Exhibition: Shahidul Alam: Kalpana’s Warriors

Fri 22 April - Sat 18th June

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, the acclaimed Bangladeshi photographer, artist and activist Shahidul Alam attempts to break the silence surrounding her disappearance.


Exhibition opening reception Thur 21 April, 6:30 – 8:30pm >

Kalpana’s Warriors is both a deeply political and profoundly spiritual exhibition”, said Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP.

“It commemorates the life of this fiery, courageous, outspoken young woman who dared to speak out against military occupation and the way land belonging to the indigenous people from this part of Bangladesh had been taken over and distributed to Bangali settlers.

“At the same time, when you enter the gallery with these huge, striking portraits hanging from the ceiling like tapestries, illuminated by candles, it is a very moving, spiritual experience”, added Sealy.

Shahidul Alam said: “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.”

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.

The laser device used to create the portraits is more commonly found in Bangladesh’s garment factories, notorious for their poor working conditions after tragedies such as Rana Plaza, where more than 1,100 workers died in 2013 when a factory collapsed. “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”, Shahidul said. “I wanted the process itself to deal with the politics.”

Alongside the portraits, in Autograph’s upstairs gallery is a second part of the exhibition which sheds light on the internal displacement of the Paharis and the arrival of the government-backed Bangali settlers.

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