'Elephant in the Room': Artist's project with Rohingya crafts people travels to Dubai

The installation by Bangladeshi artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin is on view at Dubai Design District

For 'Elephant in the Room', Bangladeshi artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin created a participatory art project with occupants of the Kutupalong Refugee camp, to highlight the negative impact on the environment and the displacement of elephants due to the sudden arrival of thousands of Rohingya communities in 2017. Courtesy the artist 
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Crafted from used clothing and bamboo, the colourful life-size elephants of Bangladeshi artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin's latest project tell the story of loss that is twofold.

In 2017, more than half a million Rohingya people made their way to Bangladesh after fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Not only did this create a refugee crisis that continues to this day, with communities still languishing in camps, but the sudden influx of people has also disrupted wildlife and the environment.

With authorities having little time to plan, the Kutupalong Refugee Camp ended up being settled right on top of a number of elephant migration corridors, pathways that the animals use to move from Bangladesh to Myanmar throughout the year.

Over the years, elephants killed a number of refugees as the animals stumbled into camps in attempts to cross the forests, while other groups are trapped within pockets, unable to find a migration path.

The link between these two tragic displacements is what Shadhin highlights in his participatory art project Elephant in the Room, which began in Bangladesh in 2018 and has now travelled to Dubai.

Working with people living in the Kutupalong Refugee Camp, the artist gathered torn clothes from the community, handing over new clothes to individuals in return. Refugee craftswomen then sewed the old clothes into patchwork quilts using kantha, a form of embroidery from South Asia, transforming them into the elephants’ hides.

“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,” Shadhin said in a statement.

In his practice, the artist focuses on migration and its many layers, producing collaborative works that express the impact of forced or illegal movements on communities.

'Haven Is Elsewhere' by Kamruzzaman Shadhin. Courtesy the artist and Concrete
'Haven Is Elsewhere' by Kamruzzaman Shadhin. Courtesy the artist and Concrete

The sculptures of Elephant in the Room materially resemble one of the artist's other projects titled Haven is Elsewhere, an installation made of clothing abandoned by refugees at Bangladesh's southern border. It was shown in Dhaka Art Summit's show Dubai in March 2019.

The issues addressed in Elephant in the Room continue. Since 2018, the International Union for Conversation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been working with the Rohingya in forming response teams to ensure the safety of camp inhabitants as well as the animals.

Watchtowers, manned by refugees, have also been erected along the corridors to spot elephant herds and divert them away from the camps by noises.

However, migration for the elephants is still crucial, as the animals face food shortages within the patches of forest where a number remain stranded.

Long-term solutions would involve establishing functional migration corridors for elephants by clearing areas of the camp, which has continued to grow as its inhabitants expand further into the forest for space and firewood.

'Elephant in the Room' is on view at Dubai Design District until April 12