a research blog by Lotte Hoek
The developer is a fearful character in the popular tales and public rumours of contemporary Bangladesh. From unscrupulous dealings to inhumane displacements, the figure of the developer is part-gangster film, part- personal despair. As tall structures continue to go up in the megacity Dhaka and the regional capitals of Bangladesh, the countryside is similarly in the grips of a craze for the ‘building’, whether in the form of shopping centres in haat towns or the rural desire for heavily tiled two storey private houses apparently drawn up from the digital fantasies of Photoshop. Behind each, a developer stakes his claim to land, to building materials and to the inevitable profits that buildings bring. What gets ploughed down in his wake is immaterial.
This flush of ‘development’ leaves townscapes nearly indistinguishable in the uniformity of so-called ‘thai glass’ windowpanes and concrete surfaces. In Dhaka, buildings more than 30 years old are increasingly hard to discern within the forest of office towers and apartment blocks that seem to have been drawn up according to a single sanctioned design.
While the pleasures and desires that reside within the urban and rural aesthetics of the contemporary ‘building’ may exceed the profit driven logics of the hit-and-run developer, it is undeniable that a range of earlier forms and their particular histories are disappearing from view. And though this may just be a highly capitalised version of a longer tradition of building in Bangladesh, where new layers (whether of cow dung or of brick) are added over older structures and surfaces, erasing them from view, the consequences of the work of the developer can play easily into the hands of those for whom history is political fodder. The forgetting that is brought on by erasure enforced may only be stemmed to some extent by the documentation and reactivation of sites on the verge of ‘development’.
It is at this intersection that the work of installation artist Sadya Mizan emerges. Setting her practice around old houses about to fall prey to the developer, she reactivates the lives and histories of buildings and their immediate surroundings. Through weeklong group practice set within the remnants of the historical structures she selects around Bangladesh, Sadya allows the sites to be revived and reimagined before they inevitably disappear for good.
Sadya’s one-woman tour-de-force is the Uronto Residential Art Exchange Program and has been in operation since 2012. Inviting artists and media practitioners from across disciplines and countries, Sadya describes Uronto (‘Flying’) as a community of artists “who are in a new way working toward documenting a sector of memories of old architectural existences.” The week-long art camps have taken place in Kusthia and the Nikli Upazila in Kishorganj. Participants are invited “to portray the history, stories, myth, values or anything about the architectural structure or house or building chosen for every episode.” The resulting works have been temporary installations ranging from a projection of letters written between a husband and wife who once dwelled in one of the buildings to the marking of bricks taken from a site as it was being torn down to map their progress towards other, newer structures elsewhere. The next edition of the project will start on March 20th in the Ishwaripur village of Sathkira district.
Uronto has both artistic aims and social purpose. The group work Sadya curates and fosters, provides a unique exercise in collective aesthetic practice that is foremost about exploring the built environment and its particular histories as a group. At the same time, her work aims to incorporate and engage those who live around the buildings she takes as the starting point for her work. As a matter of course, she builds long-standing relations with those who dwell in or alongside the buildings she works with, for whom her fascination may at times be baffling. Prefacing each camp with extensive information gathering about the house’s history, its previous and current inhabitants, the area it is placed in and the community its sits within, her research work adds further depth and longevity to the inevitable ephemerality of installation work.
This is what makes the Uronto work especially apt to describe the current wave of property development that washes over Bangladesh. The temporary installations created by Sadya and her colleagues are etched onto the old surfaces, temporarily energising and reviving its lives and materials before they vanish. These works capture the play between historical depth and ephemerality that is inevitably part of the apparent solidity and concreteness of a built environment that is nonetheless reshaped and redrawn by each new wave of inhabitants. Not only the unpredictability of the many rivers’ paths in Bengal, but also the continuous reimagining of this densely populated land, make its architectural spaces disappear and remerge in new forms continually. Uronto aesthetic practice draws energy from and highlights this process.
For more on the Uronto Residential Art Exchange Program see: https://www.facebook.com/UrontoArt