At a panel discussion on Exhibition as Political Work in Dhaka in February, Bangladeshi artist Shahidul Alam proposed an idea that no one quite knew how to react to – why not try holding a photography exhibition in a mosque?
“I specifically mentioned this, as it is often said that photography is haram,” said Alam. “Quite apart from the fact that millions of Muslims get their passport photos taken for going to Hajj, the idea is quite bizarre when one considers that the Koranic rules were made way before the existence of photography.”
According to Alam, the entire audience dismissed his idea as outlandish, but the 62-year-old would not be deterred. Alam, who is the founder of Drik Picture Library, a leading photo agency in South Asia, identified a mosque which would allow him to display his photographs and also let women and people of other faiths enter it to view the works.
In the end, the Bait Ur Rouf mosque in Dhaka became both the location and the subject for Alam’s exhibit.
Alam was surprised at how remarkably easy it was to gain permission from the mosque. “Often the restrictions we need to overcome are the restrictions we set on ourselves,” he said. “Speaking to the imam and the muezzin, I saw they too were much more open than I might have expected, and once I explained the idea, they readily accepted. So what I had thought would have been the most difficult part of the project, became the easiest.”
On May 8, Bait Ur Rouf mosque will open its doors for public viewing of the three-day exhibition titled Embracing the Other. Alam’s photographs revel in the ordinariness of the lives of the devotees who to come to pray at Bait ur Rouf, the caretakers of the mosque and the life around the structure.
“Once I saw the place, I was convinced this was where it had to be,” said Alam. “I had initially thought I would focus only on the architecture, and went back to the architectural features of the Prophet’s mosque. I wanted to experience the mosque throughout the day-night cycle, so I found a place to stay by the mosque, and photographed it throughout the day and in moonlight. Each prayer is different and has a different chemistry, which I wanted to experience.”
The open architecture of the Bait Ur Rouf mosque did find a showcase in the images – the way natural light enters the structure, the way it stays cool in the hot sun, and the jali work – but increasingly, Alam was drawn to the people who inhabited the mosque. “I decided it was the way people used the place that needed to be told. I found a red cricket ball. Saw children playing. I even photographed a goat walking through [though that image didn’t make it to the final edit]. The human aspect became more important than the structural aspect. I wasn’t sure I’d be allowed to show these latter images, but soon, I became accepted by the community, and on occasions when I wasn’t able to go, people enquired after me.”
Alam’s photographs highlight the original purpose of a mosque – the first urban element introduced by the Prophet Muhammad to the city of Madinah – as a community development centre and a place for religious activities, learning, welfare, charity and leisure activities. “It is this openness and the ability to reach out to the other that appears to be missing today, in everyday life and in the mosque,” said Alam.
“One expects to be surprised by Shahidul Alam,” said Rezaur Rahman, curator of Embracing the Other. “Following on from his groundbreaking shows Crossfire and Kalpana’s Warriors, this unique exhibition turns tradition on its head by holding a photographic exhibition in the last place you would expect. A mosque! To use it to combat both Islamophobia and extremism in one go is a masterstroke by one of the most innovative and courageous artists of our times.”
There are security concerns which needed to be considered for the exhibit, since the show has attracted huge interest, but Alam assures that the Bait Ur Rouf mosque and the visitors to it will be safe.
As an artist and activist, Alam has always been drawn to themes of social inequality and unjust power structures. His last project, Kalpana’s Warriors, focused on Kalpana Chakma, leader of the Bangladeshi Hill Women’s Federation, who was abducted from her house by military personnel in June 1996. She remains missing. The project was a part of Drik’s No More campaign and aimed at breaking the silence of successive governments, whether civilian or military backed, on Chakma’s disappearance. The photographs depicted the everyday realities of the hill people, his subjects repeatedly speaking of the bareness of Chakma’s home.
“Any issue which is of current, or long term concern is something I will work with,” Alam said. “Photography is good at documenting the visible. Often, much of what we want to talk about is not. That is when photography becomes more challenging. As an artist, I find the intangible and the amorphous far more interesting to work with, but I consider art for art’s sake a form of intellectual wanking that I have no interest in.”
Alam feels that exhibitions which represent Islam in a responsible way, like the one at the Bait Ur Rouf moque, will go a long way in combating Islamophobia. “It is the stereotypical representation of Islam and Muslims that has fuelled Islamophobia,” said Alam. “That the war on terror is the single biggest contributor to the current global tension is pretty clear for people living outside the West. Islam is the demon of today. Tomorrow it might be another. These are just convenient scapegoats in a world of greed. What I want to do through this work is to establish that Islam (and pretty much all religions) by and large, provides a moral compass for our navigation. There are large magnets around that have changed the direction of our compass. I want to return to the original direction and to remind people that it is the carriers of these magnets both within, and outside, whom we need to challenge. It is not Islam we need to fear, but the weapons industry and those who control it.”
All photographs by Shahidul Alam.