Art against the Rohingya genocide

Hasan Ferdous, reviews from New York
Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018


 

Pablo Picasso had once said that the job of art is not just to enhance the elegance of a room, but it is rather a weapon, which we take to war. He had uttered those words right after completing his artwork “Guernica”, which was his artistic protest against the carnage laid out by General Franco’s army in the small provincial town of the same name. Confined in his Paris studio back then, a German soldier had asked whose work was this, with Picasso merely replying “yours”.

 

Dhaka-based Cosmos Books’ newest publication “Art Against Genocide” echoed Picasso’s response inside of me in a similar manner. The forceful displacement of over a million Rohingyas from the Myanmar state of Rakhine, escaping barely with their lives at stake – have all been depicted through an artist’s brush and through the lens of a camera. Shahabuddin’s “Rohingya”, which has graced the book’s cover, is a commentary of the latest genocide of the 21st century. The melancholy and depravation which is not possible to convey even in a thousand words, have amazingly been created through an artist’s brush strokes.

 

If you look at the artwork carefully, you will be able to see women, men and children – all destitute – sprinting madly away from the fiery spires which have ravaged their villages and homes. Some are holding their newborn babies, some clinging on to their valuables – whatever they could muster – making a run away from the destruction, heading anywhere away from the nightmare. A boat in front of them is their destination for the time-being, hoping that it will lead them to refuge on the other side of the border.

 

Another artwork of Shahabuddin’s is included in the book, which also features the boat as a symbol. But it is not specifically a boat, but rather the mast of a boat. The mast is very distinct from everything else – the stormy waves of the sea, the boat’s deck or its bow, nothing but only the mast. Tarred in texture, the mast exudes fear, that of a demon. But that mast also conveys hope, that the steely object will steer them all to their desired destination.

 

Or you can once look at a photograph taken by Salahuddin Ahmed, where two brothers are carrying their elderly parents who are seated on a basket made of mangrove palm leaves. The photographs he took of the Rohingyas depict their weary, anxious and fearful expressions, all extending their hands forward to whoever falls in front of them, hoping that someone will give them a fistful of rice or a bottle of water. The same people once had their own homes, workplaces, schools and playground for their children. Now they have nothing but anticipation.

 

The photos convey both sadness and protest at the same time. On one hand, we look at them, hurt that humanity has been violated with its face insulted. On the other hand, a fire grows inside us, giving birth to hatred against the military junta responsible for this ethnic cleansing. What was the crime of these people? Victimised because they were different from them in terms of religion and ethnicity? How many times have we had to see this scenario in the last 100 years? Six million Jews were killed during World War II, three million Bangalees during 1971, and almost a million Tutsis in Rwanda during the 1990s and now we have to see this in the first leg of the 21st century.

 

Although rich in artworks and photographs, “Art Against Genocide” is an analytical text about the latest genocide of the 21st century. There are several essays, both domestically and internationally, where it is almost unanimous that the crimes against the Rohingyas can clearly be defined as “textbook ethnic cleansing”. In an informative essay by Prof. CR Abrar, the political scenario stemming from this crisis is demonstrated, at the same time logically elaborating why this is genocide. This genocide cannot fully be blamed on the Myanmar military, but also on their government, on their political leadership and also upon the people. Even the much-lauded human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi cannot escape responsibility from this.

 

The international community cannot avert blame as well. The bullets which pierced through the chests of innocent Rohingyas, the matchsticks used to torch their homes – have all been imported from countries who claim to be superpowers, which have the power to exercise veto at the United Nations Security Council. Although shots were fired by the Myanmar army, the guns were placed on those countries’ shoulders. No matter how they claim innocence or impunity from all these through diplomatic lingo, the leaders of those superpowers cannot wash their hands from the blood of the Rohingyas – it is also on them. They will have to bear the curse of each and every Rohingya as well.

 

We consider the United Nations to be the representative of the international community. It was the responsibility of their Security Council to protect the innocent Rohingyas. The five most powerful countries assigned to do this have failed to protect the innocent yet again, something which we had seen in 1971, later in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s. In fact, the agency is held hostage by those 5 nations, who had tried to use diplomacy to uphold their vested interest. Before India joined the war in December 3, the council had not once been able to sit for a meeting or take any decisions regarding the War of Liberation. The same is being repeated on the Rohingya issue – no shortage of effective statements. They have even managed to come to Cox’s Bazar to express solidarity with the Rohingyas, a diplomat has even gone on record saying that the displaced children’s cries still echo in his ears. But the initiative to solve the problem and accept a substantial proposal regarding the matter, remain missing.

 

Expressing his frustration at the failure of the Security Council in 1971, former UN Secretary General U Thant had said that the incident had tarnished the reputation of the agency. Perhaps he would have uttered the same words had he remained alive today.

 

“Art Against Genocide” in this regard is a slap on the face of those collective superpowers. The artists have clearly pointed out that they will not silently accept this genocide. Chairman of Cosmos Foundation Enayetullah Khan has rightly written that art is an intense protest against the most barbaric and repulsive acts of genocide, and this publication is proof of that adage.

 

(This is translated from original Bangla write-up first published in the Prothom Alo)

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