Artist Profile | Munem Wasif

Published in Art Radar Jan 6, 2016

The exhibition “In God We Trust” by Bangladeshi photographer runs until 23 January 2016 at Paris-based gallery Le 247, documenting the everyday life in his homeland through shots and books.

In god we trust
Munem Wasif, from the series ‘In God We Trust’, 2010, site-specific installation, variable sizes, printed on Hahnemühle baryta paper. Image courtesy the artist and Agence Vu.

“In God We Trust”, a solo exhibition by Bangladeshi artist Munem Wasif, takes place at Parisian Le 247, a commercial gallery devoted to photography and video, founded by French photographer Simon Lourié and video director and filmmaker Thierry Villeneuve.

Munem Wasif was born in 1983, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he trained at Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, where he currently teaches. Wasif’s photographic practice is considered documentary in nature. His career began as a feature photographer for the Daily Star, a Bangladesh’s leading English daily newspaper, before he went on to work as a staff photographer for DrikNEWS for two years. Since then, his work has been published in numerous international publications and journals such as Le Monde, the Sunday Times MagazineThe GuardianPolitikenBritish Journal of PhotographyLensCultureCourier International Photo and Libération, among others.

In god we trust
Munem Wasif, from the series ‘In God We Trust’, 2010, site-specific installation, variable sizes, printed on Hahnemühle baryta paper. Image courtesy the artist and Agence Vu.

Wasif has been the recipient of several awards and accolades, including the latest prestigious Bengal Foundation Practice Grant 2015. Previous prizes count an Honorable Mention in the All Roads Photography Program by the National Geographic Society in 2007, the Polish award Konkurs Fotografii Prasowej for the series Tainted Tea (2005), the Pictet Prix and two bronze prizes in the China International Press Photo.

Internationally acclaimed, the Dhaka artist has exhibited in major institutions like the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, the London-based Whitechapel Gallery and Getty Image Gallery, and the Parisian Palais de Tokyo. His work has also been included in influential photo festivals like the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the International Photography Biennial of the Islamic World in Tehran, and FotoFreo, the biennial festival of photography taking place in the town of Fremantle, Australia. His extensive presence in France has assured the artist the representation by Paris-based gallery Agence Vu since 2008.

In god we trust
Munem Wasif, from the series ‘In God We Trust’, 2010, site-specific installation, variable sizes, printed on Hahnemühle baryta paper. Image courtesy the artist and Agence Vu.

Documents and Archives

Wasif’s photographic interest arises from the subject he is most familiar with – the city of Dhaka and its people. Through the use of documentary realism, enhanced by a monochromatic starkness, the artist catches the very moment of mankind’s pure and gentle feelings thus creating shots that stunningly convey a diverse way to look at men’s nature. Traditions and socio-political issues in the photographs are handled with a finesse that is made possible only by the innate understanding of the human condition.

The artist turns to the idea of ‘documents and archives’ to probe through a past that is littered with geo-political complexities. Three of his most prominent projects, realised in the form of books, arise from a spirit of enquiry concerning these complexities.

Bangladesh, Standing on the Edge, 2008, Munem Wasif. Image Credit:

The book Bangladesh, Standing on the Edge (2008), documents everyday life of Bangladeshi people reporting stories of poverty and dignity, which the artist invites us to confront with. Salty Tears (2011) investigates the environmental imbalances caused by salinity in part of the country’s water table and the impact it had on the region’s agrarian economy. Belonging (2013) deals with Wasif’s city of birth, which the artist is acquainted with and where he attempts to capture the unseen within the familiar.

Bangladeshi photojournalist and founder of the Drik picture library Shahidul Alam writes about Wasif’s work in his blog thus:

The way Wasif takes his photographs can be summed up into two ways: people and the frame. He definitely belongs to a humanist tradition, contemporary in content for the attention he gives to people and to the way they live, what they have to endure and all they bear in today’s pitiless world, disrupted, torn by drastic climatic changes and economic speculation.

“In God We Trust”

In the show, Wasif investigates the inherent multilayered plurality within Islam in Bangladesh and Islam’s global reception. Agence Vu’s founder and artistic director Christian Caujolle writes in the press release that after the 9/11 attacks

Islam has become a central issue, seen from the outside, in the context of the ‘War on Terror’, leading to problems and prejudice.

