Shumon Ahmed uses photography to record a new history whilst rewriting its past, his multiple pictures of Bangladesh, show the angst, isolation and sprawl of the (modern) metropolis in a manner (fitting) of Woody Allen's (cinematic) images of New York City. — Anwar Akhtar
Photographer Shumon Ahmed lives and works in Dhaka, Bangladesh; a country plagued by extreme weather conditions but equally resourced by fertile land. Since a boy, Ahmed has watched his mother country become something all its own. Inspite of the jarring climatic and agricultural fluxes, aesthetics has come to the fore, and the Bangladeshi contemporary art scene reflects a more positive potential for the county's inherent cultural and social structures.
Deservedly Shumon Ahmed has been invited to participate in this first series of summit exhibitions, and was like-wise invited to exhibit for the 2010 Whitechapel Gallery, for Where Three Dreams Cross, 150 years of photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where, showing for the first time in London, Ahmed participated with a cornucopia of emerging and established photographers from three closely inter-connected countries. Photographers, all of whom have used the camera to define and rewrite their own cultural histories. Similarly, Ahmed raises a voice against the ignominy that pervades the world often branded by the west as a 'geographical catastrophe.'
Well versed in his professional practice, Ahmed handles a camera as an extension of himself. Conceiving of photo-works that are as challengingly absorbing as anything from the photo-galleries anywhere in Europe, he is of a generation in Bangladesh that is at the forefront of something quite radical. As they actively seek international recognition for their work, they fallow an alternative path. Coming to photography purely by chance, Ahmed was given a small leather camera whilst still an inquisitive teenager and rigorously began picturing his city as if an alien citizen. Capturing and then collating a swath of disposable images of Dhaka's dilapidated interiors spaces and further its multitude of people industriously manufacturing their lives for the city. Trigger happy, Ahmed began pouring over the city and sub-consciously built up a tool-box of visual approaches to stealing from reality, photographs of bleak misfortune as much as positive hope. Going on to study photography in Denmark and Bangladesh, Ahmed has a balanced eye that is uniquely as European as it is Asian.
For his recent solo show in Bangladesh, Shumon Ahmed drew on a series of photographs that deal very broadly with the notion of portraiture. Likened to an ethnographer perusing over the world with a less than intrusive magnifying glass, Ahmed's works are positively divided between a colour series, from his time in London, and a sepia toned and black and white series from the coastal belt of Chittagong and Dhaka, Bangladesh, that collectively appear to define two visions of a world turning in the face of relentless modernity.
For Self-portrait Ahmed's work focuses on his fleeting visit and his more permanent residency of two very different metropolises. The subdued scenes of central London, depicted by mirrors, foreboding apartment blocks, collected pigeons and the light soak of rain, are included with the almost apocalyptic images of the coastal stretch of Dhaka and Chittagong, which are identified as much by the city's modernity as by the poverty and squalor. With his sepia toned series, Ahmed's positively bleaches out images of gargantuous ships rising up from the shallow waters of the coast of Chittagong, recalling tanker grave yards, from where a vast quarantine of ailing ships are systemically stripped of their steel by an army of scantily clad work-men. In all of these photographed works, there appear to be symbols and motifs that reappear time and again, as they effectively act as the signifiers for specific location.
For Ahmed such motifs define a narrative that records the intrinsic burdens of an industrial city, such as ships and ship building, and in stark contrast, when given his depictions of London, Ahmed photographs the more transitory images of idle pigeons encircling scraps of food, and a wet and rather bleak cityscape, where natural light is hemmed in by constructed chaos.
Is it 'I' who contributes towards the destruction of my own existence? Hence, I turned 'I' by turning my camera towards myself, shedding light on a hidden icon that we carry secretly within each of us. 'I' who is archetypal and metaphoric, 'I' who wants to have freedom to consume, to have power and wealth, to be one with my own indulgence, 'I' who wants to separate the self from nature so as to be distinctive and superior, only to transform everything into mine, and mine alone. Shumon Ahmed
For the 'I' series Ahmed devises dual self-portrait that depicts him sitting cross-legged under a biblical tree, wrapped in a dirt coloured shoal. Ahmed repeats the posture in the ordered aisle of a hyper-modern supermarket, dressed in denim and trainers, the shift from one to another is quite startling and it proves an engaging commentary of the glory and guilt of modernity. In another he is bent double in the motion of prayer on a carpet of cracked earth, where he is either pleading for the rains to come or more perversely, celebrating the catastrophe of his climate. Poignantly in another diptych, from the series, Ahmed is creased up in anguish by the physical and emotional decline of one's circumstances. Bicycle rickshaw seats overrun by the long grass are photographed beside a hyper-modern stretch of dual carriage-way from Dhaka's city centre. Polluted by the ills of ceaseless traffic, the image is punctuated by the demonstrative figure of Ahmed holding aloft a coloured image of a bright yellow Lamborghini. Such conscious collisions are at the centre of Ahmed's exploration of 'I' and 'Mine'; the yellow Lamborghini, an object of our collected desires. In another photograph from the series, Ahmed is holding the iconic symbol of global modernity, the red and white coloured coca cola can, which is beside a composed shot of a mountain of compressed aluminium cans on a truly industrial scale. While deciding on the strengths of Shumon Ahmed's photo-works and of these troubled landscapes, there is a majesty of unbridled spirit that captures your attention.
