Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power at The Rubin Museum of Art




Shahidul Alam (b. 1955, Dhaka, Bangladesh); Bishsho Ijetma; Tongi, Gaipur, Dhaka, Bangladesh; 1988; photograph; courtesy ofShahidul Alam/Drik/Majority WorldBishsho Ijetma isthe second largest religious gathering of Muslims after Mecca. President Ershad and his predecessor President ZiaurRahman introduced Islam as the state religion for political benefit. The nation has struggled to return to its secular roots. —Shahidul Alam

The Rubin Museum of Art will open its doors to Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power, the first U.S. survey of photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam. The exhibition will feature more than 40 images, ephemera, and new work from the artist’s over four-decade career, including portraits, landscapes, and scenes of daily life, strife, and of resistance in the “majority world” ~ a phrase Alam has used since the 1990s to reframe the notion of the “third world” or “global south,” with a view of Bangladesh and South Asia.

Important bodies of work will be highlighted, including A Struggle for Democracy, his earliest series as a professional photojournalist, which highlights Bangladesh’s political struggles against an autocratic leader in the 1980s; photographs from the Brahmaputra Diary series, which explores life across three regions (India, the Tibetan Plateau in China, and Bangladesh) and religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam) along the length of the majestic Brahmaputra River; a sculptural installation of portraits on straw mats from Kalpana’s Warriors, which attempts to break the silence on the disappearance of feminist activist Kalpana Chakma; and more. While shining an unflinching light on major Bangladeshi tragedies as well as daily life, Alam’s images reveal a country and cultures often misunderstood and misrepresented. The exhibition will also feature new work, including a 3D model of the prison where in 2018 he spent more than 100 days behind bars for speaking out against the Bangladeshi government, as well as recent images taken after his release.

Shahidul Alam (b. 1955, Dhaka, Bangladesh); Sailboat FishingforIlish; Daulatdia, Bangladesh; 2001; photograph; courtesy ofShahidul Alam/Drik/Majority WorldSailboats are rapidly disappearing in Bangladesh, but small fishing boats still use sails,particularly during the monsoons. This photo was taken in Daulatdia in the river Padma. The Ilish fish is a delicacy in Bangladesh, and connoisseursswear that the best Ilish is from the river Padma. It was overcast when I arrived,and the light was flat, so I stayed with the fishermen. On the third day,there was an opening in the sky,and a shaft of sunlight fell on the boats nearby.The dark clouds at the back werea perfect backdrop. The red sail was a bonus. The magical light only stayed for a few minutes, but that was enough. I had my picture.—Shahidul Alam

“I heard of the possibility to show my work at the Rubin through three layers of bars with noise levels of over 100 decibels. I was in jail, but the choice was clear: this was an opportunity not to be missed,” says Shahidul Alam. “Truth to Power is a tribute to the numerous acts of resistance all across the globe and gives hope to those who continue to believe that a better world is possible. I’m thrilled to have the support of the Rubin Museum.”

In addition to his powerful photographs, Alam’s global impact and importance as the conceptual architect of transformative institutions — Drik Picture Library, Drik Photo Agency, Pathshala South Asia Media Institute, Chobi Mela Photography Festival, Majority World Photos — and the regional solidarity he has been able to catalyze cannot be overstated and will be illustrated through the exhibition narrative.

Shahidul Alam (b. 1955, Dhaka, Bangladesh); Climate Refugees; river crossing between Bondor Tila Ghat in Mijhum Dwip and Moktaria Bazar in Hatiya, Bangladesh; 2009; photograph; courtesyofShahidul Alam/Drik/Majority WorldA man and two children from the low-lyingareas of theBrahmaputra river look for safer shelter. The river is notorious for its eroding banks,and many Bangladeshis have lost their homes severaltimes due to river erosion.—Shahidul Alam

“Photographic imagery in South Asia has become an effective means for the underrepresented to claim voice and political presence. Alam is masterful at using images to tell stories and shine a light on injustices and inequities,” says Beth Citron, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Rubin and organizer of the exhibition. “In a time when free speech and expression is challenged in Bangladesh and across the world, Shahidul Alam’s lifelong work reveals the power of truth and voice in effecting change. As shown by the global support for Alam across the art world, literary sphere, scholarly community, and humanitarian organizations during his recent period of incarceration in Dhaka, Shahidul Alam’s eminence cuts across fields.”

Alam’s role as change-maker is one he inhabits with equal resolve and energy. His belief in nurturing visual literacy has driven him to go beyond mere advocacy: Through the institutions he has built, the disenfranchised and misrepresented are able to tell their own stories.

Shahidul Alam (b. 1955, Dhaka, Bangladesh); Mural of Noor Hossainin Jahangirnagar University Campus;Jahangirnagar, Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh;1987; photograph; courtesy ofShahidul Alam/Drik/Majority WorldOn November 10, 1987, the opposition parties in Bangladesh tried to stage a siege of Dhaka in an attempt to oust President Ershad.Noor Hossain was a young worker who joinedthe protestin the streets. “Let democracy be freed” was painted onhis back, and police shot him. The mural on the walls of Jahangirnagar University on the outskirts of Dhaka is dedicated to him.—Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power will be on view from November 8th through May 4, 2020 at The Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, NYC.

This exhibition is organized by Curator Beth Citron, in close cooperation with Alam and with support from artists and photographers in Bangladesh.

As part of the exhibition, Shahidul Alam will give a talk on November 7 at 6 PM at the Rubin Museum of Art.