There is an artistic and intellectual renaissance afoot amongst young Bengalis in New York City. I’m thinking now of Tanwi Nandini Islam, writer and multimedia artist whose novel, Bright Lines, is forthcoming on Viking. Of Naeem Mohaiemen, essayist, photographer, editor of anthologies, now pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University. Of Nadia Q. Ahmad, writer, musician, organizer and staff member at the Asian American Writers Workshop. Of Brooklyn Shanti, producer, singer, songwriter and rapper. And of Nabil Rahman, photographer and filmmaker—and his colleagues—who are working on the Eyes On Bangladesh exhibition.
Whether this dynamic group and their myriad of expressions, styles and perspectives trace a common lineage back to the Tagores, the Kazi Nazrul Islams, the Satyajit Rays, the Begum Sufia Kamals, is a secondary point. The arrival of such a chorus of voices, however disparate they might be, is welcome and timely. Recent figures from the Asian American Federation suggest immigrants from Bangladesh are the fastest-growing group of Asians in New York City. They also suggest that they often face exceptional poverty and low-income rates when here.
There are many reasons for the mass exodus from Bangladesh. Noam Chomsky has talked extensively about the centuries-long program by the British Empire, which turned Dhaka from a manufacturing center (that competed with London), to a shell of its former self. Subsequently, the place now known as Bangladesh, suffered the pain of two partitions; two mini-World Wars. And political and economic stability has yet to be obtained; opposition parties and the military swirl around each other with the intrigue and rhetoric of warring Mafia families—threats, disappearances, and assassinations are not uncommon.
Finally, for Bangladesh, the second largest manufacturer of garments (after China), and for the world, the April 24th, 2013 Savar building collapse was a 9-11 of sorts. The twin planes of Consumer Capitalism and Exploited Labor crashed into Rana Plaza; 1100 were killed. Many of us are still waiting for the War on (the Terror of) Globalization to begin.
I saw for myself what can happen when the brightest minds are forced out. In 2011, in Paris, when I encountered a group of college graduates from Dhaka in the Chateau Rouge marketplace, a typically African marketplace of fish and vegetables laid out on cloth and cardboard boxes. They were selling pirated DVDs. “We’re waiting for our amnesty decision,” they told me. One, the oldest, had travelled first to Delhi, then to Italy, before making his way to Paris. They had no clear path to England and America.
As I left, they too, packed up to leave, looking out for police. They had no papers, and did not speak French. I tried to give them 20 Euros, as a gesture of support. They uniformly declined. “After all, we work,” one said, smiling through his shiny, oily bangs.
In this moment, with so much in flux, and with the simplistic depictions of Bangladesh that are offered to us by the tightly-held news oligarchies, let us welcome the efforts and intervention of Eyes on Bangladesh. To collect and exhibit photography, art—and ultimately, ideas—about the country, people and landscape, as seen by artists connected to the places and spaces they are capturing, is a tonic, an affirmation, and a way forward. And for the young people here, cut adrift from the land of their origin, it is a way to see.
Rishi Nath (@rishibonneville) is a former AAWW Open City Creative Nonfiction Fellow. He is an Associate Professor at the City University of New York in Jamaica, Queens, and a 2013-2014 Visiting Scholar at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute, New York University.