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Samari Chakma + Naeem Mohaiemen, Autobiography of the Drowned, 2021. Video, color, sound, 42:00 mins. Chakma and Bangla, with English subtitles. Commissioned by Chobi Mela 0, Dhaka, 2021. Photo by Atticus Gordon.

Exhibition: Autobiography of the Drowned by Samari Chakma + Naeem Mohaiemen—at DARC until June 10

By Sonya Gankina on June 6, 2022

Autobiography of the Drowned by Samari Chakma + Naeem Mohaiemen is the fifth installation of the 40th-anniversary Tending Land exhibition at the Digital Arts Resource Centre (DARC).

As the leading exhibition looks at our relationship with the land, in this particular digital art piece we are presented with a small piece of history from the Indigenous people of Bangladesh, the Chakma Adivasi. In a Zoom call, Samari Chakma tells the story of her family village, whose ancestral lands were flooded and drowned when the national government of Bangladesh installed a dam on the Karnaphuli River at Kaptai in the early 1960s.

Chakma’s mother was only ten years old when she had to flee her original village because of the flooding, her family becoming one of the earliest victims of this displacement. Growing up, Chakma always heard stories about the life “before,” from the many visitors in the village they relocated to. “The stories I was raised with were stories of happiness in a previous life,” says Samari during the Artist Talk organized by DARC.

Samari Chakma + Naeem Mohaiemen, Autobiography of the Drowned, 2021. Video, colour, sound, 42:00 mins. Chakma and Bangla, with English subtitles. Commissioned by Chobi Mela 0, Dhaka, 2021. Photo by Atticus Gordon.

“I thought that the stories will disappear with the people one day and I need to record them,” says Chakma when asked how the film came to be. She started interviewing the Indigenous Chakma people affected by the persecution from the ancestral homelands, first writing for a feminist blog in Bangladesh created by Saydia Gulrukh, who was also present at the Artist Talk. Chakma then published the first edition of her book, a collection of stories and interviews, through which many Chakma people were able to find long-lost relatives and friends.

Escaping the persecution, displaced refugees flee all over Bangladesh and into India, where it is very difficult to be a refugee. Records are not being kept and many families lose touch, never knowing where their children, parents, or siblings end up settling. Chakma’s own father stayed on the family farm until the very last second, not believing the flood will really come. He had to hide in the reserve forest when the water came, where the trees were so thick, he could not see the sun.

Because of continued persecution and displacement, Chakma was separated from her parents and siblings for many years, even decades. In the Zoom talk, which is the format of the digital art piece, she calmly speaks the story in her Indigenous language, which Naeem Mohaiemen then translates into Bangla (the national language of Bangladesh). This is intentional, showcasing how the majority language in the country wipes the stories of the Indigenous people. In the online conversation, Chakma reads parts of her book, sharing her family’s story.

“This was one of the first works confirmed and led the direction for the rest of the project,” says Curator Amin Alsaden in the Artist Talk, also held on Zoom to accommodate the attendees located in different countries, “I was struck by the powerful narrative, complex layers, and the straightforward method of dialogue via an online platform.”

The work speaks about the continued exile of the Indigenous people in Bangladesh, closely connected to the similar displacement of the Indigenous people of Canada, Australia, and other colonized nations. The dialogue invites solemn contemplation and reflection—how many people lost touch with their families forever? The dam being built likely for capitalistic reasons, it is a sobering realization to think the government simply did not value the lives of the many villages surrounding the river.

The importance of Story is monumental—for many refugees, in the exile ongoing today, stories and memories are all they have. That’s why Chakma’s work of recording the stories via interviews, traversing thousands of kilometres, and meeting hundreds of people, not to mention the emotional toll it takes to write about loss and grief, is so important.

Autobiography of the Drowned is available for viewing at DARC until June 10th. Entrance is free.