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Over the past few weeks, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the national academy of fine and performing arts in Dhaka, has been playing host to a unique experiment. Photographer Pablo Bartholomew, along with the academy’s students of visual and fine arts, has been designing an exhibition inspired by the DNA sequences of Chakma weavers.

Long horizontal lines, drawn out with jhaadu ki teeli (reeds used in brooms), are interspersed with 24 photographs taken by Bartholomew of this indigenous hill tribe in Bangladesh and North-East India. Through this new body of work, Untitled, created especially for the nine-day Dhaka Art Summit (DAS, 2-10 February), he takes a closer look at this community, spread across geographies. He also investigates how its cultural DNA—embodied in weaves, oral traditions, body markings and adornments—becomes a mark of self-identity, thus creating an indelible bond that keeps the community together in the midst of constant displacement and migration.

A profile image of Pablo Bartholomew. Photo: Dhanushka Amarasekra
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A profile image of Pablo Bartholomew. Photo: Dhanushka Amarasekra

The work fits in with the overarching theme of DAS’ fourth edition, Bearing Points, which replaces the Solo Projects section of the summit with large-scale thematic presentations by artists and architects. One of the Bearing Points, There Was Once A Village Here, is a cross-border inquiry into cultures inhabiting “sensitive spaces", ones that challenge ideas of nations, states and territories. Bartholomew talks about the direction that this “work-in-progress" is likely to take in the future. Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

A lot of your recent work, ‘Nagas: Hidden Hill People Of India’ and ‘Affinities’, draws on personal associations and memories. How does the current work take this thread forward?

I have a family link of sorts with the Chakma community, from my mother’s side. The project, which has been commissioned and backed by the Samdani Art Foundation (the organizer of DAS), is about fractured geographies and the communities that inhabit these. They live across borders in Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar) and India. So far, I have been able to interact with the Chakma community in Bangladesh and India, and hope to visit Burma in the future. In some ways, the genesis of this work goes back to the visual anthropological project with the Naga tribes. That too had a personal story to it. While growing up, I had heard stories from my father of the kindness that the tribes had shown him, as he walked from Burma to India to escape persecution from the invading Japanese forces. Over a period of 10 years, starting 1989, I photographed the tribes, documenting the Naga fusion of tradition and modernity. While Nagas were the main group I photographed, I also took photos of ethnic groups in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur as well. That’s when I came across cultural markers, across indigenous communities, as forms of self-identity. It is triggers such as these that shape and inspire my practice.

Student volunteers working on ‘Untitled’ for the Dhaka Art Summit. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew
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Student volunteers working on ‘Untitled’ for the Dhaka Art Summit. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew

You have extended the scope of your practice by incorporating weaves…

The current body of work is just an experiment. The weaving is sort of a test to see if the Chakma artisans can depart from their traditional weaves to interpret DNA markers. Eventually, what will happen is that diagrams of the DNA, mapped by scientific research institutions, will be sent back to the tribes, to be woven. It will be a metaphoric way of saying how the tradition of craft is carried forth generationally through the DNA. Through these woven patterns, they will then look at their own shared genetic make-up that goes beyond modern-day boundaries and geopolitical borders.

How have the weavers responded to your idea?

I am working with a national award-winning master weaver and some village women, who have taken up the challenge. That’s the interesting part—how different weavers are approaching the concept to produce very different results.

You are bringing together science, legend, tradition and art. Could you talk about your collaborations with the scientists?

I have been in dialogue with several research institutes such as The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, and the Genome Foundation, Hyderabad. I will try and work with Dr Niraj Rai, who is an ancient DNA specialist. The mentor for the scientific aspect of the project was Dr Lalji Singh (also known as the father of Indian DNA fingerprinting), who passed away recently. It is because of such instances that the project has taken several twists and turns. Right now, what you see before you is proof of concept. I hope to realize it fully by the next Dhaka Art Summit in 2020.

We have seen fabulous images of the work being put together on Instagram. Could you talk about this unique exhibition design?

When I arrived in Dhaka, some weeks ago, I didn’t know what I would use as my base medium. After discussions with a fantastic team of volunteers of art and photography students, we zeroed in on the jhaadu ki teeli, that is used with water to sweep, as the base. One thing that I was very clear about was that I wanted to base the exhibition design on the DNA patterns. The lines and columns on the wall are suggestive of the wells of the gel, into which the broken-up DNA is injected, which then settles at different points. The framed photos have been placed at those points. The photos showcase the everyday objects and landscapes of the Chakma people. The work has been divided into three parts—with images of the Chakmas from Tripura on the left, those from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, on the right. At the very centre are images of four textiles by weavers from either side of the border, who have interpreted the DNA in their patterns.

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