NEPN and Breeze Creatives presented an exhibition by the acclaimed Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam during Freedom City 2017 festival. In this powerful installation, Alam explores issues of racism, social injustice and civil war in his study of the disappearance of Kalpana Chakma. The exhibition ran 1 December 2017 – 11 January 2018 at Level II Gallery, Bamburgh House, Newcastle upon Tyne. There was also a talk by Shahidul Alam and reception event on 8 December.
Kalpana Chakma was a vocal and charismatic leader who campaigned for the rights of indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area of Bangladesh. She was abducted from her home at gunpoint 20 years ago by a military officer and two members of the Village Defence Party and has never been seen again.
Kalpana, who was just 23 when she was abducted, had made it her life’s mission to campaign for the rights of the indigenous people living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), known as Jumma people. She belonged to the Chakma or Pahari community, and was a leader of the Hill Women’s Federation.
The conflict in the CHT, which has been described as “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” began around 1977, soon after the Bangladesh state came into being and continues to this day in spite of a peace treaty negotiated in 1997 between the state and the Jumma people.
There have been multiple reports of human rights violations, massacres and the razing of entire villages by Bangladeshi forces. According to Amnesty International, allegations are met with indifference by corrupt officials, or by official reprisal. Following damning reports by Amnesty International and other human rights concerns, the Bangladesh government has placed restrictions upon the Jumma peoples speaking with outsiders (restrictions which do not apply to the Bengali population in the region)
The portraits of ‘Kalpana’s warriors’ – those who have refused to let go of her memory and legacy – were created using laser etching on straw mats. This innovative technique, developed specifically for this exhibition, is rooted in the everyday realities of the people and the sparse conditions of Kalpana’s home where she slept on the floor on a straw mat. Alam wanted the portraits to be burnt onto the mats to remind the viewer of the fires deliberately set by the authorities who had burnt the Pahari villages – something that Kalpana was protesting about in her last confrontation with the military.
The laser device is also commonly found in Bangladesh’s garment factories, notorious for their poor working conditions after tragedies such as Rana Plaza, where more than 1,100 workers died in 2013 when a factory collapsed.
‘I have never met Kalpana Chakma, I only knew her in terms of her activism but I feel I know her in other ways. I have sat on her bed, read her diaries, spent time with her family, and I have looked at archival footage of her talks. But more importantly, I have felt her presence among the people who survive…
Because of the situation of the workers, a laser device which is used in the garment industry being appropriated for something like this was for me very apt, because I think as artists we need to appropriate the spaces, we need to turn things around. It’s guerrilla warfare and in guerrilla warfare you have to use the enemy’s strength against them, which is what we are trying to do. I wanted the process itself to deal with the politics.’
Shahidul Alam 2016.
The exhibition was curated by Rahnuma Ahmed, Shahidul Alam, Saydia Gulrukh, Sadia Marium and ASM Rezaur Rahman in partnership with Drik, Bangladesh and was presented by NEPN and Breeze Creatives in partnership with Autograph ABP. Supported by Arts Council England, DRIK Picture Library Bangladesh and the Northern Centre of Photography at the University of Sunderland.
Part of Freedom City 2017 – a city wide programme across Newcastle marking the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. receiving an honorary degree from Newcastle University. Freedom City 2017 was a partnership project between Newcastle University, Northern Roots and NewcastleGateshead Initiative.