LINCOLN PARK — An art exhibition in a new Lincoln Park gallery showcases the life and work of Shahidul Alam, a renowned Bangladeshi photojournalist, teacher, writer and activist.
“Shahidul Alam: We Shall Defy” is on display at Wrightwood 659, 659 W. Wrightwood Ave., through Saturday, when the entire exhibition space closes. The Alam exhibition will be on display again when Wrightwood 659 reopens for the fall Oct. 1.
“We Shall Defy” includes many of Alam’s photographs, intertwined with work from others in his community of artists and activists. The central focus of the exhibition is a series of nine banners inspired by Patachitara, an ancient form of Bangla art that uses cloth scrolls to share detailed depictions of mythical narratives.
Each banner contains photographs by Alam and 14 artists showing the turbulent experiences of Bangladeshi people. They shed light on migration, sex workers, Indigenous people, disappearances and militarization.
The photography is complemented by illustrations and writing from three other artists: Amal Akash, a singer-songwriter and visual and performance artists in Dhaka; Alam’s niece, Sofia Karim, an architect and visual artist in London; and New York-based filmmaker, writer, photographer and installation artist Naeem Mohaiemen.
Alam said he included other forms of art because he felt he could only tell so much of the story through photography.
“Photography as a medium is very good about rendering what you see in front of you, but it’s not as good at photographing what’s physically missing,” Alam said. “For that, I had to develop a very different vocabulary to tell those stories.”
Alam has spent his life campaigning for social justice and often challenged the global dominance of white, western media. He founded Majority World, an agency that works with photographers from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East to create equal opportunities for photographers from underrepresented groups.
“I started using the term ‘majority world’ in the early ’90s because I wasn’t happy being called third-world,” Alam said. “I wanted to turn the whole thing around because we happen to be the majority of humankind, and a world that talks so much about democracy seems to forget we are the majority.”
Some of the artists featured in “We Shall Defy” were mentored by Alam through Majority World, he said.
The exhibition also features an illustration board with texts and sketches by Karim, which represent the photographer and activist’s time in Keraniganj jail.
Alam was detained Aug. 5, 2018, after an interview on Al Jazeera in which he talked about student protests throughout the country and criticized the Bangladeshi government.
Alam was arrested by Bangladeshi security forces, blindfolded, handcuffed and charged with inciting violence against the state, among other things. He said he was tortured during his time in custody, according to CNN. He spent 107 days incarcerated.
Alam was released after a global #FreeShahidulAlam campaign, in which Karim became very involved, Alam said. Weeks later, he was featured in Time’s Person of the Year issue. But the case is still pending and he faces up to 14 years of imprisonment if convicted, he said.
“I was telling [my niece] about my experiences in jail, and because she’s an architect, I initially thought she’d build architectural models to tell that story,” Alam said. “But we felt it would be more meaningful for her to rather use sketches to reconstruct it based on my memory.”
The exhibition’s themes include politics, human rights, media, education and culture, Alam said.
“It’s about resistance,” he said. “Countries like mine are known for what we do not have — money [and] resources — but people forget that these are very tenacious people, and the real story is about their ability to resist and strive for democracy and rights despite all this.”
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