From Lahori Grill to PENN Station: a Brief, Wondrous Life Journey With Shahidul Alam

I jumped on a train to Grand Central from the river town I live in upstate, to make an hourlong journey in to NYC, and then walk briskly for 20 more minutes to the Lahore Grill shop next to the apartment Shahidul Alam was staying at during his recent trip here from his native Bangladesh.

I had mobilized some good friends and their contacts in the museum world of Manhattan to put me in touch with Shahidul once I heard he was in town (I’d never met him)–and spent the previous day playing WhatsApp tag with him, trying to figure out some window of time we might meet. I am hoping to write a conference paper on his photographical performance, which transforms the mundane into the magical, rendering visible what is no longer there.

The French word “bouleverse” captures best the “coup de foudre”— bolt of lightning— effect Shahidul’s photographs had on me when I first encountered them a month ago at his first major retrospective exhibition in the USA curated by Beth Citron at the Rubin museum.

As my dear friend Tim Mchenry who is chief program director at the Rubin showed me and a young artist friend around the exhibit, I found myself struck by the way Shahidul uses his aesthetic aperture to frame tragedy as a consequence of political and moral failure. The beauty of his photographs is heartbreaking precisely because it points not to the inevitability of “natural” or “political” disappearances— of, for instance, land disappearing under water forcing a woman to cook atop a corrugated rooftop in a sea of submerged cottages against the surreally beautiful backdrop of brightly colored cloths flapping in the wind; or his images of women activists burnt onto straw mats who are still keeping alive the search and memory and demand for justice for a 23 year old social justice activist, Kalpana Chakma, who was “disappeared” at the point of a gun by the Bangladeshi military and 2 local village defense party men 20 plus years ago; or the way a photograph of her dress hauntingly recalls the shape of her body when it wore that fabric. Rather, these images show such phenomena of the natural and political worlds to be both intertwined and avoidable— for both are a result of man-made policies aimed at a vision of “development” and “progress” that has unleashed so much violence for the majority of the world’s peoples. And yet, when tragedy strikes, survivors refuse to be victims, the camera captures their resilience even when they or their worlds are disappearing in front of our very eyes….

The best part of spending even a tiny bit of the afternoon with Shahidul yesterday, was how the encounter with a resistant, artistic human being can just add so much joy and optimism to your day. Here was a man who had been rounded up by Bangladeshi security forces and hauled off to jail in August 2018 for 104 days, tortured by his own account, all for the crime of speaking truth to power. For his amazing work in the cause of social justice he was recognized by Time Magazine as one of their 2018 Persons of the Year, and in his smiling, humble company, I forgot about the depressing US presidential impeachment trial for a while, as in between packing Shahidul a Lahore kebab sandwich for his train trip to Philly, snapping photos of him with an admiring fellow Bengali and the grill shop’s owner (and myself!), jumping into an Uber with several bags and two large frame packages, his camera equipment and my heavy coat, then jumping out at PENN Station and racing higgeldy-piggeldy with all this stuff to help him make it in the nick of time to board his train—- phew! well— in between this madcap rush to get him to his train in time, we somehow, magically, managed to connect/communicate our passion for justice in the world…. and I’d like to think, to recognize kindred artistic spirits in each other. We looked across the train platform once Shahidul and his many packages were safely on board— and grinned, as if to say, another world is coming, built on the mad hopes of solidarity.

I hope to deepen our acquaintance in the coming years– and look forward to working on the paper discussing his work that I’m planning to present at the International Federation of Theatre Research later this year

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