Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1977, Shumon Ahmed came to international attention in 2014 with his photographic series Metal Graves, presented first at the Dhaka Art Summit in a show B-desh curated by French curator Deepak Anand, then at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India curated by Jitish Kallat. The public soon discovered the multi-facets of Ahmed’s work and its highly conceptualised treatment of the subject matters. The multidisciplinary artist tests the boundaries of different art forms through exploring and fusing the cracks between video, photography, installation, sound, performance and text to conceptualise ideas and stories that are seemingly contradictory, yet profoundly intertwined. His work with the camera and film has also been likened to abstract painting due to his experimental processing techniques with unpredictable results that yield the melancholic, often-blurred images with multiple exposures.
TEXT : Selina Ting [Editor-in-Chief, COBO Social]
IMAGES : Courtesy of the artist
Original text was published on COBO Social on 13 May 2016. Courtesy of COBO Social.
In a 2009 piece, Land of the Free, Ahmed deploys harnessing torture techniques within the artwork to thrust visitors into the grey spaces of the mind of Mubarak Hussain Bin Abul Hashem, a Bangladeshi who has endured 5 years of torture and imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay for suspected terrorist association. The project investigates trauma that leads to insanity, and reveals processes designed to crack the human soul. The idea of the Land of the Free takes on a new meaning as viewers confront an aged Mubarak whose physical body finally finds freedom, but not without permanent mental fog and a lingering sense of displacement resulting from 5 years of trauma.
In his more recent work, When Dead Ships Travel (2015), presented as the chapter 2 of Metal Graves, Ahmed revisited the world’s largest ship graveyards in Chittagong, Bangladesh. His multiple toned and frequently nostalgic depictions of this coastal belt capture the passage of time and the fleeting visions of a world at the mercy of relentless modernisation.
How did you become an artist?
I have been interested in images for as long as I can remember. I was always drawn to books with images or illustrations, and collected stamps and magazines for the beautiful photos in them. Poetry was another passion. I started writing poems in my teens and became a member of a Young poets group who published a poetry magazine called Natai. I came across black and white portrait photographs taken by the pioneering Bangladeshi photographer Nasir Ali Mamun in the mid-90s. These images of famous poets caught my attention as I was particularly drawn to the mysterious ways in which he played with light and shade.
I decided to take a photography course in 1996 and went to the Bangladesh Photographic Society to learn. I wanted to do an advanced six-months program at the Begart Institute of Photography, but had no camera because it was really expensive to buy one. I soon found myself studying accounting, finance and legal framework in a foreign country rather than art, and realised that I was more interested in art than business studies during a Bachelors’ program in Business at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia. So I returned to Dhaka in 2001 to take up photography as the primary medium to express myself. My passion and determination to succeed led me to join various photography institutions, such as Prism and Pathshala (or South Asian Media Academy). In 2008, I won a scholarship to take a 6-month program at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, and I graudated from Pathshala in 2009.
I started fusing my ideas with an interplay of multiple media. As a practicing artist, I like to mix things together, deploying different techniques to convey a concept, rather than fixing myself to a specific signature medium.
Photography is a very “trendy” medium in the Bangladeshi art scene. Do most photographers train at the same Photography School where you studied, and is this an art school?
It was a technical school for anyone who wanted to learn photography, so it wasn’t a school for artists. It’s interesting that until recently there was no space in the Bangladeshi art scene for photography in established art schools. It was all about painting, sculpture and installation art instead. If photography had any place at all, it was in new media. But if you were practicing pure photography, it meant you were not a serious artist – you were just a ‘photographer’. There was a noticeable segregation between “artists” and “photographers”. I was part of a generation that struggled to break that stereotype. In 2003, I went to Pathshala, where the curriculum focused on photojournalism and documentary photography. Aspiring students were drawn to the craftsmanship part of the medium and practiced mainly documentary photography and hardcore photojournalism. Conceptual work was not part of the norm. I naturally developed my own style and practices and broke away from institutional learning.
