by Sunena V MajuMar 31, 2023
My visit to the Bengal Foundation galleries was a highlight during the recent trip to Bangladesh on the sidelines of Dhaka Art Summit. The shadow of the fully grown trees on the building façade of open brick and concreate walls set the tone for me as I entered. The ground floor gallery had an ongoing exhibit titled Breaking Ground of works by modern masters of the country. Dilara Begum Jolly’s solo show titled Parables of the Womb had a quiet presence on the first floor. Dimly lit, the central space of the gallery displayed large photo-lightboxes with portraits of biranganas, war heroes. On closer inspection, I discovered pinholes pierced in rhythmic patterns on and around the printed photographs. Was it meditative for Jolly? Did she reference sewing and embroidery or the pain of wounds? Was the process more important for her or the visual brilliance that was accentuated with backlight? I was moved with this body of work.
STIR presents excerpts of the exclusive interview with the artist.
Rahul Kumar (RK): How did you come about the idea of presenting the portraits of ‘war heroes’, titled Biranganas in your recent show? Is there a significance in choosing the particular nine portraits?
Dilara Begum Jolly (DBJ): The realities of being a woman has always been my pre-occupation, but it has been over a decade since I began to critically engage with the vulnerability of women vis a vis times of war. War leaves its indelible marks on their body and more insidiously on their psyche, specially the trauma that relentlessly haunt and irreversibly transforms the lives of war victims. For obvious reasons, my enquiry homed in on the victims of the Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971. The 10 portraits of the war heroes who came to be known as biranganas, a title conferred upon them by the state, to me, represent 10 pillars of light, monumental in their own glory. However, these portraits were not created as a part of any singularly developed project, in fact, they seemed to reach out to me from various sources during my ongoing research on birangana Roma Chowdhury, which marked a turning point in my life as a woman and my career as an artist.
Roma Chowdhury was not only a war hero per say, she was also a warrior in her personal life who fought to free herself from the conventional shackles of society. In this, she was driven by her desires and creative instincts, which found expression in her unorthodox personal relationships as well as choice of livelihood. The six years of working in close proximity with Roma Chowdhury resulted in an experimental documentary, Jhothorleena, portraying the everyday struggle of this fearless woman. Her stories must have sowed the seeds of an artistic engagement with this much glorified face of the war, which bear a far darker ramification as a universal bane of humanity. Pakistani general Niazi instructed his soldiers to set into motion the making of a true Muslim nation by raping all the women of Bengal. All the works alongside the portraits in this current exhibition are informed by a conscious protest against this heinous project of the abolition of the womb. These photographs had been taken by a number of photographers from home and abroad. I used them in my work after being compelled by the stories of these women that came to be documented at various times, which, nonetheless shook me to my very core. Mainly because they are very marginalised people, living in quiet obscurity, and for their stories to come in the limelight is what became my motivation.
RK: Some of your previous works, for instance The Departed Soul, has similar concerns that of gender and political oppression. Please talk about your quest and search through your works.
DBJ:Mahamaya Dalim Bhaban was converted into a torture cell during the 1971 war. In The Departed Soul, I tried to symbolically depict a presence of all those souls who haunt that house in a routine reminiscence of the atrocities inflicted on them, by way of a 12-minute-long video performance. Women, time and again, appear as a subject-matter of my work, which comprises the external reality that contours her world as well as the one she harbours within. The female body, her gender identity and the numerous ties that connect it with existing social and political context, and least of all the uterus – none of these can outlie the overarching political paradigm. The extraneous conditions that influence the biological aspects of a female body is but a reiteration of how the language of art, aesthetics is subjugated under the rule of the patriarchal mode.
RK: The process of needle patterns is repetitive, meditative, and certainly ruptures the very surface of the photograph. What were your metaphorical engagements, by way of the process, and intended expressions for your viewers through this?
DBJ: Between 2012 and 2014 saw a succession of grim accidents in garment factories, namely ‘Tazrin Fashion’ and ‘Rana Plaza’ that left in its wake numerous deaths of workers, both male and female, who belonged to the section of less privileged populace. These incidents affected me intensely and became an impetus for my successive works.
As an immediate response, I drew a part of a hand and pierced the lines with a needle. Perhaps, in my mind, a woman’s hand became inextricably intermingled with stiches it helped form with needles. Slowly with time it began to take the shape of a narrative of pain, meaningful and affectively symbolic, born out of the repetitive act of piercing which manifested itself in a meditative stance stained with a sense of grief.
This technique of needling was applied to the faces of the war heroes, which overlays the portraits with yet another layer steeped in a sense of suffering, thus removed from the surface materiality, the faces enter the realm of feelings. Perhaps, the entirety of the process represents a collective voice of my thoughts and feelings. Personally, I seek relief from my own trauma by listening to Buddhist chants, which continued to accompany me while I worked on the portraits. It, thus, would not be wrong to assume that the sensibility they portray might have been nuanced by the meditative chants.
RK: Inequality and repression are known to mankind ever since humans have existed. Have you studied and expressed through your works, or researched this aspect across timelines and regions?
DBJ: Collectively these thoughts make their presence felt in my works, therefore, it is not possible to mention any one issue. And hence, the exhibition is titled, Parables of the Womb. It is a tale of the chemistry between the inner and the outer realities of the female bodies, and as such harbours myriad possibilities of psychoanalytical investigation pointing to further observations and critical analyses.
RK: Could you talk about your ongoing works and upcoming projects?
DbJ: My works in progress include a new documentary, expansion on my previous works on torture cells and exploration of the possibilities of the newly found language of sanitary napkins as soft sculptures.
The exhibition was on display from February 1 to March 28, 2020.
(All responses were translated from Bengali to English by Sharmillie Rahman)