Between absence and presence

Between absence and presence

Car wreckage, left, and Seats, car wreckage and the bird, right. Artist Dhali Al Mamoon's public art in memory of film-maker Tareque Masud and journalist Mishuk Munier who died with three others in a car crash on August 13, 2011. Shorok Durghotona Sritisthapona, Dhaka University campus. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
AWARD-WINNING film-maker Tareque Masud, broadcast journalist Mishuk Munier and three others died in a car crash on August 13, 2011 when a Chuadanga-bound bus rammed into the film crew’s microbus on the Dhaka-Aricha highway in Manikganj. It was raining; the bus was travelling at a high speed. Their deaths were instantaneous.
Dhali Al Mamoon, his artist wife Dilara Begum Jolly, Tareque’s wife American-born film editor Catherine Masud, production assistant Saidul Islam, and writer Monis Rafik survived the accident. Mamoon’s injuries were the most severe.
Tareque Masud directed Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom, 1995), made from American film-maker Lear Levin’s archival footage of the Bangladesh liberation war; its countrywide screening incurred the displeasure of the then BNP-Jamaat government. Matir Moyna (The Clay Bird, 2002), initially refused a censor’s certificate by the authorities, was nominated for an Oscar for the best foreign language film award. It was also the first film to open the director’s fortnight screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and won a Fipresci prize. Tareque is survived by his mother, Catherine, their son Nishad Binghamputra Masud, four brothers and two sisters.
Mishuk Munier, son of martyred intellectual Munier Chowdhury, was also a cinematographer. As a journalist, he had worked for BBC World, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and the Real News Network in Canada. He returned to Bangladesh in 2010 and joined ATN News as its CEO. Mishuk is survived by his mother, wife Kazi Monjuly, their son Nayeem Sebastien Munier, and two brothers.
Both Tareque Masud and Mishuk Munier were to be witnesses before the International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka.
Other victims of the car crash were Md Motaleb Hossain Wasim and Jamal Mia, members of Tareque’s film production crew, and the microbus driver, Mostafizur Rahman.
Shahjahan Khan, president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation and an influential cabinet minister, who had recommended that 24,000 drivers be given licences without holding written tests, said at a press conference a mere five days after the Tareque-Mishuk accident, drivers only need to be able to differentiate between a cow and a goat, and to sign their names. At a rally of transport owners and workers held at Shaheed Minar soon after, he recommended the enactment of a law which would make it illegal to sue drivers for murder.
Official statistics put deaths from road accidents in Bangladesh at 4,000 per annum but figures cited by BUET’s Accident Research Centre, and the World Health Organisation are higher: 12,000, and 20,000 respectively. Bus driver Jamiruddin was released on bail three months later. The court case continues. During the recent Eid holidays (July 2015), 250 people were killed in road accidents.
Mamoon suffered a fractured jaw, displaced teeth, broken ribcage bones, two of which had punctured his lungs, and injuries to his head, shoulder, and collarbone. He underwent four surgeries, one in Dhaka, three in Bangkok, and a month-long course in therapy.
He learnt of Tareque and Mishuk’s death more than five weeks after the accident, several days before returning home from Bangkok. Dilara Begum Jolly, who had accompanied Mamoon to Bangkok says, “I broke the news, his eyes widened. He was speechless. He didn’t want to meet anyone in Dhaka, we changed flight plans and flew directly to Chittagong. He couldn’t even bear to talk to Catherine.”
Entering the microbus was awful. We found the bracelet of Tareque’s watch, clumps of Mishuk’s silver hair. But the worst was the dried blood on the seats. It has taken Mamoon three years, only now can he talk about Tareque and Mishuk.
“Contemporary public art is not simply an aspect of the landscape, it seeks to engage the community. Let’s begin the interview with this rope that surrounds the vehicle, why is it there”
Actually, the way, we (meaning Catherine, architect Salauddin and I) had planned it, we wanted to send a signal that this line should not be crossed. We didn’t want it to be a strong warning but a humble reminder. Public art is made for the common people; it is they, and its surroundings, that are important. Generally, monuments are placed on a high pedestal, viewers are expected to look up, they are meant to be awe-inspiring. We wanted to move away from this idea. We wanted the artwork to be people-friendly. Intimate. Sincere. We didn’t want it to be an imposition, we didn’t want people to feel alienated. We wanted to create a space, which would be of use to people. It was a collaborative project. Salauddin visited the place, he observed how students and passers-by used the space.
But after all this, I admit, legacies are hard to ignore. Some seep through. There’s nothing to be done.
What does this microbus, its right side mangled, represent? What made you think of using it in the first place? What thoughts were involved?
I think (long pause) it was Catherine who first asked me, “Do you want to do something with it”? I said, yes, let’s keep it. She then made arrangements for its preservation.
At first I thought, since the vehicle was subjected to violence, and since it also represents violence, why should people be forced to see so much violence directly? I wanted to transfer the violence to some other material. I wanted the work to have references to violence, but they should be subtle.
However, in our context it is not easy to transfer, in many cases, it proved to be impossible. I had to accept the situation, I then thought of using the vehicle itself. The cinematic language of my friends contained references to “docufiction.” A documentary means that it is full of facts, while fiction means unreal things. I thought of blending the two.
I then thought, this thing [microbus] is a readymade object. It witnessed an event, how can I add fiction? I took the position that the object must be isolated from its context. I added some things, re-created a couple of others.
What did you do?
I removed the seats. I looked at them as objects. The seats are part of the vocabulary of a happening, and simultaneously, they performed a function when they were inside the microbus. When they were brought outside, they became devoid of their functionality. The seats speak of their physical existence, and they are also witnesses. I attempted to blend the two.
