Primarily photography, video and sound, Munem Wasif’s works emerge from long-term engagement with places and their histories, particularly within the context of his home country of Bangladesh. Over time, his seemingly straightforward documentary approach gives way to a deeper understanding of sites, economies and cultures that exists just below the surface.
In Machine Matter (2017), Wasif examines the death of the jute industry in Bangladesh and the destruction of the livelihoods the ‘golden fibre’ once supported. Until the mid-twentieth century, the jute industry was strong in the Indian subcontinent as jute twine was employed to package the world’s cotton, grains, coffee, sugar and cement. However, with the shift of power from East Bengal to Pakistan after the partition in 1947, the jute industry began to generate most of the income for the new state, diverting profits away from small stakeholders in East Bengal and leaving factories without work. In addition, jute production was reduced overall by the widespread use of artificial materials and the rise of shipping containers and cargo ships.
Using long takes and tight shots, the artist turns his lens to an abandoned jute mill and the former workers who ran the machines—the union of man and machine that formed the heart of a major industry. Close-ups of people focus on overall presence rather than individual faces, drawing parallels between the stillness of bodies and the idle machinery that surrounds them. Only soft breezes, dripping water, stray feathers or rays of sunlight activate the otherwise static scenes of this once thriving site of production, which connected this place to global circuits of capital.