In a box filled with Goa’s soil, a mound was the first indication of the person buried within. Stepping closer, audiences saw an arm moving over the earth, scooping and dropping fistfuls of it ceaselessly, like clockwork, for hours at a stretch every day. An artwork by Kabir Ahmed Masum Chisty at the Serendipity Arts Festival in December, the “interaction between the body, soil and imagination” was an attempt to recall migrant labour and refugees, among others.
One of the top artists in Bangladesh, Chisty holds that “every art object’s narrative is dependent on the involvement of the artist. Through their personal production process, they unlock the inner codes from within the conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds and tap into the huge reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges and memories to impact the final art object’s narrative and meaning”.
Chisty, in his early forties, obtained a Masters in Fine Arts in sculpture from the Institute of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, in 1998, and has participated in major exhibitions, such as “Parables: Pavilion of Bangladesh” at the Venice Biennale in 2011. “I am practising performance art and I need time to be an artist. All the times that I have left behind is my journey towards being an artist. It is a very slow journey. I start with drawing. If I look back, my starting point, as I stand at this time, might be a mirror that I used to draw me. Slowly, I began to know my body,” he says.
At Venice Biennale, Chisty spread a swathe of rainbow umbrellas that seemed to represent a colourful cloud. The evocation of monsoon made way for a darker study, Quandary, in which Chisty made 70 small drawings, casting himself as Medusa, the gorgon from Greek myth, who has snakes in place of hair. The symbol of the artist’s, and every person’s, quest to demolish the serpents within was complemented with a video showing Chisty’s anguish.
Chisty’s home-ground, Bangladesh, is pockmarked with issues that enrage and inspire thinkers, such as poverty and political upheaval. In 2004, after an assassination attempt on Humayun Azad, a famous Bangla author who opposed religious fundamentalism in his writings, at Dhaka University, Chisty responded with a piece, titled Democratic Thinker. He sat on a pavement in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker, covered in newspapers and with a hanging effigy of a frightened human figure. “Politics itself is a complicated subject — the same as a smartphone or a MacBook Pro — but user friendly. What I receive from my store, updates me slowly,” he says.
The idea of a human body buried in soil in a box and placed on a barge on water has multiple connotations. “It is a preliminary attempt to possess breathing earth and turn soil into a living object. It denotes the primitive history of the discovery of land by human beings, and the colonisation of nature. There is the memory of torture and pain. We are nothing but a composition of mineral, born from the earth and will turn back into particles of dirt,” he says.
Before entering the box of soil in Goa, Chisty would sit alone in a cabin of the barge. He was meditating, exercising and drinking coffee for days before the performance. More than 48 hours ahead of the performance, he started tuning his “body with soul to enter into the persona” by speaking less and listening intently. “The title of the project, ‘The Ground Beneath My Feet’ itself was the inspiration and the language of Goan soil led me to do this performance,” he says.