After removing the seats, I made a, how to put it, let’s say, an installation inside the vehicle. That too was fact-based. It consisted of five pairs of hands rising from the floor of the microbus, you could mistake it for a dead man, or think it was someone sleeping. And yet again, it could pass off as a rib cage, the microbus? ribcage, that’s what the structure resembled.
From being a witness to the accident, the vehicle now gives birth to a story. The idea is to make the viewer wonder about the story behind it. And this is what I mean by creating fiction, that is why I have created these things. On the outside of the microbus which was intact, I added something dramatic, but you must remember here,” I speak of the vehicle as an object. I added five arms, they emerge from the outside wall of the microbus, and you see a bit of choreography here, the gestures of all the fingers are not the same. Taken together, they look animated, expressing disbelief and shock. What happened? Why?
This is how I worked, I blended multiple meanings.
Talk to us about the seats being cast in fibre glass, about being placed a bit higher than the vehicle
The fibre glass seats were moulded from the original seats, these can be regarded as re-constructions since they were transferred to fibre glass. Monuments and memorials the world over, those built in memory of a tragedy, are usually white. That is why the fibre glass seats too are white. While it is true that maintaining white colour in public spaces is nearly impossible in our country, I am happy that we didn’t compromise on this. We think its “whiteness” will give birth to a different kind of feeling, a different kind of language.
As for the chairs, they lost their functionality once they were raised. They became more like a monument. A collective monument, almost like a chorus.
And the birds?
Yes, I have used the birds as a reference. The clay bird was a powerful motif in Tareque’s film (Matir Moyna), and I have used it in two places, one on the roof of the car, and the other, on the seat on which Tareque was sitting. And thus, I have set the scene for the emergence of yet another story.
If looked at from a particular point, the two small birds, one on the vehicle, the other on a seat, seem close to each other. Is that deliberate?
Yes. An invisible line seems to connect the two, the birds are facing each other. They seem to be talking to each other. And as you can see, there are two majestic banyan trees, and then these two birds.
My two close friends, their absence. There is a movement between presence and absence [in the entire public art site].
And what about the motor parts, the ones half-buried in the ground at the far end?
The wrecked vehicle in its totality? blends together three words: memorial, monument and museum. In other words, the motor parts of the vehicle are objects which we generally don’t see, I thought to myself, these lifeless objects too can create a certain vocabulary. They have a hidden vocabulary, they too are the victims of the accident, and they are witnesses as well. They too, speak of an absence.
Road accidents in Bangladesh are not genocides as generally understood. Of course not. But in another sense, these silent killings [year after year] are the result of state negligence, and I think they are comparable to a genocide.
Talk to us about the whole journey of creating this memorial, in an aesthetic sense.
We wanted an aesthetic order to prevail in the site. Not a single tree was cut down. The ground wasn’t covered up either, we want the trees to be watered naturally, to receive rain water. The pebbles on the ground are black in colour, they too, are a part of the memorial. We have placed the vehicle at one part of the site, the seats at another, the motor parts are at the far end. If you view the site in its totality, you will see that an aesthetic order prevails.
Concrete benches have been placed at the edges for viewers and users. The benches are coffin-like. We hope people will sit and think, they will reflect. We don’t know what will actually happen, but this is how we imagined it.
How long did the project take, from the inception of the idea to the moment of completion?
Nearly three years. The passage of time was helpful. It is very different if one works on the heels of any incident; feelings and emotions change with the passage of time. One’s sensitivity deepens. Awareness changes. It is also possible to move away from the personal-ness in the relationship. It is possible to view things objectively.
Are you saying that emotions can be confusing, that they can cloud one’s imagination?
Emotions are subjective, often they can make the subject disappear. If my idea, my concept, is covered up by emotions then it is not possible for the subject to emerge. The little experience that I have as an artist has taught me this, that emotions and feelings can cause the death of the subject. Distance [caused by the passage of time] was most helpful in my case.
Tareque Masud was one of your closest friends, and you were in the car, umm talk to us about how being a survivor affected your art.
To tell the truth, it’s true that I told Catherine the vehicle should be preserved but I just didn’t have the courage to go and see it. I went and glanced at it one day, that too was very difficult. But gradually as time passed, I gained the courage to see the microbus. I became strong enough to enter it, to work in it.
Another thing which is truly difficult, is that I, we?, lost two of our closest friends, [but] I survived and then? to regard the vehicle as a work of art it was a long and painful struggle. I don’t know how much I have succeeded. In a way, this work has been a healing process, I have gained the courage to move ahead, and that is no mean achievement. That is why this piece of work means so much to me.
You mean it was therapeutic?
While working on the project, every single moment I remembered different incidents. To come out of the archive of memories, to look ahead towards what the future holds?. Dreams, reality and memories ? a blending of the three, I struggled, I argued, at times with reality, on other occasions, with the need to hold on to future hopes and aspirations.
Do you remember any particular day when work was especially painful?
Yes, many “My friendship with Tareque covered a huge expanse of my life, it was a creative relationship. We would share ideas, help each other.
I think him of every moment. Memories, fragments, they keep surfacing. I have lost my partner.”
The interview was conducted in October 2014 at the site of the memorial. The audio was transcribed by Hosna Ara Fatema Shikha and Rahnuma Ahmed, who also edited and translated the transcript into English. This interview is an excised version due to space considerations.

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.” His recent book “The Tide Will Turn” published by Steidl in 2020, is listed in New York Time’s ‘Best Art Books of 2020’. Alam received the “International Press Freedom Award” for 2020 from ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’.

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