The great artist Pablo Picasso once said, "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls." It was with a similar vision that the South Asia region of the World Bank organized the art exhibition, 'Imagining Our Future Together' last month. The purpose was to unite South Asian artists from all countries to highlight the lack of unity that hinders progress in the region and to create a vision of a more cooperative and prosperous future.
As someone who joined the South Asia region fairly recently, the art brought to life for me the development challenges the region faces in terms of identity, conflict, and gender inequality. As I listened to Guest Joint Curator, Elena Grant, explain the stories depicted in the art work, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the art and the depth of the themes communicated: from the symbolism of the four animals represented on the Indian national emblem to the hopes and dreams of a single young woman dashed by the dark realities of an early marriage.
I was struck by the common challenges facing both South Asia and Africa. One being the fragmentation and disillusion in society resulting from war. Take the photograph, “I Am Tired of Gun,” shot by 35 year-old Zabihullah Shakir Aziz. It depicts an Afghan man with slumped shoulders dragging a gun through a dry terrain on a hot afternoon in the hills of Kabul. The man is not only physically tired but emotionally drained because of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. He lost his family in this war. His simple desire is “a peaceful life for me, my village and people.” Coming from a country that has suffered at the hands of Joseph Kony, in Northern Uganda, I identified with his desire for peace.
The pieces changed my perceptions on being in a disadvantaged position. The challenge of growing up in poverty acts not as a hindrance for the artists but an opportunity to create a better future. Debasish Dutta’s art piece 'Journey', presents this hope. That in spite of our circumstances, poverty should not kill dreams and infinite desires but instead one must continue to seek their purpose in life. In the case of the artists it is through their artwork.
Others agreed with me. Zahidulla Hatam, from the social protection team of the Afghanistan country office, echoed my thoughts when he said, “A picture is worth a thousand words." In a brief conversation about what he loved about the pieces he had seen, he commented on the rich and diverse culture of South Asia. Amit Dar, Sector Manager, Sustainable Education, said he found the art very moving, especially the thoughts captured. Like me, he had not paid the art much attention before, but was glad he came. We laughed, pondered, questioned and fell silent in response to the works.
Carrying on from the forum, the artists have created a regional network and remain connected through social media. They have developed an online artists' database for the South Asia Region exhibition artists to stay together and get linked with galleries, art critics, curators and collectors. They are organizing local workshops in schools to teach painting and photography and through the exhibition some have received commissioned assignments to promote their artwork locally. They plan to paint murals on the streets of different South Asian cities to bring art into the public sphere and spread the vision of unity.
As a microcosm of South Asia, they have inspired me and shown us a beautiful vision of the future.