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Visualizing conflict

  • This forthcoming edition of the Chobi Mela, the first after founder Shahidul Alam’s arrest and release, zooms in on the importance of archives
  • Chobi Mela will show Gauri Gill’s project titled 1984 Notebooks

A photograph of a Rohingya family from the Jag Chobi Collection. Collected by Walid Saddam, Zia ur jewel and François Xavier Klein/Jag Chobi Collection
A photograph of a Rohingya family from the Jag Chobi Collection. Collected by Walid Saddam, Zia ur jewel and François Xavier Klein/Jag Chobi Collection

In the weeks following photographer Shahidul Alam’s arrest, messages in support of his release were shared across the world, and protests organized to draw attention to the disregard for freedom of speech in Bangladesh. There was also a heightened awareness that Alam was only one among many people in the subcontinent being persecuted for speaking truth to power. Alam was forcibly taken from his home hours after an interview critiquing the brutal repression of student protesters by government forces aired on Al Jazeera on 5 August. He was released on bail in November.

During the 107 days of Alam’s detention, the curators of the Chobi Mela—a festival of images that Alam founded almost 20 years ago in Dhaka—wondered if it would be possible to hold the event at all. “We had doubts but we also had an urgency to do the festival," recalls Tanzim Wahab, a member of the curatorial team. Chobi Mela, which takes place once every two years, will be held from 28 February- 9 March.

The programme features exhibitions, discussions and workshops on the theme of “Place". “We want to draw attention to what is relevant to talk about in a place when others shy away from it or when they go silent," explains Wahab, who has worked with curator A. S. M. Rezaur Rahman and artists Munem Wasif and Sarker Protick to conceptualize the forthcoming edition. Wasif and Protick are alumni of Pathshala, the photography school Alam founded in the late 1990s. Wahab teaches there and Rahman manages Drik, the photo agency and library Alam set up along with anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed around the same time.

Many of the selected projects explore the importance of making archives in order to remember and the necessity of re-opening archives so as to not forget. One of the central exhibitions is a selection of work by renowned photojournalist Rashid Talukder, presenting iconic photographs from the Liberation War of 1971, when Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan, as well as images documenting street protests and reform movements.

Seeking to establish points of intersection between regional struggles and events, Chobi Mela will show Gauri Gill’s project titled 1984 Notebooks, after the year of the anti-Sikh pogrom, and Anand Patwardhan’s film Prisoners Of Conscience, on the Emergency.

The festival underscores the importance of archives as a tool of recording and displaying dissent. Archives allow multiple narratives of history to emerge, especially those that provide stories different from the ones chronicled and disseminated by the state or the victors.

Gill’s 1984 Notebooks stretches the limits of what an archive can be. It does not contain photographs from the year itself but those that Gill shot later, in 2005, 2009 and 2014. Text from the Indian media is used to evoke the time. Loss and its recollection are important, as is the aftermath. For instance, from Gill’s photo of a girl called Taranjeet Kaur studying, we learn that she is the granddaughter of one of the people killed in 1984. Through this, Gill acquaints us with the horror but also provides an image of what the future could look like.

Taranjeet Kaur’s grandfather Jeevan Singh was killed in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Here she reads at home in Tilak Vihar, 2009. Photo courtesy: From the ‘1984 notebooks’ by Gauri Gill
Taranjeet Kaur’s grandfather Jeevan Singh was killed in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Here she reads at home in Tilak Vihar, 2009. Photo courtesy: From the ‘1984 notebooks’ by Gauri Gill

Other works being shown this year record more recent conflicts, such as in the short film 9 Days—From My Window In Aleppo by Syrian photographer Issa Touma, on the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Chris De Bode’s Exodus From Libya captures Bangladeshi labourers fleeing unrest in the North African country in 2011. The specific incidents depicted in both of these works provide micro studies and highlight individuals, reminding us that archives are, after all, populated by people.

The latter idea is foregrounded in the Jag Chobi Collection—photographs of Rohingya families shot by the Myanmar government for purposes of surveying and surveilling the population—that will be on view along with memorial quilts made by the garment workers of the Bangladesh Garment Sromik Samhati. On 1 March, Alam will be part of a panel discussion on the theme of “visualizing conflict", along with photographer and activist Taslima Akhter, who has collected the quilts, and British photographer Gary Knight.

While social engagement has been the central focus of Chobi Mela, recent editions have tried to move out of the confines of the documentary genre that once dominated the festival. This year, works like photographer Omar Imam’s Live, Love, Refugee, in which dreams of a number of Syrians are recreated through photographs, and Mustafa Zaman’s surreal and abstract photo collages, will be on view.

With Chobi Mela attempting to shed its image of being just a photography festival, there will be a section of site-specific mixed-media work curated by artist Zihan Karim. The multivalence of the Bengali word “chobi" has guided this expansion of vision. “Chobi means visual or image," explains Wahab. “It doesn’t matter in the 21st century how you produce an image. For us, it is very limiting to think of chobi only as a photograph."

In keeping with the desire to bring in different perspectives, Chobi Mela has invited author and activist Arundhati Roy to speak about the role of fact and fiction in engaging society. Her lecture, “Utmost Everything", will take place on 5 March. In her open letter to Alam while he was still under arrest, Roy had expressed hope that artists and dissenters would find place in the world: “I believe the tide will turn. It will. It must. This foolish, shortsighted cruelty will give way to something kinder and more visionary." In a sense, the continuation of Chobi Mela demonstrates the possibility of what can be done despite unfavourable odds.

Unlike previous years, however, Chobi Mela has not been given permission to use public buildings and one of its main venues this time will be an under-construction structure that will eventually house Pathshala and Drik. This choice of venue allows the curatorial team to expose the process of putting the festival together, of the ways in which they had to improvise, as all institutions and individuals that find themselves on the “wrong side" need to. Speaking about the building, Wahab says, “Most of the time when one works in an abandoned or derelict space, it comes with a notion of a memory because it has a past, but this building makes us think about the future."

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