In Dhaka, Bangladesh, on the banks of the Buriganga River, is an area called Puran Dhaka, or the old city. The photographs in Munem Wasif’s solo exhibition “Kromosho” (“Step by Step,” in Bengali) were set in this historic neighborhood, once the Mughal capital of the Bengal Province. The district serves as not only the site but often the protagonist of his strange, sometimes fantastical work. The series “Stereo,” 2001–22, featured tightly framed close-ups of objects and arrangements in black-and-white, and color diptychs and triptychs arranged as a composition on the wall. In one image we saw a phone—showing a video of a popular Bollywood song—delicately resting against a tea glass. In another we found hair clippings around an alum crystal (used to soothe skin after a shave at the local barber shop), suggesting the object has grown a beard.
Wasif contemplates time and sometimes its suspension. One image showed a digital LED clock on an old wall of this ancient city, said to be stuck in time, even as modern Dhaka expands around it. The pressure of development on all sides is palpable, and a latent anxiety pervades. Wasif clearly knows these lanes and the city’s people, charms, secrets, and traditions intimately. He grew up in a semirural neighborhood, immersed in the ways of a bygone era that people have held onto so dearly. Puran Dhaka is familiar, then, and reminds him of the resolve to preserve a way of life by living it passionately.
Central to this exhibition was Kheyal, a moving-image work shot between 2015 and 2018. The title means something like “imagination” or “fiction.” With his moody, mystical treatment of frames, Wasif attempts to imbibe the sensibilities of magic realism and the absurdity in our everyday life. Mist and liquid become metaphors for the locality, its glorious past, and its current state. For example, we see dripping milk and water running down a gutter or trickling down walls from damaged sewage pipes. Against this setting, we meet Osman Ali, who longs to be back in his village and rehearses his music to cure this feeling; Ranju, who is caught in a dark cycle of dreams and nightmares; a young girl who jumps rope; and an elderly woman who gazes at the world through her window. We encounter each of these characters in a different, specific state of mind. In a striking surreal shot, we see a white horse towering over Ranju in an arched lane lined with closed shops—an old market, perhaps. The horse is absolutely still, save for the occasional flopping of its ears, its eyes remaining locked with Ranju’s. This is perhaps an allegory for the area’s relationship to Dhaka. As the metropolis develops into the new, those holding onto old ways of being must, like Ranju, watch in silence. Toward the end of Kheyal comes a moment of exhaustion, or rest perhaps, as Osman lies in a bed of weeds. His head buried in the growth, he breathes deeply as the film ends.
Osman returns as the protagonist in Osman and the Fragrances, 2022–. In these pigment prints placed on an inclined shelf, Wasif studies Osman’s obsessions with aromas, both organic and synthetic. We see the character immerse himself or take in the many characteristic smells of the neighborhood: milk, camphor, wood, and damp walls. Mostly invisible, these aromas occasionally reveal themselves as steam wafting off a hot beverage or smoke from an incense stick. Having led us through the winding lanes of Puran Dhaka, Wasif’s camera peeps into the lives of the people and things that this densely packed neighborhood holds together in delicate balance.