What was your first conceptual project?
In 2008, a group of young Australian artists from Edith Cowan University came to Dhaka to take part in a collaborative project with Pathshala students. The theme was global warming and I didn’t want to work in the classical documentary style, as I didn’t want to tell stories about people I didn’t know. So I ended up doing a series of 9 diptychs of self-portraits named ‘I’. The letter ‘I’ was used as an archetypal image that’s hidden inside all of us. ‘Mine’ is also an image that we carry within us, so I used that word as an image as well.
‘I’ and ‘Mine’ are both powerful triggers that transform the world around us, which is a result of our pursuit of mine-ness. I was very precise about using the form, as I was more interested in the concept than the traditional craftsmanship taught at school. I used a diptych of myself that included one image of me sitting inside a supermarket meditating, and one of myself meditating underneath a Banyan tree. This was a juxtaposition of the ideals and beliefs that we deal with in the modern, consumerist society, and it was something I wanted to investigate through my self-imagery.
I got the most criticism and applause from both sides during my presentation. The Australian students applauded me, while many of my former schoolmates and Pathshala students were totally confused and flooded me with questions like, “Why did you stage this?” “Who took the pictures?” “Who has the copyright?” I didn’t know that it was part of a conceptual artistic practice, I just followed my artistic instinct and did it without realising I was upsetting the balance and breaking the mould.
I had an opportunity to go on a scholarship to study photography in Denmark in 2008, where students were encouraged to use new media. In my final project, I wanted to create a story about three British Muslims living in London who served long, horrific years in Guantanamo Bay. A Bangladeshi called Mubarak Hussain Bin Abul Hashem had also been detained there for five years, so I made a video after I returned home called Land of The Free (2009). It used staged images, archival sounds and portraits of Mubarak, whose account of his torture became my key inspiration. I recreated these images, which still haunt him today.
In 2009, I started doing the Metal Graves series that explored the ship graveyard with Swedish photographer, Jan Gruvborg, by using only analogue film, which I’ve always been fascinated by, along with Polaroids and pinholes. I felt very connected to that slow, more intuitive technique and it was the perfect approach to take. Telling a story about places and people doesn’t interest me. I want to capture the stillness and melancholy of a space and visualise the sound of silence that cannot be seen. So my work moved from a linear approach and I explored the repetition of imagery.
Your interest in poetry definitely helps, as there is something very poetic about your work.
Maybe I’m trying to write a long poem in this work, as I try to create a deep sensation through all my work.
I want to craft ambiguity, as it’s much more interesting than clear-cut answers. There’s no fun in just going out with a camera to get a clear answer. Art is at its best when it seizes ambiguity. It is much more pleasing to explore the known with an unknown instinct, or the unknown with a known sense. A lot of my images are soft-focused and blurry, and have a distinctive tone. When I have accidents, I sometimes leave them in my work as I like the spontaneity that adds a subtle sensibility to the work.
The subjects of your work are not biographical, as they are distant from your own personal experience. So how did you look for a subject? What inspires you and what are you searching for?
This is a very interesting question that I’ve asked myself many times. I sometimes decide on a subject straight away, although this is rare. Mostly, I don’t decide on a subject at all. Instead, it slowly germinates. I take some images or ponder on an idea and they slowly take shape. I was in London for a show at Whitechapel Gallery in 2010 and took many images around the city. When I came back to Dhaka, I suddenly saw a body of work emerging that I named Chronicles of a Nomad because I saw lots of material that spoke about my journey through time.
Another example is the project I did about my mother, entitled What I have forgotten could fill an ocean, what is not real never lived (2014). She has a mild intellectual disability, faced discrimination and was ridiculed by her family and ignored while I was growing up. So I had the same attitude towards my mother and had this vacuum of guilt and trauma while growing up, which I’ve tried to deal with in my work.
