‘Save me or it will be the end for both of us’ made from wood joined together by hinges by Syeda Yumna Fatima. (Right) ‘Think in your heart first, think’, a comic book on statelessness by Kremena Dimitrova and Humera Iqbal.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
‘Save me or it will be the end for both of us’ made from wood joined together by hinges by Syeda Yumna Fatima. (Right) ‘Think in your heart first, think’, a comic book on statelessness by Kremena Dimitrova and Humera Iqbal.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: The exhibition ‘Kaghazi Kashtiyan (paper boats): The Pakistani Bengali Story’, which opened at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture on Thursday, is based on the study titled: ‘Partition of Identity: An Exploration of Belonging in Pakistani Bengalis, 1971-present’ led by Dr Humera Iqbal, Dr Anushay Malik and Dr Maria Rashid.

Dr Huma Iqbal is an associate professor of Social Psychology at the University College London (UCL), UK; Dr Anushay Malik is an assistant professor of History at the Lahore University of Management Sciences; and Dr Maria Rashid is a research fellow of Politics at the UCL. Their works look at the three million Bengalis in Pakistan, most of whom work in the fishing and garment industry but there are also some lawyers and doctors as well as business professionals here.

In 1947, when Pakistan came into being, it comprised two regions: West and East Pakistan. Then in 1971, East Pakistan parted ways to become Bangladesh. Still, many people originally belonging to that part of the region are living and working in Pakistan. Some stayed behind while others returned here in search of livelihood. But Pakistan doesn’t recognise them as its citizens. They are looked at as outsiders. Even their children born here in Karachi are stateless. The study ‘Partition of Identity’ follows their lives. Stories and experiences that have earlier not been given much attention have found representation through art.

Jalpari by 11-year-old Abdul Rehman, a self-taught artist from Machhar Colony, is an 8“ x 6“ enamel on a slate piece of art of a mermaid. Rehman, is a student of the Imkaan Welfare Organisation’s learning and recreational centre, Khel. The half-human and half-fish figure or mermaid makes one think about the connection between human beings and the sea.

The artwork became the inspiration for a collection of tales Monsters Behind Vines by Areeba Aslam, an illustrator and designer, who also happens to be an IVS graduate and whose interest lies in visual storytelling and children’s literature. Some pages of her book also became a part of the exhibition. One art piece has a mermaid couple under the water and two little kids, one of whom is supposed to be Rehman, spotting them from their little sailboat.

‘Captured Displacement’ is another piece of art on parts of recycled plywood by Axel Lucas, a multidisciplinary visual artist from Karachi. Using a laser engraving machine, Lucas cut out five shapes from a 6ftx8ft plywood piece. “Each piece represents a Bengali Colony in Karachi — Machhar Colony, Ibrahim Hyderi, Musa Colony, Bilal Colony and Ziaul Haq Colony,” Lucas told Dawn.

He said that it took him about a month to complete after he attended workshops regarding the ‘Partition of Identity’ study findings. Clips of the workshops with the artists were also being shared at the exhibition.

Syeda Yumna Fatima’s collection of three pieces — ‘Seascape’, ‘Broken but in dreams I believe’ and ‘Save me or it will be the end of both of us’ — made from wood cut into pieces and joined together like a jigsaw puzzle but with hinges to keep it together, offered a social commentary on different aspects of life experienced by Pakistani Bengalis living in Machhar Colony.

Adan Shaikh’s three-minute digital animation ‘The Others’ depicted the impact of having one’s identity taken away as it explored issues of citizenship and statelessness such as accessing education and employment faced by members of the Pakistani Bengali community living in Karachi.

‘Think in your heart first, think’ presented a preview of a 15-page comic book on statelessness by Dr Humera Iqbal and illustrator and historian Kremena Dimitrova, to be launched later this year.

Other than these, the exhibition also includes a photo series on boat building by filmmaker Abdullah Khan along with a five-minute film of the Pakistani Bengali musician Abdul Haleem performing ‘Aamai Bhashali Re’ that highlights the issues of language also made by him and fellow filmmaker Nabiha Rehan.

“We brought our research to the artists, for them to understand and recognise the Pakistani Bengali community and they imagined the rest,” Dr Humera Iqbal, the principal investigator of the ‘Partition of Identity’ research study, told Dawn.

About her research, she said that they carried out some 85 interviews with the Pakistani Bengali community here, across social and class barriers, including workers in the garment and fishing industry and the elite who were facing issues and stigmas. “There is a need to understand and recognise this community,” she said.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2023

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