Blue is a shape shifting, mood altering, atmospheric color. It can be filled with as much melancholia as nostalgia, as much serenity as ecstasy. In Homayra Adiba’s photographic series, Where Blue Birds Fly, a blue light suffuses the images, seeping into corners, illuminating quiet moments.
There is an essay in Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide To Getting Lost entitled “The Blue of Distance”. It begins with the lines, “The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost.” Adiba’s work is infused with this particular blue. A blue of longing for spaces, horizons, rooftops. It is a blue that speaks to separation, connection, and memory. The artist’s own connection to these rooftops touches each of these images, viewed from afar, asking questions about how we keep places within ourselves once we move away.
Plants grow, women gather, children fly kites, fireworks explode, life unfolds upon these spaces. Throughout the series we see the sprawl of the city, growing upwards and outwards. The rooftop then is perhaps a conduit to escape, an outdoor room to grow, a way to lay claim to a bit of sky. It is a space where past and present overlap, where the future can be felt in the sky opening up to possibility. In this interview for LensCulture, Magali Duzant speaks to Adiba about dipping into her childhood memories, life lived on the city of Dhaka’s rooftops and the thorny concept of ‘home’.
Magali Duzant: As a starting point, I’m wondering how you found your way to photography?
Homayra Adiba: I would like to think of myself as a storyteller. Photography happens to be one of those mediums I fell in love with. When I was little, one of my aunts gathered all the cousins in the living room. She gave us each a sheet of paper and asked us to write down what we wanted to be when we are older. I vividly remember that she read my paper loudly in front of the audience! Not because I wanted to be an astronaut but because I wrote: “If lord (Allah) wishes!”
Soon enough, I understood that my chances of becoming an astronaut were slim. If you are from Dhaka, being a doctor or an engineer is the only option you get from family. Anything else would turn you into a black sheep. I was a black sheep. I couldn’t set my mind for either of those. I wanted to be something else but l had no idea what! And then it was time to go to college. I went for a degree in graphic design and multimedia. My parents were not very happy about it. Honestly, I wasn’t sure either. But that path eventually led me to photography.
I soon went to my parents to tell them I wanted to go for photography and that wasn’t easy. I had already dropped out of graphic design school. They had lost faith in me. But thank goodness for cinema, I could steal enough convincing dialogue to get them to let me transfer to a photography school! They had one condition. If I go for photography, I will be on my own. I took the challenge and applied to Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. I worked hard and got a scholarship there, which supported my education. Pathshala had opened a new world of photography for me, it was a proud transition in my life.
MD: Once you started photographing in earnest how did this body of work, Where Blue Birds Fly, begin?
HA: I always like to wander in the past, in memories. I like to live there. Everybody says you need to live for the future. But there I was, living in the past. Those days gave me hope to live for the future.
This work started in my second year at Pathshala under the course of documentary. It was a weekly assignment about space. I thought to myself, ‘space’. That’s funny! Where the heck would I find a piece of space in Dhaka city? A city where on the public bus I had to tolerate the warm breath of my fellow passenger. Sometimes they would sleep on my shoulder! A city consisting of 18 million citizens! Is there really any space? I was thinking all of this on a late afternoon sitting on my rooftop. I thought, oh well. That’s a space.
I started photographing rooftops. Initially it was just for that assignment. Those photographs were different than how the work turned out today. When the assignment was over, I kept taking pictures of different rooftops. Rooftops were bringing my childhood back. It was always so peaceful to end a hectic day on top of a rooftop; looking at the city, at the sunset, as the birds returned to their nests.
MD: When your work was first brought to my attention I was captivated by the color you use. The tinge of the photographs feels almost as if we are viewing these images through the fog of memory, there is a blue light that feels both familiar and otherworldly. Can you talk about the palette of your photographs and how it might connect to greater themes in the work?
HA: Over time, Where Blue Birds Fly directed me towards many narratives, multiple meanings, and observations. But truly it’s a work where I relived my memories. I grew up in a joint family. A red old building in Dhaka where my cousins and I grew up. The rooftop was the place where we met. Even today, all the memories are as alive as if I were still 10 years old. Plabon (one of my cousins) used to play detective, he would spend hours trying to find out how that piece of pearl ended up on the rooftop. My uncle gave me lessons about trees and how they function there. My uncle, mejho mama, is a poet. He used to play flute on the rooftop. Till this day, that melody tinkles in my ears when I watch the city from a rooftop! I never heard anything like that after he became paralyzed.
One afternoon, he was very upset—one mango tree wasn’t producing any fruit for a couple of years; that mango tree was big for a rooftop tree. He worked so hard on it. I went to the tree and started scratching it, beating it, asking for mangos! I was mad, because uncle was dear to me. Uncle later sat me down and informed me about trees having life, emotions. He taught me about the scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose who was also Bengali and who used his own invention, the Cresco graph to measure plant response to different stimulation and thereby scientifically proved parallelism between animal and plants.
He told me: “You have to be patient, for we don’t know when nature will take its place.” He asked me to apologize to the tree. I went and asked for forgiveness. You see, I learned trees had life on top of a rooftop. A year later, there were mangoes on that tree. My cousins and I would fly kites, count stars, sing a song there. When it rained, my mother and I would go there, and it’s a little cinematic, but we actually used to sing while being washed by raindrops!
