First exhibited at the Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh in 2008, 44-year-old London-based Japanese photographer Tomoko Yoneda’s exhibition, “Rivers Become Oceans,” consisted of works that explore historical resonances concealed in innocuous-looking landscapes. Yoneda’s last solo show, “An End is a Beginning” (2008) at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, revisited politically charged sites of national history many years after the occurrence of traumatic events, such as the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident in Northern Ireland. In “Rivers Become Oceans,” she focused on Bangladesh alone and dealt with similar themes associated with the country’s war of independence in 1971, as well as the climatic conditions of the natural-disaster-prone country.
Several works capture moments that are finely balanced between the intimacy of courting couples in public and a sense of anonymity that comes, ironically, from staking out a private refuge in the midst of public space. In Lovers II (2008), a couple is seated on an unruly patch of grass and weeds in Lalbagh Fort, in Dhaka. Surrounded by the discolored remains of brick walls damaged in the 1971 conflicts, the couple enacts a furtive, personal ritual, their gazes downturned even as they sit across from each other. These young lovers dally in the quiet grove, unwittingly reoccupying a site of historic tumult that has now become “neutral” territory.
A second series demonstrates a far more troubled relationship to the past. The four women in From Left to Right: 1. Khairunessa, Wife of Abdur Rashid, killed in the war of independence, 2. Ayesha Khatun, Daughter of Abdul Hakim, killed in the war of independence, 3. Amirunnisa, Wife of Abdul Hakim, killed in the war of independence, 4. Salma Begum, Daughter of Mofazzel Sheikh, killed in the war of independence (2008) are captured as a living object lesson in the painful histories engendered by national strife. Yoneda’s work attempts to wring pathos from the tragedy that is explicitly memoralized in the title, the deaths of the husbands and fathers. What is actually framed in the photograph, however, absolutely requires the caption to furnish a context that cannot be visualized, perhaps because it has “disappeared” from the surface of the subject. In this case, the impassive presence of these wives and daughters, seated in a row in a courtyard, signifies absence and departure, their eyes looking unflinchingly back at the camera without any hint of self-consciousness. Do we read traces of anguish in their gazes, or are we just projecting these emotions onto their blank stares based on what the captions tell us? Yoneda seems to be flagging the invisible not with her frame, but with what literally lies outside it—the wall label next to the picture.
In Major General Amin Ahmed Chowdhury: Left Pakistan Army to join the liberation war and as a valiant young officer led many heroic attacks, was severely injured in the war, got gallantry award (2008), on the other hand, Yoneda trains her lens on a now-retired freedom fighter comfortably seated at home, his wartime photos and artifacts stacked around him as placeholders for vanished, neglected histories. The busy, treasured “landscape” of personal effects depicted here suggests how the survival of historical narrative requires conscientious archiving, as well as the creation of token symbols, if its visible traces are not to be quickly lost and forgotten.
While Yoneda’s work succeeds in drawing attention to how the steady, unassuming encroachment of the everyday tends to smooth over historical memory, this is something that is largely accomplished by the lengthy annotative captions that accompany her photos. These captions suggest the failure of photography to represent histories in an explicit visual form—without the context they furnish, the photos themselves seem helplessly mortgaged to a narrative that they are unable to illuminate using the little that remains legible on the surface. The viewer can enjoy an exquisitely composed, carefully lit and masterfully shot body of work, but the underlying conceptual themes will never stop nagging one’s conscience.