Design Diary: Bangladeshi artist and Rohingya collaboration comes to Dubai

‘Elephant in the Room’ was born from a dialogue about displacement of humans and wildlife

Featuring the work of Bangladeshi artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin and Rohingya craft persons from Kutupalong Refugee Camp, ‘Elephant in the Room’ makes its international debut at Dubai Design District.

Presented by the Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation, in association with Art Dubai, the installation was born from a dialogue about human displacement and disenfranchisement and the resulting displacement of wildlife.

Established in 2018 by art patron and collector Durjoy Rahman and with a mission to promote art from South Asia and beyond in a critical, international art context, over the years, Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation has initiated various projects with occupants of the Rohingya camp in Bangladesh, under the umbrella platform ‘No Place Like Home’, to create public artworks with the aim of raising awareness around conservation and displacement of communities.
Art patron and collector Durjoy Rahman.
For ‘Elephant in the Room’, Shadhin created a participatory art project with occupants of the Kutupalong Refugee Camp, to highlight the negative impact on the environment and the displacement of elephants due to the sudden arrival of thousands of Rohingya communities in 2017.

Life-size elephants were constructed from bamboo and used clothing to promote a balanced human coexistence with nature and to raise awareness about elephant conservation within the community. In exchange for new clothes, torn clothes were collected from camp inhabitants, that were turned into patchwork quilts (Kantha), sewn by the craftswomen in the community, that were then used to cover the elephants. According to Shahdin: “This project is an attempt to weave art, community practices, migrant experiences, trauma, and hope in a ‘kantha’ which embodies the struggles of the stateless, be it human or animal, all over the world.”

The project was originally conceived at the refugee camp with the support from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It then travelled to Dhaka for the Asian Art Biennial in 2018, where the Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation team decided to promote the cause and acquire the sculptures. Before making their way to Dubai, the elephants were recently on display at the High Commission of Canada in Bangladesh, along with other elements from the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre and International Organization for Migration, following an exhibition at Dhaka’s US embassy.
Presented by the Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation, in association with Art Dubai, the installation was born from a dialogue about human displacement and disenfranchisement and the resulting displacement of wildlife.Image Credit: Supplied
Unveiling ‘Elephant in the Room’ at Dubai Design District (d3), Rahman spoke to Gulf News about art as a tool to communicate, connect and build bridges, especially at a time when issues of diversity and inclusiveness are at central to the global creative community.
How do you feel art can — and in particular this work — create a dialogue about the issues that society is grappling with?
There is so much information these days and I think most people concentrate on the headlines. Art and creativity can help keep the conversation on issues going strong. For example, when the Rohingya crisis first happened the images of the suffering of this community inundated us, but now three years on, the crisis is no longer in the headlines. Especially with the current pandemic, the world has almost forgotten this crisis and its impact on the fragile environment and Wildlife in the hill-tracts at the border of Bangladesh. This art work will hopefully again draw attention to a pressing issue which needs to be solved for man, the environment and these magnificent elephants are now endangered.
How do you feel the perception about art and artists from South Asia has evolved over the past five years and what do you think is behind their growing international appeal?
There is a growing awareness of the strong artistic and cultural heritage of South Asia within the international art community. This heightened curiosity and a ‘Look East’ policy has somehow influenced artists to produce more socially charged work and also highlight their practices to highlight post colonialism impressions.

During the past five years the artist have received greater exposure to international institutions — museums and galleries — as well as collectors. As a result, they are now keener on sharing their work on the global platform. And this makes the current moment a very interesting time in art where diverse ideas connect art and social issues on a scale that we have not seen before.
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The d3 installation of Elephant in the Room coincides with Art Dubai 2021, taking place March 29-April 3 at DIFC.