“It was a long journey by bus and when we reached the destination, it was dark all around. She came with a torch with two other young men after a while to show us the way to a small house located next to a huge pond which is going to be our residence for the next two weeks. We are here to trace the history of an unknown palace of Naogaon District. I had goose bumps in that winter evening, not because of the mist all around but owing to the thrill that was in store for us.” This is how one of the participants from the residency program shared the experience of going to a remote area with a view to exploring a 200-year-old palace (Rajbari).
URONTO Artist Community has been doing the job of conserving age-old heritage for a long time. They reconnect with the lost memories of forgotten places through inter-disciplinary contemporary artistic interventions. They create opportunities to share the joy of connecting to cultural histories through empowering current generations with knowledge. The ‘URONTO Residential Art Exchange Program’ is one of the major yearly initiatives they have been organizing since 2012.For many people heritage conservation is a western approach that is limited to collecting and showcasing age-old materials in a museum. But this residency program is a unique idea for heritage conservation that came from a very young girl. While asked about the journey Sadya Mizan, the founder and director of URONTO Artists Community, said, “I visited my grandparents’ residence located in the Baul capital Kushtia for the first time when I was a student. Standing inside the house I visualized everything that I have heard during my childhood. All of a sudden I realized how art can be a strong tool for alternative conservation.” Her desire to do something noble brought in URONTO, an art exchange program that collaborates with researchers, activists, painters, sculptors, installation artists, visual artists, performance artists, photographers, musicians, sound artists, craftsmen, textile designers, writers and historians or simply anyone who connects to old architectures and can showcase their time spent there in a creative way. URONTO’s activities not only provide much-needed opportunities for Bangladeshi artists to expand their arena and collaborate with international artists, but through each residency program they create a body of alternative documentation about the history of the selected sites.
The 8th and 9th episode of the residency program was held recently at Dubolhati Rajbari located in Naogaon. This year the episodes were co-curated by Sadya Mizan and Giovanni Morassutti (Germany). Around 30 multidisciplinary artists came from 10 different countries to explore this little-known zaminder bari. The artists had their own medium to form ideas about the buildings by working on the history, differences between past and present state and other aesthetical views.
Elodie Guignard (France), a participant, shared, “I walked around the place, explored the palace and the village, experimented, found out new paths of work, and tried to tell stories. In collaboration with the women and children of the village, I (re)created stories of women through my photographs. My works were titled as ‘The Crown’ and ‘Remanences’. In the first project, I photographed the local women and girls in the palace as they are the queens of the palace. In the second one, I photographed women from behind, so you can't see their faces. Then I placed these women in the ruins. I have played with layers to depict presence and absence of those women in the palace.”
Another participating artist said, “What I find about art residencies is that it grows because of you --- not when you are attending one but when you leave one. It is almost like reading a book. You experience something very special in time and space, but those very experiences take up a new cycle almost like a seed with a new identity ready to be transformed.”
Many more experiences and stories were created during the recently-concluded editions. A unique digital exhibition will be arranged in Dhaka to share some of these fascinating stories with a wider audience.
(The writer is an independent researcher and activist.)