INTERSECTIONALITY IN THE STUDIO: Rasel Ahmed
Fig. 1: Valentina Syed, 2014, Roopbaan Cover, magazine, 8 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. Courtesy Rasel Ahmed/ Editor: Rasel Ahmed.
In fear of state-sponsored abuses, I made an overnight decision to leave Bangladesh, the country where I spent my entire life. I became a threat for the government after co-founding and editing Roopbaan, the first printed LGBTQ magazine in Bangladesh (published January, 2014) which was inspired by an iconic folk theater character. In the original text of the folk play Rahim Badsa and Roopbaan Kanya, a pubescent girl named Roopbaan is married to a newborn child and forced into exile in a jungle to save the infant from a death prophecy. Roopbaan is then carried by a boat with her twelve-day-old husband to an unforeseeable bonobash (exile in the forest) administered by civil-military collaboration in the fictional kingdom of Nirashpur.
The magazine I started, however, was born in a Bangladesh where enforced disappearance, abduction, killing, and torture in secret detention centers became a regimented part of state governance. Law enforcement agen-cies—particularly Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anti-terrorist police force, abducted around 500 Bangladeshi citizens and killed many of them since 2009 in their efforts of silencing critics and dissidents. In a response to increasing cases of enforced disappearance, the Bangladeshi Minister of Law, Anisul Huq told the local press, “Whom will you say disappeared? Many businessmen went into hiding failing to repay their loans in this country. Some people went missing after developing an extramarital relationship.”1 In a propaganda-fueled nation where state machinery is manufacturing mythical narratives to cover up its crimes, I am reimagining a theater of Roopbaan, where the protagonist is exiled in an ungoverned territory of a forest outside the fantasy of ‘nation-state’ where she develops sustainable relationships with indigenous communities and environments. In this land of ‘no-nation’, Roopbaan exercises a queer-oedipal relationship with her body (by not aging) and infant husband (whom she nourishes and protects). She becomes part of the ecology of the trees, water, minerals, non-plant species and indigenous tribes by exchanging energy between the canopy and the atmosphere across temporal and spatial scale. While the State remains to be a source of colonial oppression that operates through gender violence and exile, the force of feminine energy and the ‘ungoverned’ biomass of the forest fruitfully illuminate the shift in the ‘colonial matrix of power.’
After making a hasty decision to leave the capital, Dhaka, I only half packed my luggage. This was in part because I didn’t have enough time, but was also because I believed I was making a temporary relocation. I realized how unprepared I was at the Bangladeshi/Indian border. At the Benapole checkpoint I found out that Indian customs wouldn’t allow me to cross immigration with Bangladeshi currency. I was carrying 10,000 Bangladeshi Taka (around $120 USD) as I also didn’t have time to convert money. Much like the folk story where a boatman carried Roopbaan to the forest of exile in exchange for a gold coin that is equivalent to the ‘wealth of seven kings,’ a middleman appeared at the immigration room. He negotiated with customs officers and managed my clearance. I lost track of him after crossing the fully crowded immigration waiting room and couldn’t offer him anything. Four days later while I was buying used books in Kolkata, India, members from the local Bangladeshi chapter of Al-Qaeda broke into the house of Roopbaan’s publisher and hacked him and another gay activist to death. At a press conference followed by the kill-ing, Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan condemned Roopbaan magazine instead of condemning the killers and he denied protection for people involved with ‘homosexual’ publica-tions. This press conference set the stage for my exile with half-empty luggage.2
When I started my MFA at Columbia University, I left my art studio fully empty for over a month with only my luggage in a corner. It’s a footnote that my ‘home’ is a work in progress that fits squarely within the epistemology of non- citizenship, which I proposed in my reimagined theater of Roopbaan. My act of not using the art facilities at Columbia University profoundly affected several faculty members. While some showed their discomfort with an empty art studio (completely ignoring the presence of the luggage), more than one explicitly expressed their amazement that I had made my way to an art school. One faculty member in particular, who did notice my luggage, suggested that I turn it into a golden sculpture, because she assumed that I was from India and believed that all Indians love gold.
My intention and experience of unbecoming as an ‘artist citizen’ through these experiences opens up the possibility of potent manipulation in my artistic practice of making video, text, image, and narratives. I am contesting the notion of exile by reinventing sites of displacement as multitudinous simulations of different arrangements that also renegotiate national identity and disciplinary knowledge.
Rasel Ahmed is a transdisciplinary artist and community-based archivist. He is the co-founder of Bangladesh’s first and only printed LGBT magazine Roopbaan and produced a comic book featuring Asia’s first Muslim lesbian comic heroine. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Visual Art at Columbia University.
1 Faisal Mahmud, “How Enforced Disappearances Get Suppressed in Bangladeshi Media,”
The Diplomat, August 30, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/0
2 Raad Rahmen, “How Bangladesh’s LGBT Community Is Dealing with Threats and Machete Attacks,” Vice, June 2, 2016, https://www. vice.com/en_us/article/9b89v3/how-bangladeshs-lgbt-commu-nity-is-dealing-with-threats-and-machete-attacks.