In late August 2018 I was visiting artist friends in London when conversation at the dinner table turned to Shahidul Alam's recent incarceration and what we could do to support him. I had never met Shahidul in person but I knew of his importance as a photographer through my professional life as a curator focused on South Asia for over fifteen years. On a personal level, I was particularly moved by how his images and activism had built and engaged so many platforms to empower others, cutting across social, economic, class, and linguistic barriers that can be particularly dense in South Asia but which had also played a role in my own narrative. Those more closely connected to Shahidul had already engaged the press, and the Free Shahidul movement was mobilising. But I could give a different kind of visibility to his work through the tools cultivated most abundantly in mine - namely, making exhibitions. On return to New York, I got the go ahead from the Rubin Museum, where I led the modern and contemporary exhibition program from 2010 until this fall, to approach Shahidul about organising a retrospective. I was frankly surprised that there hadn't been a major survey of such an important figure, and equally - aware of how modest what I could offer was, given the stakes of his imprisonment - I wondered if he would even be interested. We got a message across through the prison bars at Keraniganj, a 'yes,' and got to work on a long distance collaboration that led to friendships now spanning several generations and continents.
Shahidul was released on bail in November 2018. We talked about the difficulty of visually representing absence. Of how to present a transformative 107-day imprisonment in Keraniganj when he didn't have a camera. It led to the remarkable collaboration with Sofia Karim of an impressionistic 3d printed model of the prison shown in the exhibition (which Shahidul then, of course, photographed brilliantly).
In Dhaka, Shahidul and his team courageously forged ahead with plans for Chobi Mela X in February 2019 in spite of logistical, funding, and political challenges and obstruction. As I excitedly planned to travel to Bangladesh for the festival and exhibition research, I learned the wonderful news that I was expecting a baby that coming fall. In spite of some typical early pregnancy queasiness, I was thrilled to attend and participate in Chobi Mela, which enriched the exhibition we were planning in important ways; I witnessed Shahidul's inimitable grace, groundedness, and energy as a leader who shares himself equally with young students and eminent international guests. This helped me to understand more deeply the importance of his having built institutions that are meaningful, impactful, and honest in the face of state and private establishments in Bangladesh and abroad that are quite the opposite.
From this time onwards, most of my professional time until the birth of my son in October 2019 was spent towards Shahidul's exhibition; at such a heightened time in my own life, the meaning of this work went instantly beyond creating a beautiful show and even beyond specific politics, towards envisioning the society I want my future generations to live in. In that way, I look to each image within Drik's 2020 calendar as an articulation of how - with warriors including family, friends, students, and citizens - Shahidul's resolve and activism have already engendered more democratic and just civic and social spaces. Through these images and the relationships and efforts behind them, I've realised more keenly the importance of taking this work beyond the rarefied spaces and audiences that art is often presented in and for. This takes on a particular complexity when working with a figure like Shahidul who has already succeeded in communicating across society with his own work. With that, it is an honour to contribute to Drik's calendar, which transcends the social and economic barriers that keep certain publics from museums.
When I introduced my newborn son to Shahidul for the first time in New York in November 2019, their recognition of each other was immediate. It confirmed that the transmission of values and action I envisioned over years to come had already begun to germinate, and with great pride I imagine my baby is perhaps now the littlest of Shahidul's warriors worldwide.
Curator, Truth to Power
Rubin Museum of Art