To mark the opening of M+the new museum of visual culture in Hong Kong, ArtReview will select masterpieces from the museum’s collection as part of its “Work of the Week” series. Stay tuned for a weekly focus on the story of a single work and the network of associations it evokes
For millennia, global maritime commerce has played a vital role in shaping land issues: from language, borders and culture to political warfare, empire building and the personal ambitions of rulers who presided over vast territories. But as is the case with most stories, it is the captains who are remembered while the thousands of ordinary sailors or crew members who made possible their feats of seafaring, exploration and colonization are forgotten.
It is precisely these types of anonymous, ordinary men who are at the center of the feature-length documentary from Mumbai-based studio CAMP From gulf to gulf to gulf (2013). In it, the audience follows several sailors (via footage they themselves shot with cellphone cameras) from the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat, northwest India (and their fellow sailors from Pakistan and Iran), on their journeys to various ports across the Indian Ocean, to Sharjah and further to Somalia.
The film is the fruit of four years of exchanges and dialogues between members of CAMP, founded in Mumbai in 2007 by Shaina Anand, Ashok Sukumaran and Sanjay Bhangar, and sailors who transport goods for trade (electronics, dried pasta , wood) in small used vessels such as dhows or urus. The videos, shot by different sailors over several years, show images of the sea, dhows moving along their routes or burning ships in various ports; and more intimate, everyday scenes of sailors catching fish, getting ready for dinner, playing cards, joking with other boatmen, resting, daydreaming, biding time until the next chore and port of call. They capture the physical reality of travel in all its mundane and intriguing detail.
If, on the one hand, the work is a collaboration between the artists and the subjects of the documentary (a collaboration which in essence questions the notion of who is the “real” author in these situations), then, on the other hand, the the film itself frequently captures how similar “collaborative” moments occur in the pursuit of travel and commerce. Filmed primarily on the popular “music phones” of the early 2010s – music could be copied to and from these devices and exchanged with other phones via Bluetooth – some of these videos are edited to include songs chosen by sailors, sung in Urdu or Hindi, Kutchi, Saraiki, Arabic or Farsi, or the language of the port where these musical exchanges took place between sailors.
In the background of many of these videos are songs about travel and the separation of lovers, or even prayers. Could travel along these routes have looked like this – except for the technology and mechanization – since the monsoon winds blew the first foreign traders from Arabia to the west coast of India?
Traders from Persia and the Gulf region in West Asia had well-documented trade links with India since at least the first century BCE, traveling mostly to what is now the ‘lost’ port of India from Muziris, or Muchiri (near present-day towns of Pattanam and Kodungallur in Kerala), to trade mainly in black pepper, then known as “Black Gold”. These traders would have had exchanges with the local population that included the sharing of languages, food and cultural traditions. Such an exchange is explored by historian Sebastian Prange in his book Monsoon Islam – Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast (2018). In this, he suggests that sailors from the Persian Gulf would have introduced Islam to various coasts bordering these trade routes, and notes that “the communities that developed from the settlement of Muslim traders in the port cities of the Maritime Asia have proven to be enduring: every major historic trading port in the Indian Ocean has a Muslim community that, in some way, traces its history back to these pre-modern exchanges”.
While CAMP’s film makes no direct reference to religion, the video credits for sailors and ship names – MSV Al-Sultan, MSV Faize Sultane Khwaja, MSV Noor e Shabiretc — might suggest that these men are descendants of the Muslim communities that are the focus of Prange’s book.
From the Gulf… takes the viewer to ports like Mangrol, Bosaso, Bandar Abbas, Berbera, Aden, Mombasa, Kismayo, Kutch. While we are offered a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of sailors on the ship, it is both somewhat disappointing and oddly satisfying (insofar as some mystery is maintained) that we are kept at a distance from the personal thoughts of the sailors – except in a brief shot of a nightclub party in an unnamed port. For those of us looking more for a personal story, one might turn to KR Sunil’s series of black and white photographic portraits of old Kerala sailors, Manchukkar – The Sailors of Malabar (2018). These portraits are accompanied by long captions that offer brief and moving accounts of similar sailors who describe the many dangers that await them on these ancient sea routes.
While ancient trade links are recognized and celebrated as part of India’s “glorious” past in textbooks, the historical (and continuing) influence of seafarers like those in CAMP’s film on the social landscape of the underworld. Indian continent is virtually absent from the education system. . This erasing of the influence of Islam from the history of the Indian Ocean trade conveniently adds to the Hindutva agenda of altering the country’s Muslim population. Focusing on those invisible communities of sea nomads whose work blurs national boundaries (presenting a counterweight to current Indian nationalism), From the Gulf… highlights the messy, nuanced and intertwined nature of ocean commerce.
CAMP From gulf to gulf to gulf (2013) can be played on demand at M+ Mediatheque, Hong Kong