Abedin, Lotringer, and the Gift-Debt of Colonial Survivorship

Abedin, Lotringer, and the Gift-Debt of Colonial Survivorship when Facing the Impunity of State-Sanctioned Violence

[Version with footnotes here.]


Studying Documenta 14 (2016), I was moved to connect the great Bangladeshi Shipacharya, Zainu Abedin’s (1914-1976) depiction of the unknowable suffering of the state-sanctioned Bengal Famine of 1943 in selections from his Famine Series, and the legendary Sylvere Lotringer (b. 1938, Paris)’s contribution, “Étant Donnés.” Lotringer’s is a reflection in which he tries to comprehend the powerful motivation behind the search for his namesake, owed to an act of surreptitious identity theft that proved life-saving in an anti-Semitic World-War-II-era France. Both visionaries were living as colonized peoples.

I would like to explore how the complex nature of colonial domination really compromises and complicates notions of fairness in people compelled to survive empire-living – hence the notion of the “colonized mind” and the “colonizer mind.” I would, therefore, like to extend Lotringer’s references to First Nations peoples’ potlatch – namely their cultures of community gifting, reciprocity and indebtedness – with the “gift-debt” of survivorship in empire-motivated-and-occupied nation states, as evidently also reflected through Abedin’s brushwork. The gift-debt of survivorship is compelling in that – outside an indigenous context – meaning, colonial / empire-based / imperial – this state of survivorship can only be understood by colonized peoples, whose natural instinct to secure reciprocity for being forced to give “gifts,” instead must contend with the “advance present” compelled on them by the colonizing state which also works to convince them they hadn’t been forced to give “gifts” at all after all. Indeed, the colonized are compelled to believe those “gifts” were in fact bestowed on them beneficently by their colonizers, making them take on the “debtor” position in this new frame of exchange. Lotringer struggles with this notion when he relates his disgust of the invisibility of the colonizers (Injustes) who only appear to benefit when they attempt to absolve themselves of crimes of the past too many years later – often in spectacular displays – and always on the backs of the liberators (Justes, only numbering .05% of any given population), whom they likely suppressed and punished at the time of resistance by appropriating them as their own.

This understanding of the gift-debt of survivorship may also frame Abedin’s feverish drive behind observing and recording by brush what he was witnessing of his countryfolk dying by famine. While he was under no illusion that the famine was man-made, his position to the people who were suffering was still more elevated positionally so he was not as devastatingly physically affected: he could stand to witness the suffering and reflect. Though he is credited as giving the suffering people of the Bengal region some dignity by painting them, one is left to wonder what dignity people so poor and possibly incapacitated by famine-induced illness have to even give permission to be painted. Abedin’s may be a necessary taking to be given back in “advance present” in the form of eventual Independence three decades later – a struggle that Abedin was personally committed to. This drive is matched perhaps as intensely by Lotringer’s personal search and eventual discovery – an “advance present” that also took three decades – of his namesake. This shows the incredible alignment of both some people’s abiding faith to return a gift of indebtedness and one that is demonstrably returned within one’s lifetime. It is a release of a weight that gives humans their life’s purpose. Perhaps this answers the eternal life question, “What is my life’s purpose?” Per Lotringer and Abedin’s lives as examples, we only have to faithfully commit to returning gifts in kind to those we are personally indebted to. By their thoughtfulness, we might come to understand why the state-sanctioned justification of impunity feels so at odds with our instincts for giving and receiving in community.


Documenta14 Chapter referenced 

References from Sylvere Lotringer essay
On Sylvere Lotringer 
Marcel Mauss 

References to understand Zainul Abedin’s work
Zainul Abedin 
Bengal famine/s https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Bengal_famine_of_1770
A well-known figure for his leadership qualities in organising artists and art movements,
Materials http://en.banglapedia.org/index.php?title=Abedin,_Zainul
Quote  *
http://newagebd.net/80948/museum-displays-100-artworks-of-shilpacharya/ *
http://archive.thedailystar.net/magazine/2004/12/04/cover.htm *

Abedin’s paintings
The Rebel Cow marks a high point of that style. http://sha-asianstudies.weebly.com/uploads/5/8/2/5/58254223/400885348.jpg
He made modernist paintings of Santhal people. Notable among them is “Two Santhal Women”.

He visited Palestinian camps in Syria and Jordan in 1970 and made 60-70 paintings of the refugees there.[19]

A Palestinian woman hugs her child close. Her eyes clouded with pain and anxiety — of an uncertain future, of what she has lost, of memories past, of the next meal or the immediacy of life and death. It is hard to imagine that the drawing which dates back to the early ’70s, finds resonance in the current Palestinian conflict. The work was part of the 24 prints, selected out of a lifetime of his paintings (1935-1976), which were on display at an exhibition to commemorate the artist’s centenary year, organised by a cultural group, Jan Sanskriti Manch (JSM), on August 23. – See more at: https://web.archive.org/web/20140927084103/http://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/life-style/for-the-people-7/#sthash.zNDNkjRF.dpuf

He also painted the 1970 Bhola cyclone that devastated the then East Pakistan
In 1969, Abedin painted a scroll using Chinese ink, watercolor and wax named Nabanna. This was to celebrate the ongoing non-cooperation movement.[8]
His famous painting “Study of a Crow” (Ink Wash) in the collection of Professor Ahmed Ali is listed in the book ‘Arts in Pakistan” by Jalaluddin Ahmed, 1952, including an exclusive monologue on him published by FOMMA, Karachi, along with his many Famine Series paintings of 1943.