a research blog by Lotte Hoek
On the walls in the upper middle class neighbourhood of Dhanmondi in Dhaka, you can find this stencil graffiti. The nooses sit uncomfortably on the wall of a kindergarten. The form of this image shares a lot with the image of the tiger that has recently joined the nooses on the walls around the grand house and schools of Dhanmondi. The big cat calls upon citizens to save the Sundarban, the mangrove forests that form parts of Bangladesh’ southern border. The delicate ecosystem and complex cultural formations of the Sundarban are under acute threat from the activities for the Rampal Power Plant in the area by the euphemistically named ‘Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company’ which brings together the Bangladesh and Indian government. The lettered cat asks for the Sundarban to be saved, icon and slogan of the movement to prevent the arrival of the plant.
These images, and their political injunctions, suggest a particularly chilling disjunction here between the image of the noose as an imperative to kill humans and the image of the tiger as the injunction to preserve the life of the beast.
Both can be understood within their particular political conflicts and movements that share more than the first impression suggests: the concern with wildlife conservation takes the form of the tiger, not only the famous inhabitant of the sunderbans but also the symbol of sovereign Bangladesh (the royal Bengal tiger), now marshaled against the vagaries of an increasingly belligerent neighbor state, India. The nooses on the other hand are expressive of a desire to execute longstanding enemies of the people, those who committed atrocities against those who supported the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Both tiger and noose are shorthand for an anxiety over autonomy, sovereignty and the interest of the vaguely defined ‘people’ against an encroaching savagery. And this anxiety is deeply felt in particular segments of contemporary Bangladesh society.
The class background and social formations behind the graffiti is evident not only from its location in the city. The stencil graffiti is an intimately familiar form that, besides its international resonance, has been used in Bangladesh at least since the pro-democracy people’s movement that in the early 1990s toppled the long rule of military dictators. The current use of the stencil is immediately evocative of other struggles and older movements. This form places their content within the domains of a liberal, progressive politics in contemporary Bangladesh.
This political formation is finding itself increasingly beleaguered and coopted. Images such as the stencil graffiti are part of a larger archive of public culture forms that speak simultaneously about a past now lost and the critical condition of the contemporary moment. Their form is both eloquent and anxiety ridden, expressing a loss of autonomy that seems increasingly difficult to reclaim.