What does it mean for art to untangle truths and dissect history?

Writer and visual artist Naeem Mohaiemen ventures deep into the thorny, chaotic jungle that we call history. He talks to Art Radar about his work and the struggles he faces as a researcher and artist exploring the histories of the international left and the contradictions of nationalism.

Naeem Mohaiemen, 'United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1)' (video still), 2012, 70 min, video. Image courtesy the artist.

Naeem Mohaiemen, ‘United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1)’ (video still), 2012, 70 min, video. Image courtesy the artist.

Naeem Mohaiemen (b. 1969, London, England) grew up in Dhaka and currently works in Dhaka and New York. A 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, Mohaiemen uses essays, photography, film and installation to explore histories of the international left and failed utopias.

Since 2006, Mohaiemen’s The Young Man Was project delved deep into the history of the 1970s ultra-left. A different medium was used in each portion of the project, testimony to Mohaiemen’s diverse range and sophisticated approach in handling complicated material. United Red Army (2012), a film about the 1977 hijack of a Japanese Airlines flight, is his most ambitious and widely seen film. Writer Kaelen Wilson-Goldie described it as:

[sharing] the same driving energy and fullness of thought as Johan Grimonprez’s dazzling hijacking documentary Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and Walid Sadek’s mind-bending installations on Kozo Okamoto, the Japanese Red Army member who became the only foreigner ever granted political asylum in Lebanon […]

A Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Columbia University, Mohaiemen has a style akin to that of an academic: uncompromisingly critical, skeptical without nostalgia or romance. And yet the artist within him manages to create powerful, immersive and ultimately fascinating experiences that forcefully challenge our conceptions of truth and history.

How did you become interested in alternative history versus official discourses?

I had a rough awakening which dislodged me from an abiding loyalty to official history, moving me to a position of skepticism about historical accounts that are too perfectly composed. It was 1993 and I was working on a project that explored the 1971 war that split Pakistan and created Bangladesh. I was on a Watson fellowship to collect oral narratives about the “good war” that created Bangladesh.

Naeem Mohaiemen, 'The Shobak Tapes (1993-1994)', 2014, interview online archive. Image courtesy the artist.

Naeem Mohaiemen, ‘The Shobak Tapes (1993-1994)’, 2014, interview online archive. Image courtesy the artist.

The first detour came through a friend who was connected to Chatra Union, a leftist student group. He insisted that the first people I interview should be members of the underground left. What was compelling about this channel – which I thought at that time was a mere detour – was that these were people who had never been interviewed, which meant that there was a lack of rehearsal and performativity in their accounts. Amitava Kumar talks about this issue in Husband of a Fanatic: how a survivor of the Gujarat riots had become, through too many interviews, mechanical in the telling of a story too often told.

What started as a detour became my main focus: I soon discovered that these interviews were much more compelling than the ‘usual’ people I interviewed, and they began to consume my time and mind space fully. I would go home and transcribe the interviews at night and right away there would be metaphorical land mines in the path of collection of oral histories. The radical left, and especially the Maoists, were viewed with wariness during the war by both the Indian government and parts of the war command. So when these are the first stories you record, everything starts turning upside down right away.

How, if ever, did you resolve such dramatic contradictions?

After a year of recording stories, I had an impossibly chaotic collection of tapes. Nothing really made sense to me because I was still trying to hold on to my original thesis. And I did not have the language or theoretical framework to accept and digest stories that were so sharply at odds with each other.

Twenty years later, I now know that there is a way of working with these stories as a patchwork mesh of myths and events, where the pieces don’t have to fit. Now, I would probably argue that friction, and rubbing away at each other, can lead to a healthy equation. But back then, at the end of 1994, I was quite paralysed by the cul de sac I had worked myself into. I kept working on, or to be more precise, worrying at, the material. But in the end I gave up. I couldn’t weave a story, any story, out of it. Or at least that is how it felt.

