Munem Wasif’s tryst with the geographies of his homeland and its connecting borders can be traced back to 2014, the year his solo show, his first ever in India, began to shape-up. Never diverting from his documentary-like approach to politically and socially influenced issues the land is perplexed with. It all began with his interest in the idea of borders and maps and their origins, which were eventually shaped into a series of recurring frames titled Land of Undefined Territory.
‘I started working on Land of Undefined Territory in 2014 while I was at a Public Art Project, No Man’s Land, at the border of Bangladesh and India, organised by Britto Arts Trust & Shelter Promotion Council. I started with photographing a small hill and tried to create a series of mundane landscapes where nothing seems to be happening, but one can see traces of industrial and human intervention,’ remarks Munem. His decision to extend this concept of an apparently insignificant land between borders brought the same to Mumbai’s Project 88 art gallery.
Exercising his knack for archival documentation, the photographer attempts to expose the tense political subtext that encompasses a territory presumably no different from any other. ‘For a lot of people in that region, this border doesn’t make sense, as their lives were rooted in that land for hundreds of years. They share the same language and have relatives in both parts of the land. Just a few decades back, for us, it was a part of the larger Bengal. Now, the same land has higher fences and the border has become the most violent one in recent history.’
His curiosity to decipher the dynamics of land and its ownership led him to Sharpin tilla, the now immortalised hill situated between Sylhet and Cherrapunji – left empty, barren with traces of meddling at best. ‘This particular hill was exciting because of its sense of repetition. You go from one place to another place and they all looked similar. This repetition created confusion, the present felt like the past. It is a hard experience to interpret. Each field felt like I’ve seen it before, almost like Déjà Vu!’ remarks Munem as he set out represent the landscape through a repetitive series of photographs, rendering a strange illusion.
An important aspect of finding representations to define said landscape, were the workers who made a living off of it. With no crop in production in the zones, they managed to earn a basic living and confided in a passing photographer, stories of seeds, songs and their lives. Munem’s portrayal of these workers sees them as part of the site as opposed to entities that stand apart. ‘I photographed them in a way where you don’t see them properly, they are blended in the landscape. When you go to the top of the hill you see these workers doing the same thing again and again in repetition. The hot wind of summer, rustic landscape, and bright light enhanced the presence of industrial intervention, the feeling of unknown, and boredom to some extent. The series of landscape was extended in a three-channel video over the years which is not shown in the ongoing show at Project 88.’
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