For over 30 years, images by Shahidul Alam, one of Bangladesh’s most prominent photojournalists, writers, and activists, have made a profound impression on the interconnected worlds of art and politics. Photographs representing social justice activists who have been “disappeared” alongside images of outright beauty are among the many hallmarks of Alam’s work, which has fostered a generation of photojournalists throughout South Asia.
New works by Alam and associated artists, friends, and relatives are currently on view at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago. The exhibition bears witness to hardships borne by impoverished migrants, sex workers (one of whom used her savings to create an orphanage for the children of other sex workers), and indigenous peoples, as well as the disappearance of human rights activist and feminist Kalpana Chakma, which was carried out by the Bangladeshi military.
Shahidul Alam: We Shall Defy focuses on a series of nine large banners that make reference to Patachitara, an ancient form of Bangla art in which cloth scrolls are painted with detailed depictions of mythical narratives. The banners in this exhibition are printed with photographs by Alam and 14 fellow artists, continuing the traditional storytelling method while illuminating the lived experiences of the Bangladeshi people. Panels containing verse, with illustrations by singer-songwriter and performance artist Amal Akash and texts by Alam, bring context to each one.
Contributors to the exhibition include London–based architect, artist, and poet Sofia Karim (who is Alam’s niece), and New York-based artist Naeem Mohaiemen in collaboration with the King Kortobbyo collective (Suborna Morsheada, Mehedi Hasan, Md Khairul Alam Shada, Pijush Talukder, Rakib Anwar), all of whom elaborate on the history of photography as a tool for activism.
The gathering of artists’ work is of a piece with Alam’s exceptional life. In 1989, he co-founded the Drik Picture Library, a photographic agency that provided a platform and visibility for South Asian photographers. The library spawned projects such as a photography academy and Asia’s first international photography festival. Alam’s activism has also provoked violent confrontations, including being stabbed and threatened with a gun to his head. In 2018, after making “false” and “provocative” statements criticizing Bengali Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an Al Jazeera interview, he was imprisoned for 107 days.
To reserve tickets for Shahidul Alam: We Shall Defy, visit wrightwood659.org.
This exhibition is made possible by the Alphawood Foundation Chicago.
Shahidul Alam: We Shall Defy is on view at Wrightwood 659 (659 W. Wrightwood Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614) Fridays and Saturdays. Hours are Fridays 12–7pm and Saturdays 10am–5pm.
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