MD: Can you tell me a bit more about the specific rooftops you visited?
HA: Our apartment was on the top floor, the rooftop had a garden planted by my father. He had a lot of pigeons; they would circle above the building before sunset. My father used to sit there, watching them, letting the day pass. The rooftop was a ritual, a place we city kids used to plan our picnics,where we would all meet when there was a power cut. I knew each person in my family a little intimately there. I watched crows schooling from my rooftop. I received my first love letter, from a strange teenage boy from the next building, on the rooftop. As if under the sky you become more open. When you can look down at the city, you want to slow down and rest. Even on my friend’s rooftop, we made many memories. You can just go there and sit you know? For however long you want.
As it turns out, every rooftop had its own story—even the abandoned one. It told me about those people who don’t visit. The rooftops of office buildings were funny; so abandoned that it seems no one ever stepped foot there. Like, the moon landing! As if I was the first. In three years, I have been to many rooftops in Dhaka city. As a photographer, I even noticed that if you show up, randomly and ask for an entrance, people do welcome you to their rooftop! They would start conversations, little things to introduce their very own place. “See, from here you can see the new flyover or from here you can see the Mosque. You should come during this time to watch the fireworks!” Some of the old buildings were made in a way, where if you wanted to get to the rooftop you had to make your way through their bedrooms; those are the best kinds.
MD: Did you usually shoot at the same time of day?
HA: I wanted to keep this feeling of nostalgia in my images. Most of them are taken in the evening, before sunset. That’s usually the time you would find me playing on my rooftop back in the 90s. I don’t know why exactly, but till this day I feel melancholic when the day is coming to an end. That time of the day when the sun is setting, everyone is heading towards home… even the crows go back to their nests. I feel both sadness and relief. Another day ends, tomorrow will be a new day.
Like my childhood, the ‘rooftop generation’ is fading. The city is growing fast, now we have more high-rise apartments and less time to spare. In a three year span of working on this project, I could vividly feel how some kids in Dhaka city had never spent a moment on their rooftop. How they might not have a hint of how to improvise a polyethylene bag and turn it into a balloon when you are bored! Do teenage boys still pass small letters to the girls next door and secretly meet on the rooftop?
MD: There is a lovely social aspect to the images—you are meeting neighbors, discovering other’s personal spaces, a communal feeling through image making emerges. In your biography you write about the idea of home being rooted in your photography and you mention that you moved to Michigan in 2016.Has this transition made its way into your imagery?
HA: When I started working on my documentaries, I thought I had all the ideas one needs about home. For me, home was there. Where my land is, where my family is, where my friends are. Little did I know that ‘home’ might bring a different meaning to my life! A meaning, that seemed absurd in the beginning, and for a long time after. I was very determined, when I moved to the USA, that soon enough I would come back to my land, my home. And I did, within two months of moving, I actually came back to Dhaka. But home wasn’t there anymore. The city was the same, but someone else was waiting for their family on the top floor of that red old building. My family was in Michigan. And my friends were all busy.
It’s a strange feeling, when you are in a different land, the weather is different, the people are, the language is, the roads, even the trees! And you are not really a tourist there. I felt like a tropical tree in Michigan… with no roots. Displaced. I am not from here. I don’t have a clue! How is it to be someone from here? Never in my life had I felt so alien. But once I returned back to Dhaka, I felt the same. Disconnected. As if, there wasn’t a little bit of home left for the city to offer me. I became, what I felt at that time, homeless.
It felt like forever that, as a storyteller, I had lost my story. No place to call home. No past to wander around. Sure, I had a present, but no clue what I was supposed to do with it. Not that I had plans of moving to a different country! So I really had no idea what I could do here. My family, including myself, had to survive here first. The first couple years were just working at a minimum wage job, paying rent and for what? I felt trapped really. Broken and lost. In those times of misery I would look at snow and think, how mesmerizing! Would you give up everything to watch a snowy night? I tried being friends with the trees here. Like my uncle taught me. And they did help me.
MD: Do you see or feel a difference in your work or working methods?
HA: The more I try to understand the definition of ‘home’, and the new meaning it offers me, I am not sure if I like any of them but they are all true. I even googled the definition of ‘home’: “A place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family.”
A year back, I realized I know one or two things about this place. I know one or two people. I have one or two memories. I have taken one or two pictures. I have learned one or two new things here.
For now, this may be home. I live in a not so busy but not so quiet area in Michigan. I like it here. The neighbors are nice, the geese are a little aggressive… deer here are dear and squirrels are always asking for more food! The kids do play outside still. Everyone loves a sunny day and no one likes the snow. These are the things I take pictures of. In the transition, when my family and I had to survive first, I didn’t always have the opportunity to take pictures. But this lack of opportunity made my mind explore different media. Linocut and print and recycled paper making are two of those I am practicing beside photography recently.
My way of working has changed from photography and text to mixed media. I am still experimenting with all these resources and I’m spending time with my ongoing stories to understand what does it mean and how does it feel to exist?