Truth to Biases: Shahidul Alam at the Rubin Museum

By Sumeja Tulic

March 20, 2020

36_10_142_39_Cow looking for grazing land 1991
Shahidul Alam, Cow Looking for Grazing Land; Khulna, Bangladesh, (1991) photograph courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.

Art openings are communal exercises in recognition conducted at the frequency between murmur and silence. At the opening of Shahidul Alam’s first major U.S. museum retrospective, “Truth to Power” in the Rubin Museum, that frequency was interrupted by a speech given by the artist. The attention of the room was on him: the man who spent several months in detention for speaking against the violent crackdown on student protests in Bangladesh in 2018. While everyone listened to Alam, their backs were to some of the 40 photographs and ephemera: portraits and landscapes from “the majority world,” a sociopolitical and geographical nomenclature Alam uses for the so-called “third world” or “global south.” Alam’s photographic renderings of the majority world show resistance, struggle, and life in all of its other facets. In the Rubin Museum these photographs are framed and lit from above. The night of the opening and from a distance, they looked to me like street lamps on a foggy night. 

Standing in the back, I couldn’t see Alam, so my attention drifted away from trying to see him to looking at the photographs in the outer corners of the show. One of them stood out in particular: a black and white photograph, Cow Looking for Grazing Land (1991). In the photograph, the cow is standing on a pathway connecting two sides of a riverbank. A jarring sense of discomfort took me over, induced by compact and minimalist landscapes that verged on looking empty. That is not only what I felt, but also what I saw in the eyes of the cow. Its piercing stare, once directed at the camera, was now looking at me. Because it was looking at me, and despite my discomfort, I was able to engage it. “The photograph is out there, an object in the world, and anyone, always (at least in principle), can….trace it such a way as to reopen the image and renegotiate what it shows,” wrote Ariella Azoulay in “The Civil Contract of Photography.” As any memorable photograph, Alam’s photograph of the cow isn’t explicit—it is open. It invites the looker in. So, a guest who overpacked enters the frame and takes over the surfaces of the hospitality offered. Before one learns that it depicts the environmental degradation caused by aquaculture, pushed to meet the demands of profit, one implements the real and the imagined self. As it were and despite all, that self, for the time being, is in Chelsea, New York and its micro-world of anxiety stemming from no immediate danger, no lack of substantive comfort, and always a bit cold, hurried, in the time of the show’s opening, at the end of 2019.

A Struggle for Democracy
Shahidul Alam, Protesters in Motijheel Break Section 144 on Dhaka Siege Day; Motijheel, Dhaka, Bangladesh; (1987) photograph courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World.

“Truth to Power ” isn’t a house without doors and ground rules. In the vein of traditional documentary photography, especially those executed in black and white, the urgency and specificity of its subjects and demands are pronounced: A Struggle for Democracy (1980s-ongoing), for example, features a series of photographs depicting Bangladesh in the aftermath of its independence from Pakistan in 1971; the socio-economic divide in Bangladesh is made explicit in a series of photographs of the lavish wedding of a Bangladeshi minister which occurred during a catastrophic flooding in the late 1988s; Kalpana’s Warriors, portraits on straw mats, draw attention to the disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, a human rights activist and feminist, who has been missing for almost 25 years. Aside from the photographs, the exhibition also features a 3D model of the prison from which Alam was released 107 days after and on bail.

 Does the act of looking at Alam’s photograph immediately “wound” and compel action? Not all, not immediately, and at least, not as much one’s moral and political ideals would inspire one to. Alam’s photograph, like all photographs in Azoulay’s view, exists “on the verge of catastrophe.” To see the catastrophe, Azoulay prescribes a collaboration with a photograph. This collaboration is predicated on “prolonged observation” in which the photograph becomes more than an image on the wall or, in my case, a street lamp on a foggy night. They become more than invitations to enter: they request participation and responsibility.   

Smriti Azad at Protest at Shaheed Minar
Shahidul Alam, Smriti Azad at Protest at Shaheed Minar; Shaheed Minar, Dhaka, Bangladesh; (1994), photograph courtesy ofShahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

In the murmur and silence of the gallery space, one finds that not everything essential and urgent appears as such in Alam’s photograph. The frame is unconcerned with the expectations of its viewers. Even though this is the case, alongside its political ambitions, the photographs operate in the realm of the epistemological. In that regard, they provoke self-reflection:What forms a bias? What forms my biases? What of it is learned and what is innate? Can I resist the smug confidence of my supposed awareness? Will I resist or look away, searching for something else?  All of that was what I struggled with in the Rubin Museum and, in all honesty, in most other museums: a struggle for improving one’s visual literacy–a cause dear and close to Alam.

 Aside from his careers in photography, activism, and writing, Alam funded  the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in Dhaka in 1998, which trains local photographers. Alongside it in 1989, Alama and Rahnuma Ahmed, a journalist and human rights activist, established the Drik Picture Library, which provides publishers with photographs and printing services. In 1999, he initiated the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival. Through these institutions and initiatives, Alam provides the storytellers from “the majority world” with opportunities to express themselves and their communities in their own visual language, and unapologetically, as he did, at the Rubin Museum.  

Woman in Ballot Booth
Shahidul Alam, Woman in Ballot Booth; Lamatia, Dhaka, Bangladesh; (1991) photograph courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

After Alam was done with his speech, I went about finding something that will complement the image of the cow that was forever embedded in my memory. I was looking for an opaque potency welcoming of what I know and don’t know; of what I understand and misunderstand; of what I hope I am and what I am. Amongst the silver gelatin prints I found it: Woman in Ballot Booth (1991), Lamatia, Dhaka, Bangladesh. In this black and white photograph, a shadow of a woman bends her upper body over a ballot ticket, her act of deciding forever suspended in the photograph; her hopes always with me.

Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power remains on view through May 4, 2020 at the Rubin Museum, 150 W 17th, New York. Please be advised that the museum is closed indefinitely but images and exhibition resources are available online.

Sumeja Tulic is Libyan-born Bosnian writer and photographer currently based in New York City.

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