That is roughly when my interests shifted, not to alternative histories as much as an interest in many, messy, contradictory histories. Also, out of that moment in 1994 came a commitment to trying not to drive to a conclusion. I falter often in that commitment, though.

A footnote: I have recently returned to this material, through the encouragement of CAMP. I am working with them to digitise the tapes from 1993-1994 and see how they look and feel after a gap of twenty years. We will be making the footage public, open to new research and reflection for anyone interested.

Your choice of media is always closely and inextricably linked to your subject matter. I found the sandstone moulds of your father’s photographs in Rankin Street, 1953 (2013) particularly unique and captivating: the moulds evoke a strong sense of the past, like ancient carvings on walls, but there is a curious vacancy or emptiness in the subjects when compared to the prints. Could you tell us a bit about how you got the idea for those moulds?

My mother sometimes claims, in a humorous vein, that my inspirations come from her side of the family, where there was both a historian (her father) and a novelist (her uncle). I think a larger factor may have been the fact that I was a loner as a child and my only playmate was the family library.

Anyway, in 2010, I found this box of my father’s negatives and wondered out loud how many more boxes were lost in the years after 1953. My mother interjected, “But don’t forget I used to draw a lot. I should have kept going.” I asked my mother if she wanted to draw responses to his photographs, and she smiled and shook her head. That’s her way of gently saying: no, I am too busy.

Naeem Mohaiemen, 'Rankin Street, 1953' (detail: 3 out of 12 pairs), 2013, self-reverse print, archival prints on paper, sandstone moulds, archival prints 12.7 x 20.3 cm each, sandstone moulds 12.7 x 8.2 x 10.1 cm each. Image courtesy the artist.

Naeem Mohaiemen, ‘Rankin Street, 1953’ (detail: 3 out of 12 pairs), 2013, self-reverse print, archival prints on paper, sandstone moulds, archival prints 12.7 x 20.3 cm each, sandstone moulds 12.7 x 8.2 x 10.1 cm each. Image courtesy the artist.

I kept thinking about what response my mother would have given if she had wanted to speak back to my father’s images. From there came the idea of raised surfaces that reflect and speak back to the photographs.

But there’s not really a one-to-one correspondence with the negative space of the photographs. I work with the serrated edges until there is a certain number of stalactite/stalagmite-like formations, enough to render the surface illegible. But I don’t think I succeeded fully. Viewers can still make out the surface, maybe more than I wanted.

When I explain the minutiae of the making, I feel the whimsy is getting stripped away. It all sounds very deliberate and schematic, but it wasn’t. There was a lot of doodling and wandering around and going for walks. And then the moulds came. Perhaps it would be better to quote Natasha Ginwala’s review in Art-Agenda that described the work as “anthills, the steps of an agora, and a forest’s edge.” I wish I had thought of those words, but she did it instead, beautifully.

I found Kazi in Nomansland (2009) and the story of the mute Bengali poet Nazrul Islam fascinating, both as a historical anecdote and as an analogy for all those who have their words appropriated or re-written. How did the project come about?

My friend Udayan Chattopadhyay, a storehouse of exhaustive knowledge about pre-1947 united Bengal, first told me that Kazi Nazrul Islam was the only person to appear on stamps of all three countries: Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. I didn’t fully believe him, and so I went to many stamp collectors to try to trace copies.

In an old Dhaka post office, the Director showed me a seminar essay. There were 328 stamps issued by Pakistan from 1947 until the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh. Only one of these featured a Bengali and that was Nazrul Islam.

His assistant interjected: “Sir, there was also the 1956 stamp that had ‘two anna’ in Bengali script.” And he replied, “Yes, but that one had distorted Bangla.”

Naeem Mohaiemen, 'Kazi in Nomansland', 2009, stamp stacks, each 3.75 x 5 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Naeem Mohaiemen, ‘Kazi in Nomansland’, 2009, stamp stacks, each 3.75 x 5 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

The Dhaka GPO had 19,538 of the 1977 Nazrul commemoratives still in stock. In one week I had bought 3,000 of them while working on this project. Soon, collectors started wondering what was going on. My friend, curator Zaid Islam, joked that I was causing a tiny tsunami in the stamp market and that I had better not be planning any more limited editions.

