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 over 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, the
acclaimed Bangladeshi photographer, artist and activist Shahidul Alam attempts to break
the silence surrounding her disappearance.
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 was a
Chakma, part of the pahari (hill people) community, and was a leader of the Hill Women’s
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 pahari 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,
‘I wanted the 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.’
Alongside the portraits, a series of prints explore the internal displacement of the paharis and
the arrival of the government-backed Bangali settlers.
Speaking about the exhibition 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”.
Venue: Bamburgh House (Level 2 Gallery), Market Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6BH
Friday 1 December 2017 – 11 January 2018.
Hours: Wednesday – Saturday: 12 – 5pm.
Artist Talk and reception: Friday 8 December, 6-9pm.