Shahidul Alam’s upcoming retrospective, Singed But Not Burnt, which is set to open at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity this month, has been curated by Ina Puri, and is the artist’s biggest Asian showcase yet. Besides photographs, clicked across his 40-year-long career, the show will also present vignettes from his life with rare insights into his artistic practice, along with video footage and models of Keraniganj Jail where he was detained in 2018.
The award-winning photographer was picked up from his Dhaka residence by 20 plain-clothed police officers after he criticised Bangladeshi authorities for their brutal response to the road safety protests of 2018. His arrest had sparked global outrage and more than 80 international personalities, including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Indian scholars Binayak Sen and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak had signed an open letter demanding Alam’s release and condemning the serious breach of human rights.
‘Onno Chokhe Dekha’ by Shahidul Alam
The photographer was granted bail after 100 days in prison and is currently in Washington DC. “This is not just his biggest show in Asia, but it’s also his first retrospective. His work has never been showcased on this scale and it has been designed to share a glimpse into his four-decade-long repertoire. It could be a crucial viewing experience for anyone who is keen about the visual medium,” says Kolkata-based curator and documentarian Ina Puri.
“In 2016, I was able to take a part of this exhibit to Delhi. It was titled Kalpana’s Warriors, surrounding the disappearance of the human rights activist Kalpana Chakma and the way Shahidul had documented the story. We had been discussing the possibility of a bigger showcase together but it took us some time. The pandemic happened and we had to work out the finances. And once Emami agreed, it all fell into place,” Puri adds.
The curator has flown to Dhaka several times to collaborate with Alam on the retrospective, which is also set to feature some of his earliest works. “I sat with him, looked at the whole breadth of his archives including his very early work, which very few people have seen. We have picked some rare images from his archives, along with his partner, Rahnuma. Of course, the retrospective will also feature some of his better-known series, so as to give the viewers an idea about his entire body of work,” the curator tells us.
Puri also shared that the show merits a public viewing so students and youth could engage with Alam’s work. The 2018 road-safety protests in Bangladesh were mobilised by mostly young dissenters and school students, after two high-school students were run over by a speeding bus.
“We are very keen that students and young photographers come to the show and see his work. I have been asked so often about the possibility of a show, since I’ve worked with Shahidul for so long. I have been to his show at the Rubin Museum in New York in 2019, this was right after he got out of Keraniganj. I have been to the Chobi Mela festival in Dhaka, which is a photography biennale that he curates every year. We’ve been working together for a while, we are friends and since I’ve known his work, it made it easier for me to curate this show. I knew what I was looking for,” Puri ventures.
‘The Champions of our Development’ by Shahidul Alam
Singed But Not Burnt is shaping up to be a travelling showcase as Puri shares the retrospective has already received calls from other art spaces across the country. “The space has been an important element, the retrospective is site-specific, it’s almost chronological, it has been designed in a certain way so we have to be mindful about the different spaces we can set it up in,” Puri points out.
Preview on Saturday, June 18, 4pm onwards
Exhibition dates: June 19 - August 20, 2022