1 December 2017 - 11 January 2018
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
NEPN and Breeze Creatives present Kalpana’s Warriors, an exhibition by the acclaimed Bangladeshi photographer, artist and activist Shahidul Alam, during this Autumn’s Freedom City 2017 celebration.
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.Through this powerful installation, using photographs printed on large straw mats each one illuminated by a candle, Alam attempts to break the silence surrounding her disappearance.
Kalpana, who was only 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). She belonged to the Chakma or Pahari community, and was a leader of the Hill Women’s Federation.
The ethnic conflict in the CHT, which began in 1977 soon after the Bangladesh state came into being, continues to this day in spite of a peace treaty negotiated in 1997 between the state and the Pehari people. Amnesty International reports that more than 100,000 Pahari have been displaced by the conflict. There have been multiple reports of human rights violations, massacres and the razing of entire villages by Bangladeshi forces.
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. Shahidul Alam said he wanted the portraits to be burned onto the straw mats by a laser beam 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.
“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 is presented by NEPN and Breeze Creatives with the kind support of Autograph ABP, Shahidul Alam, Arts Council England, DRIK Picture Library Bangladesh and the Northern Centre of Photography at the University of Sunderland. The exhibition was first shown in the UK at Autograph ABP in Spring 2016.