Bangladeshi artist Mahbubur Rahman, a close associate of recently-released photojournalist Shahidul Alam, says that as a cultural activist-artist, he feels “suffocated” since Alam was “openly taken away” for his open anti-government stance. Rahman, whose works speak of dislocation, the agony of farmers and Bangladeshi sweatshops, is displaying his works here from Thursday.
“In Bangladesh and South Asia, we need to merge culture with activism and raise our voices through art, and otherwise. (But) very recently, I felt suffocated and muzzled. After Shahidul Alam, I have a big question: Who are we doing this for,” Rahman asked while speaking to IANS.
Rahman, who works with the camera along with other media and is “close to Alam”, has collaborated with him for the curation of the last two editions of Chobi Mela, a photography festival.
“Imagine someone taking your colleague in front of you, he was openly taken away for just speaking,” the Dhaka-born artist, who with other artists had taken to the streets after Alam’s detention in August, lamented. Alam had criticised the government’s violent means to suppress widespread student protests in the country’s capital. He was released recently after spending over a 100 days in prison.
“The problem with this government is that it tries to muzzle your voice. My question is that when I’m speaking for your people, why are you muzzling my voice. We have to criticise ourselves. Everything we do is not right. We are a family, and we have to point out internally what’s wrong,” Rahman said.
Known for his fierce visual commentaries on society and polity, Rahman adopts various media such as installations, video, and performance to search for “a genuine Bangladeshi identity in the 21st century”.
One of his iconic installations on view here, making use of a hexablade, takes inspiration from the 2013 Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh when over 1,100 workers (mostly readymade garment-makers) died when the building they were working in collapsed. It took several days for all the survivors to be rescued.
Rahman spoke to a worker who happened to be out of the building at the time of the collapse and returned to rescue many lives.
“He had to cut the leg of a woman to rescue her and save her life. I reimagined that person cutting the leg, and his feeling at the moment. The sound of the hexablade felt like someone playing violin to me, because although he was sawing away her leg, the man gave her the gift of life,” he explained.
The exhibition is titled “Sounds from Nowhere” after the incident, since Rahman heard the invisible violin — “a sound that wasn’t”.
More works, including a scissor-based installation of a uniform made of scissors and blades, explores the sharp scrutiny south Asians are subjected to, when they go outside the region. In many ways, then, Rahman’s works investigate identity issues in a contemporary Bangladesh.
Another work, “Transformation” is a performance-based photograph, reflecting the plight of indigo farmers of the colonial times, many of whom had to plough the land themselves in absence of farm animals. Rahman also pointed to a metal-based work based on a theatrical text where a farmer and his child couldn’t help but scream out of agony and starvation.
Some of his works also deal with the trauma of partition and war.
“Sounds from Nowhere”, then, also seems like an exhibition surfacing stories from the lesser-known hinterland of developing and underdeveloped countries — the “nowhere” of the world.
Rahman’s second solo exhibition in India opened at the Bikaner House on Thursday and will conclude on December 2. Entry is free.