Globalization: A Bipolar Story
MIT Student Art Association and Bangladeshi Photographers
Wiesner Art Gallery
Through Nov. 30
Seven students sit typing on their laptops outside the Teachers and Students Center at Dhaka University. As with their Western counterparts, too much of their time is spent in idle Facebook gossip. But the context of the picture, “Global Gossip,” by photographer Md. Huzzatul Mursalin, differs strikingly from Western expectations. The background setting is worn and depressing, conflicting with the display of modernity in the foreground. And, despite the dirt, the typists have taken their shoes off, Bangladesh-style.
The students sit alone, locked in their personal Facebook worlds: A part of the global phenomenon is that “global gossip” has augmented and at times replaced local gossip when the laptop screen rules over direct human contact — and as the picture shows, it is a strangely lonely activity.
MIT student Raqeebul I. Ketan ’11 has put tremendous effort into organizing an international photography exhibition on the theme of “Globalization: A Bipolar Story.” The show has already been seen in Dhaka, and is now running at the Wiesner Art Gallery in the MIT Student Center through Nov. 30. The pictures are about the impacts local practices have on the globe and on the consequences of imposing foreign concepts on local landscapes.
The most disturbing photos focus on industry in Bangladesh. As they show, Bangladesh’s low-cost labor gets the dirty work other countries would rather do without. Vehicle parts are reconditioned in a cramped Dhaka workroom (“Graveyard and Grim Reapers” by Zabir Hasan); sparks fly at a steel rolling mill that appears to be located in Hell (“Burning the Irony Wishes” by Syful Islam Rony); ships are scrapped at a Chittagong yard known for its hazardous work practices (“Pollution Migration” by Abdul Aziz Apu).
The output of brick kilns blights the river landscape (“Toxicity in the City” by Himel Nag Rana), while a river is dyed psychedelic green by the dumping of industrial effluent (“A Story of Rivers” by Adnan Arsalan). A boy holds a dead fish pulled out of a dead river (“Fish out of Water” by Javed Miandad). “Global Motorization” by Darshan Chakma blames global influences for traffic jams and their associated pollution.
It was especially shocking to see these pictures in a Western art gallery for they underlined how easy it is to get used to the unacceptable and regard it as somehow “normal.” I had seen monstrous-colored rivers of death in Bangladesh, and observed apalling work conditions on too many occasions — in one case, a manager offered me tea and biscuits and genteel chit-chat at the same time as small children were straining under the weight of heavy objects in the background. Seeing such images out of their context underlines their outrageousness.
While the photos Ketan has put together are excellent and tell compelling stories, aided by a write-up submitted by each photographer, they don’t necessarily depict the whole picture. While the world places demand for dirty industries in places like Bangladesh where labor is cheap and can work under conditions unacceptable in the developed world, and international trends in automotive mobility transplant desires for car ownership to Bangladesh, the negative impacts of such phenomena do not have to be quite so dire.
It is true that Western importers want the cheapest possible products to sell at the highest possible prices and have not done nearly enough to promote decent workplace conditions and environmental practices in countries such as Bangladesh. However, it is too easy to blame the outside world alone when the reality is that industry could be a lot cleaner and less dangerous in Bangladesh were industry to be less exploitative of its workers; were government to have the ability to regulate work practices adequately; and were corruption and its inevitable ties to greed and disregard for one’s fellow humans to be absent.
Would rivers and their ecosystems face death if the leaders of industry were unable to pay boksheesh to deflect attention away from their dumping of toxic effluent? Would the traffic be so bad if the government had a proper program to control its flows? Could today’s eyesore blights instead be blessings in the presence of effective management systems?
Other pictures tell a happier story of global influences: out of these, I liked best Ketan’s own portrait of a “Global Family.” It shows an American Caucasian MIT graduate student, his Bangladeshi wife, and their child in a picture of harmony and happiness. In “Law of Similars” by Md. Huzzatul Mursalin, a Bangladeshi village doctor is seen using Western diagnostic software to help treat a patient. A pile of books by Asian authors written in English (“Human Stories” by Samia Mohamed) demonstrates how the global adoption of the English language has globalized the audience for Asian literature. And a picture of a Brazilian flag, one of many to be found in Dhaka during the 2010 football World Cup, shows the ability to track, support, and celebrate far-flung teams through the instant medium of TV, to be found in even the poorest of Dhaka’s slums, at least outside the hours of load shedding.
The photography is terrific; the show thought-provoking. And the concept — displaying the same material in both Bangladesh and the USA — is itself a mark of globalization. Ketan includes a picture of Hilsha fish served at a Bangladeshi student party at MIT. He also allows himself the indulgence of a self-portrait: a desolate nighttime scene shot with a self-timer showing Ketan alone contemplating the Charles River and Boston skyline. We are left wondering about the thoughts in his mind as he looks out at the coolly illuminated New World. While he is now part of this, the love of his country that comes through from his photography and the exhibition he has organized show that he is always a Bangladeshi.