In god we trust
Munem Wasif, from the series ‘In God We Trust’, 2010, site-specific installation, variable sizes, printed on Hahnemühle baryta paper. Image courtesythe artist and Agence Vu.

It is this perception that is challenged and Wasif’s examination starts from an immediate experience. For the artist, there are two contrasting realities that emerge when looking at Islam. One is the Islam that gives way to childhood relationships, upbringing and familial ties – the religion that is fused to his memory and intimate surroundings. Despite this sense of bonding and cultural identification reinstated by Islam, there are conflicts and differences that create a mosaic of diversity even within a seemingly homogenised religious and cultural system.

In god we trust
Munem Wasif, from the series ‘In God We Trust’, 2010, site-specific installation, variable sizes, printed on Hahnemühle baryta paper. Image courtesy the artist and Agence Vu.

The other is the Islam in the international perception, exacerbated post the 9/11 tragic event. As Wasif writes on his website:

When I first went to Europe in 2007, my conventionally religious father suggested that I cut my beard because of the situation after 9/11. I didn’t listen, and as a result, for the first time, my beard became a security issue. I was stopped by security at every possible immigration checkpoint, and even at museums. People looked at me strangely in the Paris Metro. I remember cautious voices asking me: “Is that your bag?” From that moment, I was forced to start thinking about the relation of my appearance to my identity and religion. I decided to interrogate and to challenge Islam, and religion, and how it is represented through the medium I knew best: photography.

Munem Wasif, from the series ‘Belonging, Old Dhaka’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Agence Vu.

Wasif examines the link between his cultural identity and the potential threat attached to Islam. Rather than seeking solutions, his work is interested in excavating questions that would be helpful in portraying the grey areas of an issue that is largely painted using a black-and-white spectrum. The artist’s rendering of such concern makes use of multiple voices and perspectives that relies on social commentary to subvert the largely single-layered narrative that is expressed by the mainstream media.

Wasif’s compositions, taken within the last seven to eight years, portray a humanistic element. In the words of Christian Caujolle,

Wasif frames his shots very strictly but with flexibility, paying special attention to light; he likes contrasts and there is great elegance in the composition of his works, both classical and discerning. This produces strong visual logic in his stories, making them compelling without being demonstrative. He shows us the presence of Islam as it is in the life of people, not as a sign of oppression.

Munem Wasif, ‘Ear of My Son’, 2013, object. Image courtesy the artist, Agence Vu and Le 247, Paris.

Wasif also encompasses other media that encapsulate the universality of Islam with personal intimate sentiments. One such work, Ear of my Son (2013), depicts a right ear cast of his son Mikail, into which the adhan (call to prayer) is traditionally recited. Here, the meaning of traditional Islamic motifs extends beyond religious connotation and encompasses personal meaning.

In another work, three family members – his father, sister and wife – are interviewed. The video installation follows the visual narrative of his other works and is shot in a stark black-and-white, portraiture style. The three-channel projection creates a trialogue between the family members and produces an exchange, where faith is the central point of focus.

Munem Wasif, 2015, still from three-channel video, 21:37 min, black and white, stereo. Image courtesy the artist and Agence Vu.

According to the press release of the exhibition:

Wasif’s photographs continue tracing parallel realities, where the Muslim atrocities, minority attacks, blogger assassinations, secular movements are embraced. His evident humanistic approach also explores the other side; compassion, spiritual submissions, persuasion and tolerance by the believers.

Munem Wasif, ‘Typograph-Rastro Bhasha Bangla Chai (We Demand Bangla as State Language)’, object. Image courtesy the artist, Agence Vu and Le 247, Paris.

Wasif futher expresses the peculiarity and intimate portrayal of Islamic culture that he seeks to convey through his exhibition:

Terrorism, fundamentalism, veil, bomb, Taliban, Jihadi, militant, fanatic — these are words tied to Islam by the mainstream media. But the reality of the Islam I grew up with is far more complex than these simple words. Islam in Bangladesh is like the multiple colors of a mirror under the sun: veil and lipsticks, verses and azans (call to prayer), jeans and beard, all together. This is a story about little fragments that don’t make it to the front pages of newspapers. This is a story about how we see Islam.

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