural richness of the area. From the colonial-era cash crops to the GM seeds of today, the effect is the same — devastating the region’s diversity so that all that remains is indigo-tinted memory.
In the white box of the gallery, Wasif’s cyanotypes gleam like treasure. A few stand out, like the heartbreakingly delicate print of an insect’s torn wings, and the set showing rice (once available in many varieties and a staple in Bengal) kernels in patterns inspired by alpana (hand-made designs painted using rice paste and drawn on floors on festive days). The rest of Jomin O Joban is in black, white and a dusty brown, showing scenes and objects largely leached of both colour and vitality. The only spark of vibrancy lies in the cyanotypes, produced using an almost obsolete process, creating copies of elements from a natural world that’s vanishing, and scorching the monotone with the vibrant blue of remembrance…”