Making Space:Sensing Place

In October 2009, along with artist Thurle Wright, I was awarded a Making Space:Sensing Place Fellowship; part of the HAT: Here and There International Exchange Programme, managed by A Fine Line:Cultural Practice. The Fellowship includes residencies with Britto Arts in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with Arts Reverie in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with The V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, London and with The Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire. Working and collaborating with artists and craftspeople from the UK, Bangladesh and India, responding to the collections and spaces we encounter and sharing these experiences through a touring exhibition and educational workshops.

This blog, which is still developing and being added to, is a record of my experiences during the MS:SP Fellowship. Steven Follen.

Monday, 8 February 2010

A trip to rickshaw painter Tapans house

We made our way through Old Dhaka and down to the river. Tapan Das, a rickshaw painter who will be one of the two Bangladesh artists in the project, lived on the other side of the 'Buriganga'.
Thurle and I had seen the river bank from a distance a few days before, so was not too surprised by the waste and pollution everywhere - getting closer to the waters edge was more of a concern and with it came the realisation that if the boat capsized then a life belt probably would be much use for your health anyway! Raw sewage from Dhaka, chemical waste from the cities tanneries and from the fabric mills and dying factories up stream all add to the toxicity of the water. Children played with an inflated condom as a balloon amongst the rubbish on the riverbank, similar waste floated around the stones at the waters edge as we stepped into the boat. I was struck again by the thought that the water was as black as the boats that crossed it.
We tentitively climbed aboard our 'ferry', quickly sat down, crossed our legs, fingers and everything else and then sat very still. The symbolism didnt hit at first, even though I was plagued by a Chris De Burgh chorus which continued for the rest of the day.
Upstream people were washing themselves and their clothes by the waters edge. On the other side of the river we would pass a bloated, dead dog, floating between the giant ships being dismantled and repaired, the smell made me wretch.
The river is a major part of Bangladesh culture, the Buriganga (Old Ghanges) which flows through Dhaka, has its origins both in the Himilayas as well as being part of the same water system which flows as the Sacred Ganga across much of northern India, through cities such as Patna and Varanassi. The East India Company put this transport route to effective use, transporting goods and raw materials across India to and from the ports around the Bay of Bengal. The river remains a major transport system for modern Bangladesh. Boats move up and down the river shifting soil, sand, produce and materials up and down the river. They pass by so full it is difficult to believe they can remain afloat.
Bangladesh has suffered major floods over the years, most of the land mass is effectively a low lying flood plain for these rivers. Their extensive water catchment area, the melting snow and ice on the Himilayas, and cyclones coming in off the Bay of Bengal regularly combine to meet in Bangladesh during the monsoon, helping deposit mineral rich alluvial soil and clays across the land. Much of the country is no more than 5m above sea level and there is concern that, due to global warming, rising sea levels will lead to a significant loss of land in the coming years. Bangladesh took this issue to Copenhagen in 2010, trying to raise awareness of the issue of climate change refugees.
The river area near Old Dhaka is also the main passenger port, from here you can catch boats to other parts of Bangladesh including the Sunderbans and Chittagong. The large passenger boats have a growing reputation for capsizing and/or sinking due to overcrowding and overloading. Official advice is to stay well clear. Tourist guides suggest a trip on the river is the only way to see the real Dhaka. mmm.....wonder what is meant by 'real'. My interest in the forms of boats and the symbolic importance of the river to Bangladesh meant I had planned to spend time travelling up the waterways, The combined experience at the boat museum and here had changed my mind. The symbolic flooding of the land, the cleansing effect of the monsoon and the replenishing of the fertile alluvial soil was hard to connect with from where I was sitting.
We past by ships where men, sitting on wooden planks suspended on ropes, rhytmically hammered in unison at giant steel hulls. Literally taking apart or building a ship by hand.

We passed across the river and made our way to Tapans House. Along the way we passed a large skeleton of a boat which was hidden behind bamboo screens and crossed a bamboo bridge which passed over more black tributaries of the main river and led to a pathway which made its way through swathes of plastic bags and more rubbish.

Tapans village.
We walked to the village where Tapan lived, the area was a hum of painting activity, everywhere neighbours painted sheets of brightly coloured vinyl with beautifully fluid designs. The painters painted the panels with a fluidity and ease that was a delight to see, these were destined for the rickshaw shops to be made into seat covers and panels.
In Tapans family house both his father and brothers painted, their sleeping spaces becoming their studio space with all the bedding stored on shelves high up on the walls.
Whilst the men painted, the women prepared and cooked food outside on the earth fire built into the ground.
I liked the stool made from plastic packing straps and bamboo.
After our visit we made our way back to and across the river, spreading ourselves out across a few extra boats this time.