Breaking Barriers in South Asia

Image Courtesy | Suman Paul AFP 2018

The Prince Claus Fund Biennial Symposium, held in December 2023, included Shahidul Alam, the famed Bangladeshi photojournalist and activist, who brought views about the future of South Asia along with astounding stories of his four-decade career, showing the range of his practice and impact across the globe. He provided a refined view of Bangladesh and South Asia and stressed the importance of self-representation, empowerment, and truth as Alam sees it through his lens. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ARTRA Magazine Azara Jaleel interviewed Shahidul Alam about his long-term relationship with Sri Lanka, and his relationship with art as a medium for activism across South Asia and beyond. 

Q | You were talking about the potency of art earlier in your speech which I found very powerful. How have you seen this potency burgeon in the last few years? Could you give us a better understanding of certain contexts in which it has happened so that those of us in Sri Lanka can also see the strength of the institutions of art? 

A |  I come from a slightly different position in the sense that I took on art practice because I recognized what it was capable of doing. I was involved at that time in studying my BSc in Organic Chemistry which is very far away from all this. I became involved with black politics and socialist work with a party in Britain and I began to see how powerfully they use images for their campaigns. I’ve always had an interest in social justice and I decided that if I were to achieve something, I would use the most powerful tool at my disposal. That was a conscious decision that led me to photography. Essentially for me, artwork itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. I use art because it works. Because it’s powerful, because it gets beneath the skin, it’ll haunt you in your dreams, and it can disturb you. It has a destructive ability which for me is its core strength. 

To that extent, one of the things that’s concerned me is how art institutions castrated us and sanctified art for an audience. I can’t say much about the Sri Lankan scene here, I can only talk about Bangladesh. I mean there is the major biennale that used to be the Asian art biennale. It’s been there for years and years and it did very little other than pictorialism and there was never a message, there was never a content. There was never destruction. I feel that it is an artist’s ability to be destructive– it is perhaps the most powerful thing an artist can do. In a sense, that is what I have done in my own practice. I have also been very conscious of the fact that if you were to bring about change, you can do that as an individual but you can also do it through institutions. Whereas the major institutions were state-led or establishment-led, the fact that there could be no establishment institutions that challenged--like in Germany -- was what I was after. That's where my space has been. So we’ve intervened in three areas largely media, education and culture. Across the three areas, we’ve tried to exert pressure upon the political space so politicians and power brokers cannot get away with indiscretions. For me, I have nothing against someone else wanting to use art for art’s sake or wanting to paint pretty pictures. Actually, I have nothing against pretty pictures either because there is powerful imagery, powerful art that is evocative and can engage in a way that uninteresting art cannot, so I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I think that one of the best ways to which one can challenge these power structures is to be bloody good at what you do. So, A) you’re effective and B) you cannot be ignored. 

So, I will turn your question around. One of the things that I was surprised by was when I was given the Shilpakala Award in 2015. In my country, generally these awards are given to people that the government likes.  People who say the right things and who don't rock the boat. Giving it to me made me question myself: Am I losing that space, am I selling out? What was very interesting was when one of the jury members confided in me that they had to give me that award because otherwise, they would lose their credibility. I think that is a position one needs to try and engage with, where your work has to be strong enough so you are there based on the credibility you’ve established for yourself.

Q | I remember seeing some of the work that you showcased in Dakar with moving three-wheelers. So, you have also been inventive in a medium through which you have showcased photography. Can you kindly expand more on those alternative ways that you’ve shown your work?

A |  That has to do with what works and what doesn’t. I’m very pragmatic. If my art does not achieve what I intended, I discard it. I’m not married to the medium. And I’m not too concerned with the semantics of it, it’s whether it works or not, that’s where my criteria stand. What happened in that particular case has to do with an exhibition I had been locked up in. It happened at the Goethe Institute, I believe and it was my first exhibition. I invited my clients, my friends. And I also invited some alternate people that I was associated with. I invited the janitors, the caterers and the cleaners in the very offices I used to work in and I gave them all a card. Not one of them came. So I asked them, "How come? I did invite you." And they asked me "Well, who would have let us in?"

And you know what, it got me thinking-- there’s probably a guard who feels it is his job to prevent a rickshaw driver from coming in because this is not for them. And had they been allowed to come in, people like you and me, would probably through our body language, let them know that they did not belong. It is very elitist, it’s very exclusionary; so then, it was an idea of thinking 'If the people will not go to the gallery, then the gallery must go to the people.' So that’s why we designed those mobile things and you saw the rickshaw vans, we’ve done them on boats, we’ve done them on bullock carts, we’ve done them on camels.

Q | How did you mechanically achieve that? That must have been quite a challenge!

A | Mechanistically it wasn’t such a challenge, largely because the people we were doing it for were largely receptive to what it was. They became the champions. I mean we did that in Sri Lanka on tuk tuks. I did a show on HIV and AIDS called ‘Portraits of Commitment’. It was in 2008 or 2007, where essentially, we had two versions, one was on tuk tuks and the other was in bus shelters. So, the posters at bus shelters were my exhibit. But we went further than that with the tuk tuks. We actually took on the tuk tuk drivers and they became the people who were explaining the curatorial concept to the audience. So, they went to the railway stations and they sat down and lots of people came and the tuk tuk drivers explained what it was. This was a show about HIV and AIDS and what we were working on at that time was how to destigmatize HIV and AIDS. It wasn’t so much about the pictures; it was more about what it meant and why this was being done. And so, once we explained this to the tuk tuk drivers, they then took it on board and they became the messengers.

Q |  How were you able to surpass the language barriers? I would imagine it would have been challenging, since they mostly speak in Sinhalese.

A | So, what happened was, I spoke in English to them, but we had interpreters to translate. When the drivers had questions, we explained to them by talking but also by talking through images. I think they took pride in it; their tuktuk, them being the messenger and being the people who engaged with the audience. They were given very different roles than just being the driver.

Q | Is there anything in particular in Sri Lankan Art, modern or contemporary that you found interesting, or an artist?

A | I don’t know very much. I still can’t say I know very much. I met Dominic Sansoni, the photographer and Dominic came up to Bangladesh where we ran an international workshop together. I’ve shown at Barefoot Gallery. I walked into the Bangladesh High Commission here once, and I went up the stairs and there was a little truck next to the stairway with water on it. I rang the bell and I discovered that the High Commissioner's office was in Geoffrey Bawa's house. I did a story on Bangladeshi migrants to Malaysia, and my work is what it is, so I was critical of the regime as well, but he found ways in which he could somehow get my work through. I’ve probably got the only book that’s endorsed by the Bangladeshi government.

Q | If you could put it into a phrase, how would you describe your life as an artist?

A |  I would not describe myself as an artist. I would describe myself as an activist who used art. I use art because it works and if tomorrow there is something else that works better, then I will take it up. I’m not worried about the medium, I will use any means necessary. I'll sing, I'll dance. I don’t do any of them very well, but if that’s what it takes, that's what I’ll do.

Shahidul Alam is a photojournalist, activist, educationist and curator who has exhibited his work in various international galleries, such as MOMA in New York, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern in London, Museum of Contemporary Arts in Tehran, and documenta fifteen. He was given the Shilpakala Award in 2015, the highest award given to a Bangladeshi artist. In 2022, Shahidul was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Arts in London.


Written by Namalee Siriwardhene

Edited by Kavinu Cooray

18th June, 2024 Visual Art | Photography