ZAKIR HOSSAIN KHOKAN’s story is a common one. In 2003 he left Dhaka for Singapore because he could make more money as a construction worker there than he could as a journalist with a university degree in his native Bangladesh. Mr Khokan worked 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, and worked his way up to project coordinator. 

Bangladesh is a country fraught with political and economic uncertainty. Of its 165m inhabitants, about one in four lives in poverty. Jobs are hard to come by for the unconnected. Its once-booming garment industry is in shambles as clothing brands left the country when factory fires highlighted unsafe working conditions. Climate change is another reason Bangladeshis leave. By 2050, the country is set to lose 17% of its land to rising waters from the Bay of Bengal.

Each year, according to the International Labour Organisation, more than 400,000 Bangladeshis leave the country to work in countries like Oman, Qatar and Singapore. One estimate states that there are as many as 9.4m Bangladeshis working abroad. In May 2017 alone, over 2,800 Bangladeshis arrived on European shores making Bangladesh—not Syria—the country that saw the most migrants attempt to reach Europe. Many risk death while going overseas, or having their papers and possessions confiscated upon arrival and being forced into indentured servitude. Those lucky enough to get jobs work in unfavourable conditions, toiling away on the sweltering building sites of the Middle East and Singapore. Many of those buildings become landmarks, but the sweat that built them evaporates and is forgotten. 

Mr Khokan never strayed from his writing roots, and needed a way to express his experiences in a creative manner. He founded Amrakajona (“We Are” in Bengali) as a group for Bengali migrant workers interested in poetry, as well as another poetry group, Singapore Bengali Literature. The Dhaka Art Summit, which ran from February 2nd-10th in the dusty, congested Bangladeshi capital, showcased poetry from members of Singapore Bengali Literature. Mr Khokon read “Pocket 2”, a lament for his wife and their forced separation:

I remember when I returned this time
my heart dissolved in your tears
The pocket of my shirt was wet
Reaching the end of my memories
I wear that shirt every night
and write love poems to you

MD Sharrif Uddin, another poet, addressed the invisibility of the migrant worker directly:  

Though my tears satisfy the thirst of the city,
It will forget me by and by!
But like the waters on the high waves of the river,
I’ll survive and I’ll be there.
The sweat of my tired body has
Become the moisture of the city,
and in this moisture, I’ll survive.
I live forever.

Complementing the poetry was work by around a dozen artists on the struggles of overseas labourers. For 15 years Charles Lim Yi Yong worked on the film “Sea State” (2015), following Bangladeshi migrant workers who travel 130 metres below the Banyan Basin on Jurong Island into South-East Asia’s first underground liquid hydrocarbon storage facility. The video-art piece takes viewers on the same journey as the workers—even including the sound of the Malaysian elevator music—offering a sense of the long rides down into the cavernous underground network. “They take an incredible amount of risk, which does not make any calculable sense,” the artist said. “It’s quite an inhospitable environment for machines and people.”

Kamruzzaman Shadhin, a Bangladeshi artist, collected the abandoned clothes of Bangladeshis who were illegally trafficked into Malaysia and Thailand, tapping an internal migrant community in Thakurgaon to stitch them together into a giant patchwork quilt (pictured, top). Liu Xiaodong, a Chinese artist, paints portraits of migrant workers in a medium often reserved for powerful patrons. In one, a bearded man looks over his shoulder with a wary face and a cigarette in his mouth against a blue background (pictured). In another, a gaunt man with sunken cheeks is a picture of exhaustion, his eyes bloodshot from working long hours. Mr Liu’s work humanises these workers, but does not glamourise their suffering.

For Mr Khokan, such art allows him to make sense of his new life. As well as his poetry, which has been published in several anthologies, he has written non-fiction pieces and produced a TED talk as well as a music album. He views poetry in particular as a form of catharsis. “Immersing myself in Bengali poetry alleviated fatigue and homesickness,” he says. “Sharing this interest with fellow members of ‘We Are’ also made me feel that I am not alone.”

Diana Campbell Betancourt, the artistic director and chief curator of the Dhaka Art Summit, says that “one cannot understand Bangladesh without considering these workers.” All too often, they are abused and overworked, treated as slaves or indentured servants. “These workers give so much with their labour, and they need to be seen as more than just bodies,” she says. The Dhaka summit shows that they are not only more than bodies, fully human, but artists, too.