“The arts need to talk about climate change,” artist, activist, and lawyer Monica Jahan Bose says with the measured cadence of someone speaking their absolute truth. “Like with a lot of movements, the cultural shift has to happen, and that’s how it shifts into our consciousness.”
Bose hasn’t always believed in the power of art to create social change, but since she united her interests in art and advocacy over a decade ago, she has used the platform to bridge distant communities, uplift the voices of women, and encourage positive action on climate change. Her latest project, WRAPture, connected the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with women in Katakhali Village, on Barabaishdia Island in southern Bangladesh, over 8,000 miles away.
On a breezy day in May, Bose stands at a table draped with a sari, the unstitched garment worn by women in South Asia. Behind her, dozens of other saris hang on the façade of a building—an incredible, billowing spectacle. Five buildings were adorned in the brightly colored and heavily decorated eighteen-foot-long saris—sixty-five of them to be precise, hanging from the rooftops to the sidewalk below.
For years, Bose has worked with the women of Katakhali—her ancestral homeland, an island community threatened by climate change through rising seas and cyclones—on collaborative artwork involving the sari. Through her project Storytelling with Saris, Bose learned woodblock printing from the women in the village, and they worked together to print and write on saris. For WRAPture, she combined these saris with ones created in workshops by residents of Anacostia decorated with prints, paintings, and writings about climate change.
Bose expands upon her role as an artist and activist to reach across the globe. She is a curator of cultural connections, an organizer of international awareness, and an architect of global communities fighting climate change. Through art and community workshops, she unites two groups halfway around the planet so that they work together to save it.
Bose first incorporated the sari into her art in 2006 while living in Paris. Inspired by the French passion for culture and heritage, she began exploring her own artistic heritage, specifically South Asian folk art. When a prominent French art critic advised against using sari imagery—that her work wouldn’t be taken seriously, that it wouldn’t be contemporary—she panicked.
“I couldn’t work for about a month. I was in shock. I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I thought about it and decided, ‘Screw him. He’s wrong. He doesn’t understand what I do.’ He actually did me a favor because after that I went really crazy with the sari, doing even more, and now it’s my whole art practice. The words really stuck in my mind.”
This passionate, culturally and artistically driven defiance has stuck with Bose. She has gone on to focus wholly on the sari as a symbol for a woman’s body, to focus on the crafts of her ancestral home, and to embrace folk motifs.
“Close to a billion people in the world wear a sari today. It’s part of the contemporary world.”
At the heart of Bose’s artwork is collaboration. That’s also her philosophy on responses to climate change.
“If we have a greater sense of community, whether with our neighbor across the street or someone across the globe who is very much on the front lines of climate change, if we build connections, that is how we can address climate change.”
While community members in Anacostia participated in woodblock printing for WRAPture, they made pledges to combat climate change through personal choices like biking to work or reducing water use. They learned about Katakhali and how climate change has impacted the livelihoods of its people. Rice crops have suffered greatly because of unpredictable rains and the encroachment of seawater. An increase in severe weather events like cyclones threaten infrastructure, livestock, and the lives of many people residing in low coastal areas of Bangladesh.
They learned that the people of Katakhali leave almost no carbon footprint. They walk and bike and farm their own land, but they still suffer the brunt of climate change effects caused by countries like the United States, where a high-carbon footprint is typical of daily life. Through her collaborative art installations, Bose hopes to draw attention to the suffering felt on the island.
“Hopefully a picture emerges of this community. And hopefully we don’t lose this community. It’s a huge loss of heritage.”
Click on the photo above to see full slideshow from Katakhali and Anacostia
A world away in Anacostia, Bose found a neighborhood fundamentally different but, in some surprising ways, similar. She recalls how often people sang in Bangladesh, and how she would frequently sing while walking down the street. Decades in the United States had her feeling silenced, but in Anacostia she noticed a similar culture of singing in the streets, of conversations on sidewalks and porches, and of outdoor community.
“I’ve felt really connected to the people in this neighborhood through music. My presentations about climate change used to be silent, but now I’ve incorporated singing, and it’s really because of them.”
Bose discovered that in both places, people knew very little about the other community; she found that people in Anacostia did not know much about South Asia, and many of the women in Bangladesh had never seen a black person before.
“There’s a lot of curiosity that people have about other humans across the world,” she observed. Some D.C. residents even said they wanted to visit Bangladesh. One woman says she prays for the people of Katakhali every day.
To open these doors of curiosity and empathy, Bose made the workshops as accessible as possible. They were close to public transit, accessible by wheelchair, and offered sign language interpretation and other translation services. Many of the hundred-plus participants were lower income, in transitional housing, members of a woman’s shelter, in recovery, or struggling with unemployment. During the thirty-five-day federal shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019, Bose offered extra workshops for furloughed government workers.
It was important to Bose that community members be sustainably involved in the work, so when she applied to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ Public Art Building Communities grant program, she specified that a substantial part of her budget would go toward paying the community members and the women in Bangladesh for their work on the saris.
While the colorful saris of the WRAPture installation blew in the breeze on that May day, Bose hosted an open mic where artists read poetry and sang songs about climate change on the sidewalk. People walked by, entranced by the blue, turquoise, and pink tapestries, and she eagerly explained her project and mission. Laden with commitments to make the world better and designs representing two disparate communities, the saris exist, like that moment, at the nexus of Bose’s art and activism.
On the sidewalk in front of the installation, sounds of the waters in the Bay of Bengal and women in Bangladesh singing in Bengali filtered in from speakers, adding to the local soundscape of car horns and squealing bus brakes, greeting observers with both foreign and familiar sounds. There, Bose presented the fruits of six years of connecting and educating: pledges by the people of Anacostia and woodblock prints designed in Katakhali, Bengali words, and hand and footprints, all on the hand-woven cotton saris that she has long used to bring the female experience into the greater public eye.
WRAPture is evidence of Bose’s lifelong mission to connect people and face what she views as the paramount threat to our world: climate change. She has appeared in documentaries, led demonstrations, and worked as an environmental lawyer. But her belief that climate change should be fought with individual action and community building is embodied in no better way than a project like WRAPture: collaboration across the globe, personal pledges, public art, compensated community participation, and cultural contact.
Riley Board is an intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a rising sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont where she studies linguistics and geography.