The Elephant in the Room

What happens when people uprooted from their land involuntarily uproot other animal’s lives? Is displacement of humans different from displacement of animals? Do elephant lives matter to a human whose life is at stake? Behind the scene, players are pulling their strings for the grand show that will shape the future. A crude future which has no place for ‘others’, where ‘humanity’ is a word deemed unnecessary.

More than 700 thousand Rohingya people have taken refuge in Bangladesh since August 2017, fleeing the violence which began in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Fleeing to save their lives, they settled in temporary refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Thousands of acres of forest land were transformed into red, barren earth within a few months to make way for numerous makeshift shelters which became home to hundreds of thousands of people. The largest site, Kutupalong-Balukhali, which shelters more than 600,000 people – the biggest settlement in the world – lies along one of the main migratory routes of critically endangered Asian elephants, who travel between Myanmar and Bangladesh. This area has seen many incidents involving human-elephant conflict, resulting in 13 deaths since last September 2017.

This is a collaboration with people living in the camp through a participatory process. For several months, I tried to develop a bonding, a connection through making the elephants together and developing a unique friendship in the process. We have built life-size elephants with bamboo and used-clothes to promote co-existence with nature and to raise awareness about elephant conservation among the community. As part of the process, in exchange of new clothes, I collected torn clothes from the people living in the camps that were turned into patchwork quilts (Kantha) sewn by the community women that were then used to cover the elephants.

This project is an attempt to weave art, community practices, migrant experiences, trauma, and hope in a “kantha” which embodies the struggles of the stateless, be it human or animal, all over the world.

The craftsmen/craftswomen from the camp who collaborated in this project are: Abdul Latif, Sadek Khan, Mohammad Ibrahim, Tunda Miya, Mohammad Elias, Abul Kalam, Bashir Ahmed, Mohsena Begum, Jaheda Begum, Hamida Khatun and others who spontaneously joined in.

Apart from the Kutupalong camp, the elephants were re-presented in the 18th Asian Art Biennale, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka.

The collaboration could not have been possible without the support of UNHCR and IUCN.

Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee Camp, Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar.
18th Asian Art Biennale, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy