by Rahul KumarMar 13, 2020
Artists Mahbubur Rahman and Tayeba Begum Lipi hosted a party at their home-studio on the sidelines of the Dhaka Art Summit in February 2020. That evening, in a casual conversation with Rajeeb Samdani (co-founder of Samdani Art Foundation that produces the Dhaka Art Summit), I learnt more about their upcoming initiative of a Sculpture Park and Art Centre at Sylhet in Bangladesh. One of the most fascinating projects that is currently in progress is the vegetation sculpture by Indian contemporary artist, Asim Waqif. I got so fascinated and intrigued that the first thing I did on my return was to visit Waqif’s studio in Delhi and know more about Bamsera Bamsi (bamboo-flute in Bengali).
Here, STIR shares an exclusive interview with Waqif who speaks about his practice, his Sylhet project, and more.
Rahul Kumar (RK): What triggered the idea of creating your artwork with live trees in a forest?
Asim Waqif (AW): In 2016-17, I took a 10-month long break from artistic production. I had been doing one project after another for some years and wanted a breather. In fact, my usual work flow fluctuates between intense on-site work and long breaks. When I am into a project, I get consumed by it, but when I finish, I want to step back and do other things, or do nothing. I do not work for more than six-seven months in a year on my artistic practice. At some point during my long break, I found myself looking for grants that would support a long-term speculative proposal, and Jeebesh Bagchi (of RAQS Media Collective) recommended Graham Foundation based in Chicago. One of the criteria for the proposal submission was a confirmed host organisation for the project and I approached the Samdani Art Foundation through my friend and curator Diana Campbell, since I knew they were planning to set up a sculpture park. Incidentally, I did not get the grant from Graham Foundation but the Samdanis and Diana were so convinced with my proposal that they decided to go ahead with the project with their own resources.
RK: Conceptually, what are your concerns that you intend to communicate through this work? Who is the intended audience?
AW: There are various complex concerns that inform this project. At one level, I have always been at odds with the expectation of the art world for finished, long-lasting, and transactable objects. I am rarely satisfied at the end of a production cycle, so I find it difficult to commit to the end of a creative process. I would rather say that creativity is a continuous and unending endeavor. I am more interested in designing open-ended processes with scope for evolution, mistakes, and surprise, rather than creating archivable masterpieces. And in many ways, all of this comes together at Bamsera Bamsi.
RK: Why bamboo? Other than it being native to Sylhet, are these metaphorical motivations for you to use this species?
AW: I have been working with bamboo for more than two decades, mostly with already harvested poles. I have grown some on my own at my family home in Hyderabad but this was quite limited in scope. Today natural seasoning of all timber and bamboo has been replaced by poisoning it with toxic chemicals. However, I have seen 50 to 60-year-old houses in Meghalaya and Assam made with about 70 per cent bamboo that are still in pretty good shape. These did not use any chemicals, so I started investigating vernacular seasoning processes and also found some interesting research done by architects from Venezuela and Columbia about Native American seasoning. For the last eight years, with a partner in Assam, we have been seasoning bamboo using these vernacular methods. So, bamboo is a material that I have a long association with and I wanted to actually grow it, manipulate its growth cycle, harvest and season it. Even though this is a long-term project (at least 20 years) yet the fast growth of bamboo (three to five years for maturity depending on the species) allows me to learn from repeated cycles to be able to develop new strategies of intervention.
RK: Why did you choose only traditional and vernacular processes for the project? Are you rejecting development and advancement through science?
AW: At a basic level, when one looks at bamboo, new technology is way behind vernacular practice in terms of understanding the material. However, I do not propagate the rejection of one technology for another. Some of the bamboo saplings we used in the project were germinated in a micro-nutrient gel in a climate-controlled environment of the laboratories of the Bangladesh Forest Research Institute. We even used heavy earth-moving equipment for soil management on site. When it comes to bamboo, vernacular practice is very rich as well as varied. New technology has barely begun to understand this material. When one looks at the use of bamboo by architects, it is disheartening to see that they treat bamboo like a steel pole that can only be joined by gusset plates, nuts and bolts. They want bamboo to fit into their idea of what a structural member should work like. When we look at engineers and designers working with bamboo, the bamboo is made into composite materials like ply-board, again transforming it into forms that they are familiar with. At a state-of-the-art bamboo processing facility in Maharashtra, bamboo poles were being sorted and cut such that all the poles were of exactly the same size and uniform diameter, which meant that more than 60 per cent of the bamboo pole was thrown away as wastage!
However, when one looks at a vernacular bamboo practitioner, they use the bamboo to take advantage of the properties of the material itself. Soft and supple species are used for basket making when they are green. Hardy and stronger species are used for structural use after thorough seasoning. A whole bamboo can be split when necessary and lash onto another bamboo. Joinery takes advantage of the grain of the bamboo. I think there are many advantages provided by modern technologies, especially when it comes to harnessing vast amount of natural resources, but often leave behind unwanted by-products. The vernacular process is based on many generations of trial and error that is sensitive to the local climate, geology, and context, but is bogged down by repetition and ritual. In my view, if we are to develop a sensitive model of sustainable development, we need to start looking at vernacular and new technologies as complimentary mechanisms and even offset each other’s shortcomings.
RK: Several parts of your work are interactive, though with nature – like the sound pieces depend on the direction and intensity of breeze. How would you want your viewer to interact with the work?
AW: To be honest, in this project (unlike most of my public-art projects) I am not too concerned about the viewer. This project is for my own personal pursuit of creative innovation.
RK: Finally, given the very nature of the work, it is bound to change over time. How do you intend to keep it relevant to how you proposed it to look or turnout?
AW: I have no fixed idea of what it should look like. This project is open-ended. The only constant is that it will continue to change over time.