Transitions: New Photography from Bangladesh, a collaboration between the Bangladeshi American Creative Collective and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, offers a dark view of the forces of industrial production and globalization at work in contemporary Bangladesh. The exhibition, which includes images by nine artists living and working in the country, is not organized around a particular thesis. Instead, it features a series of themes — each photographer’s take on the contemporary moment.
Some of the images in Transitions fall under the (broad) stylistic umbrella of documentary photography. Taslima Akhter’s series Death of a Thousand Dreams chronicles the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, a complex of garment factories that produced clothing for first-world markets. The prints capture the dust settling and the human toll rising. A man embraces a woman beneath the rubble; both are dead, the bright colors of their clothing muted by the debris that buries them. In another image, a family of three stands in group embrace among cold bodies beneath white sheets. Life is similarly cheap in Saikat Mojumder’s 2009 series Life: Born in a Slum. Here birth occurs without sterilization, comfort, or convenience. In one photograph, a pregnant woman lies on a bed. In another, young children surround two small plates of rice. In a third, a baby has just been born, its umbilical cord still uncut. The juxtaposition created by these nine images shows the harshness of being born into poverty; they suggest that a poor life is a fragile one.
The natural world also suffers under the yoke of rapid industrialization. The wall text for Tapash Paul’s 2015 series a pause to breathe… describes a zoo in Dhaka: “It is located in a tranquil landscape. … Its cages are small, dirty, and poorly maintained; conditions are inhospitable, the food supply is inadequate, and zoo-goers often throw junk food into the trash-strewn pens.” But the text continues, stating that although the zoo is essentially deficient, three million people visit every year, perhaps because city residents want to escape the overwhelming urban environment of their daily lives. Paul’s photos, however, maintain no illusions about the reality of the place: a severed rabbit head lies in the dirt, a tiger prostrates listlessly behind a concrete wall, alligators swim in a pond covered in algae. This is no pastoral paradise.
Not all the photography in Transitions adheres to a photojournalistic framework. Debashish Chakrabarty’s 2014 Stardust is a series of snapshots of light. Some of the light appears to be emanating from recognizable shapes — are those headphones? a toilet? — but its luminosity so totally eclipses each background that the images are endowed with an uncanny, otherworldly effect. Arfun Ahmed’s 2014 photograph “Olympia Burkha” bitingly inverts the Manet original. A woman in a hijab and limb-covering dress lies on a couch; her stare meets the viewer as directly as that of Manet’s subject. Behind her, instead of the black servant in the painting, stands a white maid, also wearing a hijab. Chakrabarty’s image playfully upends the racial, class, and gender assumptions of Manet’s work.
The most salient takeaway from Transitions is a political one: the injustice of developing economies producing goods for the developed world. While some in Bangladesh are lifted out of poverty by the process of globalization, the pollution and low working standards brought on by the increasing demand for cheap goods demonstrate how heavily the developing world bears the cost of environmental degradation. Transitions, while not an explicitly political exhibition, surely takes a position on the issue of climate change compensation: developed countries that pollute should, at absolute minimum, pay to mitigate their effects.
Transitions: New Photography from Bangladesh continues at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (1040 Grand Concourse, the Bronx) through February 14.