I used the letters my mother sent to me a long time ago, as well as her longing to connect, as the centrefold of my work. I commissioned a classical Sarod musician to compose an original track that was used with poems I’d written for my mother to make an installation. This included two Polaroids facing each other, one of myself and the other of my mother. There is an old, WWII telephone in the middle. I also made a downloadable app that plays the track on your mobile which is interactive, so that people’s engagement became part of the artwork. I find it interesting to use these different platforms for questioning, feeling and exploring art.
You are into analogue films and photography, but also use apps and modern technology. Which do you prefer?
I like mixing different, contrasting platforms and then presenting them together. I find it interesting. The idea behind an artwork guides me as to which process I will use – whether it is analogue film or an app.
How does the public here react to your work?
The work I did on my mother and myself in 2014 was selected for the Samdani Art Award. Although Ayesha Sultana won the award, I got a lot of positive feedback because the installation has a kind of a universal message about the relationship between a mother and her son, and her plight. Everyone who came liked it, regardless of who they were or which community they came from. My work doesn’t fall into a particular category, so it’s interesting to see how people perceive my work.
Are there any local artists from previous generation who are also very conceptual?
There are a few, such as Naeem Mohaiemen and Mustafa Zaman. In 2002, I was really impressed by a Zaman show, where he used sculpture, imagery and text. It was similar to Naeem’s show a few years later, probably in 2007, which also combined images, text and sculptures into a single concept. He developed a kind of sign language to investigate the crisis and protest against military rule in Bangladesh.
Did your first contact with conceptual art come during your formative years in Denmark?
No, I did the “I” series before I went to Denmark. It’s not that I went to the West and came into contact with conceptual art, I was making conceptual artwork before I even knew about the term. I’m not too worried about terms, as I’m more focused on the work than the term.
In 2013, I made a book, which for me is an art object. Every person who received the book was supposed to send a letter back to me, and that’s how the artwork became meaningful. So in a way, the book was a kind of conceptual, interactive work.
Do you think that Asian artists working with the Western media are less overwhelmed by what has been done before than previous generations?
Maybe, but I don’t think that’s something people should be worried about. If you put an obstacle like that around you, you’ll never explore yourself. It’s not about who was the first to do something, it’s about what is new that you bring in – in terms of the language, society and yourself.
The opposite of this is being doubted for not having an adequate knowledge of what’s been done before, and taking these ideas as new. How would you comment on this?
We are often asked to go back to Western references, rather than encouraged to find out what we really have around us. Artists from our generation are totally challenging that notion and idea. We’re breaking all the rules and trying to create our own language. This will become even more prolific in future.
Do you think it’s this freedom and non-conformist attitude in Asia that keeps art in the region fresh, and are people now becoming interested in this freshness?
I think so. We are slowly becoming aware of our own sensibility. I have a very unique sensibility when it comes to seeing the world, which is rooted in Bangladesh. I think my work is automatically different as a result. If I can free myself as an artist and break free from the habits of copying the West, my language will definitely be different. It’s that language which the West will be interested in.
What other projects are coming up in the next couple of years?
It’s a difficult question to answer, because to be honest I don’t know. I want to explore the ship’s graveyard again and explore a market filled with objects that have come from the dead ships. I also want to explore my series, Chronicles of A Nomad, and see how that goes. I also would like to interview my mother about her childhood and turn that into a book, and I want to start writing poems and using them with my images. So, as you can see, my thoughts are filled with many ideas.
About the Artist
Shumon Ahmed (*1977) was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he lives and works today. Ahmed studied photography at the South Asian Media Academy, Dhaka (2009) and the Danish School of Media and Journalism, Denmark. (2008).
His work has been previously exhibited in various galleries, festivals and screenings worldwide, notably at the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India, Dhaka Art Summit (2012, 2014), Whitechapel Gallery in London, Fotomuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland (2010) and a recent solo exhibition at Project88.