On Tuesday, October 23, Tania Bruguera took over Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern for an intervention in solidarity with detained Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam. She and her collaborators filled the space with photographs from Alam’s Crossfire series (2010), portraying extrajudicial killings committed by the Bangladeshi state police force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). (The show was shuttered by the Bangladeshi government, but reopened after Alam challenged the state in court.)
Bruguera held the first action for Alam on October 3 as part of her ongoing exhibition, 10,143,210 (a series of interventions at the Tate Modern responding to the international refugee crisis).
José-Carlos Mariátegui, a curator who organized a photography exhibition in support of Alam in Lima, Peru, first explained Alam’s circumstances to Bruguera in October. Bruguera offered to stage an intervention using those same photographs, as part of her newly opened Hyundai Commission in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. It went up the very next day.
“What keeps you going when you are in prison are your principles and the support of those around you,” Bruguera said at the action.
Mariátegui connected Bruguera to the photographer’s UK-based niece, Sofia Karim, an architect who has been an important voice in the campaign for his release.
This Tuesday, from the museum’s open to close, they reintroduced the Crossfire images to the Tate Modern, this time introducing panels described who Alam is, how and why he is imprisoned, and how people can engage in the campaign to release him and others similarly detained.
Karim says her uncle would have loved it. “Children were running around with the torches and examining the prints … Toddlers were crawling over the art works, some did cartwheels in the aisles. We didn’t mind … They are battered and bruised but that has become part of the show,” she said in a release. “I love the fact that the seemingly rarefied spaces of one of the world’s leading art galleries became the site for such a spontaneous, un-precious, but engaging and interactive show.”
She says the Tate staff did not interrupt, allowing the artists and activists full freedom for the entirety of museum hours.
Shahidul Alam is often heralded for his integral support of the photojournalistic movement in Bangladesh, often praised as the foundation of the success of many photographers in the region, as a teacher and champion of their work. After the traffic-related deaths of two students in Dhaka, massive protests broke out throughout the city, which Alam was actively photographing, as well as voicing his support through videos and written posts on his Facebook feed.
He was abducted from his home and remanded into police custody on August 5, almost immediately following a telecasted segment on Al Jazeera where he condemned the government-sanctioned “gagging of the media” and “bribery and corruption.” He has still not been released.
Bruguera, a Cuban artist who is actively outspoken about her opposition to Cuban law and censorship, was herself jailed in 2014–2015 in Cuba, immediately identifying with his story of government censorship and utilizing the arts as a vehicle for political thought.
“I immediately remembered when I was in a similar situation and how important it was for other artists to support me and the cause in Cuba … solidarity is what we have,” Bruguera said.
Karim told Hyperallergic:
Tania’s generosity astonished us — she just took action straight away. She imposed no conditions on us, even though she had never met my uncle or myself before. Having been herself imprisoned for her work, she could relate to my uncle’s story. She said there were many stark similarities between his story and hers. It was a gesture of solidarity.
I asked Tania how Shahidul might be feeling, what might help him get through this period emotionally — based of course on her experience … Tania gave me a lot of practical advice. It was reassuring to speak to someone who had been through the experience and had come out.
Karim continued, “Some people have asked me how much real difference this sort of gesture makes in whether or not my uncle will be released.” To that, she responds: “I know that when my uncle heard about this show (and other shows) it made him very happy. Also my aunt. That counts for everything as far as I’m concerned. Through art, Tania is helping in the fight for someone’s life and very existence — that is invaluable.”
Alam’s niece says she is glad to see Bangladeshi issues taking the stage in the institution, where many patrons are unfamiliar with the country, and its current politics.
“As Bangladesh slides towards autocracy and repression, as we see journalists around the world being persecuted and murdered, these actions serve also to highlight the plight of many alongside Shahidul who are tortured, imprisoned, abused or disappeared by their governments,” she says.“The Crossfire images have greater poignancy in light of the events surrounding my uncle’s abduction, revealing elements of a story that would be replayed during his own arrest. One image plunges a camera into water to invoke the sensation of waterboarding; my uncle was threatened with waterboarding in custody. Another shows a cloth used to blindfold; in custody, my uncle was made to walk up and down stairs whilst blindfolded, with his hands handcuffed behind his back.”
Currently, a Mass Exhibition is displaying photographs by Alam across the UK at around 50 venues — universities, galleries, and museums. The images originate from Alam’s renowned book, Bangladesh: A Struggle for Democracy – A Photo Journey by Shahidul Alam