Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power @Rubin Museum

JTF (just the facts): A total of 77 works dated between 1988 and 2019.

The photographic works in the exhibition are:

  • 25 framed and matted black-and-white photographs
  • 17 framed and matted color prints
  • 4 black-and-white contact sheets
  • 4 laser etchings on straw mats
  • 22 iPhone photographs displayed on a touchscreen kiosk

The exhibition also includes:

  • 1 recording and transcript
  • 1 homemade radio
  • 1 architectural model
  • 2 calendars

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Bangladeshi photojournalist and activist Shahidul Alam, now 65, considers himself a resident of what he calls “the majority world”—the non-white world that most of the globe inhabits. Through his images, he has been a voice for that geographic and psychic realm since the 1980s. Just as important, he has helped it speak for itself through the organizations he has founded, including Bangladesh’s Drik photo agency and Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, the first photography school in South Asia.

Curated by Beth Citron, the Rubin Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, this compact overview of Alam’s oeuvre offers an insider’s view of a country and a region that is (and has been for the whole of Alam’s career) on the front lines of the most urgent problems facing humanity today.

Growing up in Dhaka, Alam witnessed first hand Bangladesh’s struggle to become a secular democracy, beginning with its independence from Pakistan in 1971. Though founded on democratic ideals, the newly formed country became a military dictatorship in 1983 under President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who seized power that year in a bloodless coup.

Alam, who had been studying organic chemistry abroad, returned to Bangladesh in 1984 with a camera, working at first as a fashion and advertising photographer and then, increasingly, recording the record the daily lives of Bangladeshis under authoritarian rule. The show opens with a group of documentary black-and-white street photographs made between 1984 and 1990, the year Ershad was ousted following a pro-democracy uprising.

These early images make clear Alam’s debt to the aesthetics of legendary photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson and his theory of the “decisive moment”—the instant in which an everyday situation became a metaphor for larger historical events. Like Cartier-Bresson, Alam here closes in on the particular: a mural commemorating the death of a protester; singer Shaheed Minar, her fist raised, at a anti-government rally; an emptied-out downtown street in Dhaka after a strike; to speak of the social turmoil of the period.

Pictures from this time also capture the early warning signs of a climate catastrophe to come. (Bangladesh is now one of the countries most threatened by global warming.) In one photograph, taken in 1988 following Bangladesh’s worst flooding in a century, a woman wades, water up to mid-thigh, down a city street; a nearby image shows another woman, surrounded by her belongings, cooking on her roof under a turbulent sky.

Although the section ends with photographs of celebrations and elections held in the aftermath of Ershad’s resignation, it also includes an image of a poor village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of southeastern Bangladesh. It anticipates Alam’s subsequent focus on marginalized peoples and communities far beyond, and out of sight of, urban centers like Dhaka.

A body of work devoted to Kalpana Chakma, an indigenous activist from one such village, who disappeared after being abducted by military personnel and civilian law enforcement in 1996, marks Alam’s break both from straight photography and the influence of Carter-Bresson. With only a single blurred newspaper photograph of Chakma extant, Alam set about creating a portrait of her though her belongings—a red shawl, a diary, and a scuffed shoe found near the place where she vanished. Like Susan Meiselas and LaToya Ruby Frazier, among others, who have found photographic documentation insufficient or impossible, Alam here pushes against the limits of the medium, though with mixed results.

Alam returned to conventional photography in the 1990s, most notably in his series on Bangladeshi migrant workers. Half a million Bangladeshi laborers travel each year to other countries, where they are often exploited physically and financially. The exhibition focuses—in images of airport goodbyes and of the women and children who labor in India’s sugarcane fields—on Bangladeshi workers in South Asian countries, though Alam has also photographed and interviewed laborers in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

In the late 1990s, Alam journeyed along the Himalayan Brahmaputra River, photographing the landscapes of Tibet, India, and Bangladesh. In these bucolic pictures he celebrated the beauty of the region rather than its problems but returned to political subject matter in 2009, with a series of color photographs of Bangladeshi climate refugees on the move. Depicting desperate families fleeing rising waters, they are some of Alam’s most powerful images.

Continuing his focus on the disenfranchised are Alam’s recent pictures, also in color, of Rohingya refugees. A religious and ethnic minority in neighboring Myanmar, the Muslim Rohingya have persecuted since 2015 by Myanmar’s military. Bangladesh has been lauded for taking in thousands of Rohingya, but as seen in these photographs, they subsist there for the most part in hellish tent cities.

An interactive kiosk near the end of the exhibition allows viewers to scroll through Alam’s recent iPhone pictures. Ranging from an image of homeless people sheltering under a truck in Dhaka to one of a well-dressed woman and her poodle in the London subway, they continue his examination of inequity by other, more immediate, means.

The final object in the exhibition is not a photograph but a model of Bangladesh’s Keraniganj prison, where, as a consequence of his public siding with student activists in Dhaka, Alam was held for almost four months in 2018. It’s a fitting conclusion to a show that, in the end, inadvertently reveals him to be a greater activist than photographer; one of this survey’s disappointments is in how orthodox his images seem when viewed in bulk.

Ultimately, however, the medium, for Alam, is probably less important than the message. It’s no accident, perhaps, that this exhibition appears at a museum dedicated not only to the art of the Himalayas in general but to Buddhist art in particular. Implicit in Alam’s documentation of natural disasters, civil unrest, and the dispossession of migrant workers, indigenous people, and refugees, is the Buddhist teaching of interdependence, in which such problems—especially in our increasingly interconnected world—are never just problems for others, but problems for us all.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. Shahidul Alam is represented by Drik in Dhaka (here). Alam’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best options for those collectors interested in following up.

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