In the Land of the Free, Ahmed challenges our understanding or lack of it of America's holding 'pen' for terrorist suspects, Guantanamo Bay. Befriending and subsequently photographing the only recorded Bangladeshi prisoner to have returned from Guantanamo to date, Ahmed's collected photographs vividly evoke something of the drama and devastation of wrongful imprisonment and, through staged imagery, the humiliation of having to endure episodes of torture. Mubarak Hussain Bin Abul Hashem, or enemy combatant number 151, was flown back to Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 17 December, 2006, on a US combat plane, after having spent five years at Guantanamo. Besides the montaged images of aggressive dogs incessantly barking, CCTV footage of a hooded suspect held under duress, and a naked figure encased in a dimly lit room possibly the most pertinent image of them all is that of Mubarak Hussain standing at the fore-front of a cultivated field enveloped in mist. Standing in traditional Bangladeshi dress and hooded with a cotton shawl, the overwhelming silence of this particular image is almost deafening.
Given there is clearly a dreadful impossibility to the majority of these images, a helplessness that wells up like a cancer, as his world appears to be being torn asunder by man and machine; Ahmed manages always to imbue his images with an element of humanity to scenes of the most heinous circumstances. Introducing a greater level of intimacy to his works, Ahmed re-photographs torn sentences from hand written letters from his elderly mother to him that record a life blighted by suffering, appearing to mirror the plight of 'mother earth' as it is cultivated by industrial machinery for vast structures dedicated to modernity. What I have forgotten could fill an ocean, what is not real never lived, is an incredibly complex work of images, polaroid's and strips of torn paper upon which words are threaded over the page. For Ahmed this is a deeply personal work that explains his intrinsic relationship with his mother whom Ahmed for many years thought was mad. The turning point for Ahmed was discovering her suffering which was a consequence of a mental and emotional deficiency that had, for a long time, cast her as unprincipled and irrational, and had seen Ahmed dismiss her for many years.
Most effecting is an image of a very young Ahmed and his mother, montaged beside a clouded window that looks out onto a scene of trees; another, a polaroid of a freshly cut lawn, and further, in the series, an envelope addressed to Abul Hasnat Ahmed, (Shumon Ahmed), at an Australian address. When drawn together these threads might explain something of the disjointed experience of living with emotional anxiety.
Land of the Free, 2009.
Former Guantánamo detainee Mubarak Hussain was freed without charge on December 17, 2006, after five years internment. Mubarak has claimed that he was the victim of repeated torture while he was in Guantanamo Bay
In the collected routine of his taking photographs, more often jarring images that appear out of focus, Ahmed manages to produce something positively arresting; allowing his figures to almost vibrate their quintessential energies or souls out into the space between the camera and themselves; and upon reading these photographs, Ahmed hopes for something much better. A purveyor of so much that is dreadful and misfortunate, Ahmed has defined a better language that merits his craft and gives him licence to hold his camera aloft and push the silver trigger, click, click, click. In all of these works there is nothing more rewarding than the act of his ability to create something new, spirited even, that is possible inspite of everything.
Not solely preoccupied with the role of the photographer, Ahmed employs video, text and photography for a fused exploration of ideas and emotions that are addressed visually. Works that are as motivated by international aesthetics as they are informed by his own circumstances. Shumon Ahmed's work has previously been included in the Chobi Mela V and VI Photo Biennale, 2009 and 2011, and the Where three Dreams Cross, 150 years of photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, 2010, Whitechapel Gallery, London, Fotomuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland.
Significantly included in the forthcoming Dhaka Art Summit, 12-15 April 2012, the inaugural art fair is a collaboration between the Bangladesh National Museum and Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, and as is the rubric for international art fairs, Dhaka has drawn on the significant elements of Bangladesh's emerging contemporary art scene for works of sculpture, painting, installation, photography and digital art that are all shown under the umbrella of 18 core galleries. For the founders of DAS 2012, the husband and wife team Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani, the summit is seen as an unprecedented opportunity to draw upon a network of artists working independently of one another, for an international audience
RAJESH PUNJ is a London based art writer, curator and collector of contemporary art, with a specialist interest in art from India, Pakistan and the Middle East. With an academic background in European and American art history and curating, he has since worked with major biennales and galleries across the world. He is also special correspondent to Asian Art Newspaper (London and Hong Kong).