Salam, an obsessive philatelist who had been tracking me, confronted me halfway through the project: “Did you go to the Post Office to buy vintage Nazruls? You should have come to me. Their stamps have been in godowns, totally damp.” He pulled out his reference notebook to dispute the 328 number and showed me Pakistan’s “Pioneers of Freedom” series: Suhrawardy, Fazlul Huq, Khaza Nazimuddin, Sir Salimullah. But a phone call to his mentor revealed that this series had actually come out in the 1990s. The 1 for 328 statistic stayed intact.

In the list of reasons why “Pak Sarzamin” broke apart into Pakistan and Bangladesh, there are many economic and cultural statistics. Stamp politics is only a small p within that universe.

I was interested in that small p.

Naeem Mohaiemen, 'United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1)' (video still), 2012, 70 min video. Image courtesy the artist.

Naeem Mohaiemen, ‘United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1)’ (video still), 2012, 70 min. video. Image courtesy the artist.

The viewing of your film United Red Army (2012) is almost a physical experience, because of the darkness, disorientation and the extraordinarily high stakes involved in the conversation between just two men. How did you create the tension in cinematic language?

I thought for a long time about the idea of making the entire film in darkness, with only text. That would have been an endurance test for the audience. With the final structure, I was curious about the effect of being in darkness for extended periods of time, and the effect of the surprise of opening your eyes and finding yourself in the middle of the archive.

When I first listened to the audio tapes – twenty-two hours, repeatedly, over many days – I started getting a little delirious: I was inside that story and straining to hear every word. There are patches of tape where it is impossible to make out what is being said and I kept playing them in the hope that, just this once, it would be clear. I wanted a structure that would induce people into that obsessive habitation of the story, without having to be immersed in the tapes for 22 hours.

In Bangladesh, some people who have seen the film asked if I had shifted to the late 1970s – my earlier work took place between 1971 and 1975, before the first coup – as an attempt to demystify the military regimes. Well, that is part of the research path: for a country with a history of interventions into democracy (in both the Pakistan and Bangladesh periods), it is impossible to consider where politics might lead next without understanding those events.

On another level, the film is bracketed within the larger The Young Man Was project, which is, among other things, an inquiry into the compulsions that make people join messianic movements that from a contemporary space seem doomed, but from within their contexts, must have appeared to hold tremendous potential.

What are some of your main influences, including artists, writers, theorists or poets?

One person who has been on my mind a lot since The Young Man Was project started is the historian Afsan Chowdhury. It is his diary entry from which the title comes, and that same diary provided the skeleton and coda for the film Afsan’s Long Day.

Afsan fascinates me as a certain type of icnonoclast formed in the crucible of the early 1970s. He was co-editor of the majestic seventeen volume collection of documents of the 1971 war, but he broke with orthodoxies, challenging the established statistics and discussing revenge killings. The latter now seems more normal, because younger academics like Dina Siddiqi have now written excellent essays like “Left Behind by the Nation”. But when Afsan wrote those polemics or spoke at seminars in the 1990s, he was one man alone against the tide. I am fascinated by these people who were willing to break early with established truths.

What’s next on your agenda, in terms of both artistic and research endeavours?

I try not to separate the work in that way; there is both overlap and generative schizophrenia. I am working on a Ph.D. in Historical Anthropology and this academic year is my comprehensive exam. I am also researching my next film, tentatively titled The Last (White) Man, which looks at a man who, coincidentally, was doing Ph.D. fieldwork in South Asia and then dropped out to join the ultra-left for a period. It’s a complicated story and I don’t know the solution to the storytelling puzzle yet. I gave a talk about the story as part of Creative Time’s Global Residency, but the film form is not clear to me.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Bangladeshi artists, interviews, art and history, identity art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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