By Helen von Gohren
From March through October, Embassy Dhaka hosted “The Elephant in the Room,” an award-winning installation of three life-size elephant sculptures by Bangladesh visual artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin.
In 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled violence in Burma for Bangladesh; many settled at Kutupalong-Balukhali—the world’s largest refugee camp in what used to be a protected wildlife preserve. Few gave much thought to the Asian elephants who migrated through the landscape until the elephants’ displacement led to conflict with humans, resulting in the deaths of 13 people.
“What happens when people uprooted from their land involuntarily encroach into other animals’ habitats?” asked Shadhin. “Do elephant lives matter to a human whose life is at stake?”
Seeking to mend the breach between human and elephant, the artist worked with the Rohingya to create the sculptures, covered in kantha—a patchwork cloth quilted by refugee women using discarded clothing and other cloth.
“The installation is my 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,” said Shadhin.
Ambassador Earl Miller worked with the Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation (DBF) to display the sculptures.
“I wanted to support the social message of the work,” he said. “By placing the elephants at our front door, I hoped to keep the immediacy of the Rohingya crisis in the minds of our staff and our visitors.”
The COVID-19 pandemic gripped Bangladesh shortly after the installation opened, hampering those goals, but it also created new opportunities.
“COVID taught us something we never anticipated,” said DBF founder Durjoy Rahman. “These elephants show how artwork can be exhibited at an alternative space and still [provide the opportunity to] a lot of viewers who are prohibited from moving around.”
Helen von Gohren is a first and second tour (FAST) officer at Embassy Bangladesh.