SUSTAIN: Monica Jahan Bose Celebrates a Decade of Storytelling with Saris

By Guest Author on June 14, 2022

By Sarah Tanguy

Printing saris in Katakhali Village. Photo credit: Koli Bennett-Bose.

I used to think that it would take penguins swimming up the Potomac River to get Congress to act on climate change. But now I sense it’s smaller incidents that will catalyze us—experiencing the sweet smell of humid soil and the brilliant green of sprouting leaves, feeling the invisible wiggle of spreading roots, and the tacit gifts of water and sunlight. Amidst the rising calls of impending doom, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and become unresponsive. Artist and activist Monica Jahan Bose, who holds degrees in studio art and law, forged her own path. In June 2012, in collaboration with women from her ancestral village on the remote island of Barobaishdia off Bangladesh’s endangered coast, she launched Storytelling with Saris, a cross-generational and women-driven art project that engages not only with words but also with actions.

Performance on Bay of Bengal. Photo credit: Koli Bennett-Bose.

SUSTAIN marks a decade of collaborative artmaking and advocacy with an outdoor installation featuring printmaking and painting on saris, poetry, sound, and film, and renews the project’s message of connection and cooperation by linking the personal and the communal to empower and affirm our shared commitment to the planet. Inspired by the resilience of the village women and their joyful songs and dances, the public art installation speaks to all of us about gender equality, climate crisis, and food insecurity. While SUSTAIN continues to embrace inclusion, accessibility and mentorship to stage saris hand-painted with woodblocks and text, it introduces a focus on urban and rural eco-agriculture and forges a link between the farmers of Katakhali and the US. Bose designed new agrarian woodblocks such as seedlings and rice fields, along with the recurrent image of coconuts, a source of sustenance and adaptability on the island in its existential fight against climate change.

Bicycle sari held by girls who learned cycling. Photo Credit: Koli Bennett-Bose.

Born in England to a politically active Muslim mother and Hindu father and raised in the South Asia and the United States, Bose has lived the meaning of multiple identities, which her art reflects. Through the examples of her mother and maternal grandmother and their support of programs such as literacy, solar panels, and better farming techniques for the island women, Bose felt a nascent calling to address the disproportionate burden women face with climate change.  She created a series of paintings on climate change and water, and another on women in Bangladesh. Fluent in earth sciences, she calls herself an ecofeminist. The sari, a symbol of continuity and the cycle of life, became a primary stand-in for herself, womanhood and the ongoing challenges women confront in society and at home. Initially, she imaged saris into paintings, followed by collaging sari fragments in mixed media works, often using the simplified language and bright colors of South Asian folk art.

Woodblocks created by Monica Jahan Bose. Photo Credit: Monica Jahan Bose.

But the breakthrough came in 2012 when Bose realized the sari itself would make a powerful platform for the women’s stories and an emblem for sustainability.  At 18 feet long, saris are versatile and responsive. Linked to an ancient tradition that predates colonization, Bose uses saris of hand-woven cotton, a natural and archival material. They flow in the water. They wave in the winds. They are rooted in myth and folklore. They are shared across generations, and once worn out, recycled and layered to make kanthas (embroidered blankets). Adapting her practice, Bose began making designs for woodblocks with pen and ink drawings, carved in mango wood by Bangladeshi craftsmen. Then on the island, she collected oral histories from the village women, and together they imprinted the fabric with woodblocks and inscriptions in Bengali. The saris transformed into fluid, dimensional paintings as they moved through space and responded to light. As part of her art practice, Bose also organized climate conferences and adaptation initiatives on the island.

Poem woodblock on sari (detail). Photo Credit: Koli Bennett-Bose.

The Farmer’s Market in Unity Park and The Line Hotel DC are hosts to the anniversary installation. Adjacent businesses, the two are rising hubs in Adams Morgan, a diverse neighborhood where Bose and her family have lived for the last 22 years. Taking a cue from Ashanté Reese’s Black Food Geographies, which explores systemic discrimination and unequal food access, Bose honed her vision on food insecurity in the capital city, coupling the voices and art making of DC and Katakhali residents. She enlisted a mounting number of partners including Licking Creek Bend, an organic farm in Pennsylvania and a regular at the Market, and Moms Clean Air Force, a grassroots nonprofit focused on protecting children from air pollution.

DC participants holding sari at planting workshop. Photo Credit: Paris Preston.

In preparation for the installation, Bose held in-person and online workshops in DC and Katakhali where participants adorned aqua and fuchsia saris with printing, painting and words in English and Bengali. Often the result of poetry prompts, the writing, like the visuals, spoke of growth and sustenance, evidenced in the following excerpts: “I am leaves, I am branches, I am roots” by Dominic Green and “We all came from the ground and we deserve to be nourished” by Jumoke Opeyemi. She also organized urban gardening workshops, which included distributing seeds, soil and plant swapping, and making climate pledges such as composting and using green transportation. On one occasion, herbalist/farmer/artist Geo Edwards offered effective ways to grow indoors and mailed cuttings to the participants. Most recently on the island, Bose collected human and natural sounds and taught girls bicycling, another carbon reduction measure that shows up in a woodblock design. Visits to open green spaces in the DC area and Licking Creek Bend supplied additional audiovisual material for the project’s soundwalk and documentary.

SUSTAIN, installation view during Dedication at The LINE DC. Photo Credit: Lucian Perkins.

On the final Farmer’s Market in December 2021, Bose organized a preview of SUSTAIN, joining workshop participants and members of the public in a performance of poetry and singing while unfurling a 50-foot sari along Unity Park. The official premiere in June 2022 coincides with the Market’s return to the site. Twenty-four diaphanous saris drape around the six grand columns of the hotel’s façade, and on trees and light poles at Unity Park form a welcoming pathway to audiences of all ages. Immersive sonic compositions at seven QR-coded stations feature poetry, music and songs in Bengali, English and ASL interwoven with ambient audio. The ten-day installation includes poetry slams and film screenings about sustainable practices and the impacts of climate on agriculture and food security.

SUSTAIN, installation view at Unity Park and The LINE DC.  Photo Credit: Monica Jahan Bose.

Bose says about her work: “Over the ten-year span of Storytelling with Saris, the climate crisis and food insecurity have gotten much worse, but art sustains us, bringing us together and propelling us forward to take action. Sometimes I am frightened to think about the future but I find purpose in continuing to create communities and stories of resistance through saris, poetry, songs, performance, and film.”

SUSTAIN, viewer walking through passage at Unity Park. Photo Credit: Monica Jahan Bose.

With each step near and far, Bose extends her incremental reach befitting the origin of “sustain,” to uphold from below. As she broadens the meaning of family and matriarchy, she and her growing team of collaborators create a collective portrait and open up new possibilities for empathy and care. Now at the ten-year mark, Bose dreams of big shifts and saving her native island. And buoyed by the enthusiastic affirmation of people she has touched she is excited to keep Storytelling with Saris going. In the words of Parveen, a Katakhali participant: “Every year I feel more confident and empowered…The films are thrilling! I have seen people from another country for the first time as they too work on saris and write environmental messages to us. We think of the women in the US as our sisters.”

All images 2020-2022 Monica Jahan Bose.

Independent curator and arts writer Sarah Tanguy is a passionate believer in hands-on collaboration and the power of art to connect with our lived experience. The daughter of a US diplomat, she holds a BA in Fine Arts from Georgetown University, and a MA in Art History from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.