ROHINGYA CULTURAL MEMORY CENTRE
From February 2019 to December 2020, David was hired by IOM as the curator and project manager of the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre (RCMC) in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Following a human-centred design process of research and production, the goal was to create a conservation–innovation platform providing the Rohingya community with space and tools so they would be known for their art and creativity, and not just their marginalisation.
The RCMC is a project by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) with support from the Swedish International Cooperation Agency (SIDA), Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.
It is the first-ever attempt to comprehensively document and preserve the cultural heritage of the Rohingya people. The collection of artworks presented by the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre is framed on one side by the endurance of the Rohingya refugee community in Bangladesh and, on the other, by memories of Arakan, their beloved homeland; these continue to shape the Rohingya experience and their collective heritage. Combining objects of tangible and intangible heritage, the collection is a reflection of their past, present and uncertain future.
As the project manager, David was the driving force behind the overall project implementation, from concept design and strategy, to the research and recruitment of a multidisciplinary team of national staff, consultants and over 100 Rohingya artisans producing all sorts of tangible and intangible items in the world’s largest refugee camp. Research methods included exploratory excursions, focus group discussions, interviews with cultural agents and community workshops. These efforts resulted in an extensive cultural heritage map, driving the production of an ever-expanding arts & crafts collection.
Exploring the tensions between tradition and innovation, imagination and memory, displacement and belonging, the collection covers a vast array of items, from models of vernacular architecture, boats and furniture to domestic objects made of pottery and basketry, intricate woodwork, ingenious toy-making and colourful paper-crafts. The broad variety of music genres, intergenerational storytelling, and poetry—very popular among the younger generation—, are all examples of the importance of oral culture among the Rohingya people. A comprehensive selection of Rohingya music videos can be found in the RCMC Youtube channel. Games, sports, fashion, customs and beliefs as well as traditional culinary recipes are also part of the RCMC vault, all carefully identified and defined by the Rohingya community supported by the RCMC team. Needlework was identified as a common skill among Rohingya women, so a team was set up with two facilitators specifically to focus on the production of embroidery artworks. From individual pieces to collectively-made large scale pieces, these artworks are a portrait of Rohingya identity and traditional domestic life as seen by Rohingya women.
The collection is accessible to the wider Rohingya community in the different exhibition areas in the centre, and to the general public through the RCMC website. The centre is fully managed by the Rohingya community and includes a walk-through exhibition, workshop areas, administration and retail space, library and an outdoor community space to play traditional games.
In collaboration with Books Unbound, David led the team to publish a comprehensive Visual Dictionary of Rohingya Culture, a trilingual publication aiming to provide the Rohingya community with a culturally appropriate educational tool that features and illustrates their own unique heritage. Following the successful distribution of the dictionary, a series of animated films was also produced featuring traditional and motivational stories led by two young characters pursuing adventures in the camps.
Throughout the project, David compiled a comprehensive list of resources and curatorial references about Rohingya history, society, language, literature, arts, music, culture and film, as well as photography, publications, international exhibitions and Rohingya organisations worldwide.
Through this creative platform, Rohingya artisans and artists share their struggles, their confounded expectations and desires, and their efforts to find meaning in their existence. Above all, the arts and crafts of the Rohingya people seek to illuminate their human condition which, fuelled by imagination, allows them to grow and stretch beyond their physical boundaries into the imaginary realm, a place of contemplation, self-care, hope and celebration.
Further information can be found on the RCMC website and Instagram page, as well as the IOM website and the official press release. Press coverage of the project can be found at Reuters Foundation, Swiss Info, DE51GN and the Dhaka Tribune. The RCMC had its first exhibition in Bangladesh in December 2020 at the Canadian High Commission in Dhaka under the title No Place like Home. A second exhibition was set up in September 2021 at the North South University in Dhaka supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands (see Dhaka Tribune press coverage). This is a must read article from January 2022 about the Myanmar junta protesting to the UN migration agency about Rohingya Cultural Memory Center.