Art and the Rohingya of KathmanduI first came across the work of Sujan Dangol during the Kathmandu Triennale held earlier this year, which ostensibly looked like a recording of a game of musical chairs played by a group of young men. The label tersely said that it was ‘a collaboration between the artist and a group of urban refugees living in the Kathmandu Valley’, and that it was a metaphor for their harsh reality.
I first came across the work of Sujan Dangol during the Kathmandu Triennale held earlier this year, which ostensibly looked like a recording of a game of musical chairs played by a group of young men. The label tersely said that it was ‘a collaboration between the artist and a group of urban refugees living in the Kathmandu Valley’, and that it was a metaphor for their harsh reality. Quietly tucked away in the second floor of the Nepal Art Council, the work came across as intriguing but not particularly compelling.
Last week, when I stepped into Yala Mandala, Patan, I was intrigued again by a set of 15 unlabelled, pen and ink drawings. The exhibition, called Displaced, had no explanatory texts except for an artist’s statement by Sujan Dangol that spoke of the plight of refugees worldwide. But at the very bottom of the printed sheet, ready to be missed by any cursory reader, were the words: ‘Proceeds will benefit a long term project between the artist, associated partners and the Rohingya refugees of Kathmandu Valley.’ I was startled to say the least because during the past few weeks we have been riding a wave of global media blitz dissecting the persecution of the Rohingya community in Myanmar and their large scale, enforced exodus. Even I had done my bit I thought, by signing the many petitions against perpetrators doing the social media rounds. But right here was an artist, who had not only been collaborating with and trying to materially help the refuge seekers but was moreover doing his best to stay away from the media glare. I later learned that the pieces on show (approximately 11 x 7 inches each) were part of a larger body of work that had been created to celebrate the World Refugee Day 2017 in association with UNHCR, and that nearly 80 percent of it had already been collected by supporters who wished to help the artist and his team build a community housing for Rohingya. Because, as Nischal Oli later explained, ‘there are about 200 Rohingya in Kathmandu. Most of them live at the foothills of Kapan. Their current sheds are built with tin sheets and bamboo with walls made with recycled fabrics. During the monsoon their camp floods terribly, as it rests on an incline. Just this monsoon several of the tin sheds were affected by the heavy rain, with a few completely collapsing.’
The drawings were quietly captivating, almost looking like exquisite illustrations for a novel or a book of stories—in this case the stories of a people, who had been ‘forcibly removed from their home, their land, their community because they did not fit’ into the ideological narrative of their nation and for whom the future held little hope at the moment. But they were also images of moments stolen from the lives of a people trying to lead fruitful, ordinary lives in sync with the culture of a foreign land. Incidentally, while some of the Rohingya had arrived as early as 2012, most others during the crisis of 2015 and they did their best to help in Nepal’s earthquake relief efforts. Most of them now speak fluent Nepali, especially the children, and they all try and contribute to society here whenever an opportunity arises.
Drawing numbered 14 bore the image of a male body drawn in the series’ characteristic basket or cross hatch technique that was visually reinforced by a bunch of wooden sticks strewn across the body in a similar pattern against a background of stylised, ‘thangka’ clouds. The image obviously was that of a cremation pyre, and connected the refuge seekers with the hosts through the irrevocable truth of death and the cycle of life across cultures, apart from touching upon the genocide that they had survived. Images of the devastation wrought by the 2015 earthquakes recurred, drawing parallels between the man-made Rohingya crises and natural disasters. People, silhouetted in black, were often seen ‘against cultural backgrounds. Many simply depict observations by the artist of the refugee community or memories they shared with him. They silhouette are also indicative of the marginalisation they face when people arrive in foreign countries without any support.’ Dangol obviously was keen on exploring the community through the double lenses of displacement from their homelands while assimilating the culture of their current habitat. But instead of being in your face observations about an alien ‘other’, the images were imbued with a quiet respect for the individuals and their way of life. They evade the voyeuristic totally, and had turned into dignified documentations instead.
But who ‘are’ the Rohingya? At the northwestern border of Myanmar lies the Rakhine or former Arakan province with a common border with Bangladesh (nearly 50 miles of which is taken up by the Naf river, which people regularly now navigate to flee) and a huge coastline on the Bay of Bengal, which is inhabited by two major ethnic races, the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhines or Maghs. Though the name ‘Rohingya’ is recent, as a people their roots can be traced back to eight century Arab settlers and include Pathans and Mughals down to, lastly, the immigrants sent across from pre-Independent India by the British after the Anglo-Burmese wars in the 19th century. It was this last wave that, thanks mostly to British manipulation, caused tension between the Theravada Buddhist Rakhines and the Arakanese Muslims to firmly take root. Even after Burma won Independence from the British in 1948 and turned democratic, their differences stayed alive and finally, when the country passed into military dictatorship under General Ne Win (1962) the Rohingya Muslims were begun to be treated as recently arrived, illegal immigrants. The Ne Win regime stripped them of their nationality and citizenship by enacting the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act. Later enactments labeled them as out and out foreigners with imposed restrictions on their movements within the country, obliterating their millennium-long history in the area. Starting with 1978’s Operation Dragon King, successive waves of Rohingya fled their homeland persecuted as they were by the majority Buddhist-Burmese led military. That trend of persecution continues even today through riots, mass murders and evictions, though Myanmar became a quasi-democratic state in 2012, and a fully democratic one in 2016. The violence came to a head in 2015, when thousands again fled Myanmar and finally, in August this year the numbers swelled to hundreds of thousands with the military obviously materialising the blueprint for a genocidal extermination of the Muslims in Rakhine. And so one wonders whether it is by a quirk of fate that a handful of Rohingya have now found a home in the Kapan area in Kathmandu, known for its famous Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
But given all that, let’s go back to Sujan Dangol’s Displaced. Speaking on behalf of the artist, Oli reiterated that ‘for most people, the Rohingya have become synonymous with a narrative of ethnic cleansing, persecution and violence. While this context is relevant to their arrival to Kathmandu, for us it did not necessarily encompass our reasons for proposing a collaboration. Sujan has never worked towards commercial works. One of the premises to the collaboration with Rohingya has been to challenge the way Nepali artists address socio-political issues in their work. There seems to be a disconnect between their commitment to looking at social reality and the art market, where their reflections are shared and sold. Often issues are symbolised in the objects produced and sold with no benefits to the community that was the source of the content. We definitely did not want to fall into this trap. The drawings here have been a means to help instigate our efforts for a larger project…we are neither journalists/activist trying to bring attention to the issue. What we are clear about is that as artists and art professionals we can continuously redefine our roles to fit the gaps that exist. Right now, the Rohingya could use support for their transition,’ into a more stable and better life. A crowd funding effort is being initiated soon to help the cause. We can only hope that this team’s efforts succeed for it will go a long way towards exonerating the general artist community of the many selfish drives that label them, while opening up new horizons for the relevance of artmaking today.