The fibrous souls 2018–21 currently in the Queensland Art Gallery Watermall is constructed with 70 giant shikas — embroidered, reticulated bags typically made of jute strings that are tied to a beam in the ceiling of houses and used to hold pots and food containers — Shikas are found in almost every house in rural Bangladesh and are traditionally made at home by families. Their designs, knotting and decoration varies between regions.
Kamruzzaman Shadhin and Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts expansive installation focuses on a part of Bengal’s complex and pervasive colonial history through personal stories of movement and displacement, the artwork articulates how a small part of the community came to settle in the surrounding villages.
Watch our installation time-lapse
Stories that inspired the artwork are drawn from families that had followed the railway tracks from what is now Bangladesh into India, after the British East India Company established the Eastern Bengal Railway. Operating under British Indian rule from 1892 to 1942, the railway served the profiteering trade interests of British India, fuelled by locally produced commodities such as jute, indigo and opium. The domination of these cash crops led to food scarcity, debt and land loss, forcing people — such as the ancestors of the Thakurgaon jute makers — to turn away from farming their own lands.
Families gradually left their homes to follow opportunities along the railway to Assam; however, during the 1947 Partition of India, they found themselves separated from their homes by a new national border, only to be forced back over from India into what had become East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). They settled along the Brahmaputra River in the regions by the new border dividing Bengal. As this vast river continually eroded, their plight turned from political to ecological migration, slowly moving westwards until they settled in Thakurgaon.
Over more than 20 years, Kamruzzaman Shadhin has developed new possibilities for contemporary art in Bangladesh, centred around the communities of his home village of Balia in the far north-western state of Thakurgaon. In 2001, he established Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts to work with local indigenous Santhal communities. The foundation seeks to be a catalyst for social inclusivity through collaborative approaches.1
Shadhin is also one of Bangladesh’s foremost contemporary artists, known for his installations and performances that address environmental and social issues, particularly those facing regional Bangladesh and its communities. Together with Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts, he produces ambitious contemporary art projects, driven by the principles of community development and exploring shared culture and histories.
Working with 13 women hailing from jute-making families to construct the shikas, along with a handful of other local craftspeople to create the pots and connecting jute ropes, Shadhin and Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts have constructed a giant hanging system of shikas, laid out as the map of the historic Eastern Bengal Railway that began this story.
The women created their own designs on the shikas, so each is unique and features various wrapping and knotting techniques and additional decoration. The shikas hold brass, jute and clay storage pots, which are suspended over water for APT10. The hanging pots each symbolise the stations of towns and cities on the railway map — from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Chittagong (now Chattogram) in the south, to Darjeeling and Guwahati in the north — signifying the defining role this piece of colonial infrastructure has played in shaping their lives. In Shadhin’s words, the installation is
an attempt to interweave these historical and cultural strands that seem apparently and innocently disconnected, and connect these to the present-day peasant conditions in Assam and Bengal.2
The project draws together members of communities to explore their own stories and cultural practices — and is a product of the unique practice Shadhin and Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts have developed. Imbued with local and social values, it is a practice that advocates and finds in regional communities new pathways for contemporary art that are not reliant on art centres or global arts discourse, revealing new possibilities for art production to audiences far from where they emerge.
Tarun Nagesh is Curatorial Manager, Asian and Pacific Art, QAGOMA
This is an edited extract from the QAGOMA publication The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art available in-store and online from the QAGOMA Store.
1 Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts continues to be run by Kamruzzaman and Salma Jamal Moushum to develop pathways
for cultural and artistic exchange, including artist residencies, art workshops and children’s puppet theatre, and to support crafts industries and cultural festivals.
2 Kamruzzaman Shadhin, ‘Fibrous souls’, artist’s website, 2020,<https://kamruzzamanshadhin.com/fibrous-souls-2020/>,
viewed June 2021.
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