Naeem Mohaiemen excavates national and personal histories in his film essay “It is Not Necessary to Understand Everything”.
On show at Tensta Konsthall in Sweden until 7 May 2017, Naeem Mohaiemen’s solo exhibition “Is it Not Necessary to Understand Everything” centres around United Red Army, a 2012 film essay which departs from the 1977 hijacking of Japan Air Lines’ flight 472, forcefully redirected to Dhaka, Bangladesh.
On 28 September 1977, Japan Airlines Flight 472 was en route from Paris to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport after having stopped in Bombay. Its course was then derailed: members of Japan’s Red Army, a militant communist organisation formed in 1971, hijacked the aircraft and forced the pilot to head to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the JRA members held 118 passengers and crew members hostage for the next three days, during which intense negotiations were carried out between the Japanese Red Army and the Bangladeshi Chief of Air Force.
This incident may have passed as a minor blip in the larger historical narratives of both Japan and Bangladesh, but it is the subject of careful scrutiny in the 2011 film United Red Army (The Young Man Was Part I) by historian, artist and filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen. The film comprises part of Mohaeimen’s solo exhibition “It is Not Necessary to Understand Everything” at Sweden’s Tensta Konsthall, as part of their larger series “The Eros Effect: Art, Solidarity Movements and the Struggle for Social Justice”, which also includes projects by Filipa Cesar, Marion von Osten, Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti. The title “Eros Effect” takes its name from a 1989 essay by George Katsiaficas that calls for further critical understanding of the emotional impacts of social movements, which are “erotic acts” as much as they are rational movements toward liberation from structural and psychological oppression.
Mohaiemen’s film, like his practice, explicates his desire to excavate through histories both national and personal, and much of the audio and video footage interspersed throughout frames of coloured text on a black background, is sourced from various archives. The black frames show subtitles of audio transcripts, with the text coloured according to whomever is speaking at the time. Green represents the Bangladeshi Chief of Air Force Mahmood who orchestrates the negotiations between the Japanese Red Army spokesperson, Danketsu, whose words are highlighted in pink. White subtitles indicate the voice of Mohaiemen himself, who narrates part of the work.
Mohaeimen is present both as the omniscient narrator in the present, but also as an observer in the past: the news broadcast of the hostage event occurred when Mohaiemen was an eight-year-old boy in Dhaka. United Red Army includes this perspective, where the international crisis was but a nuisance to a young Mohaiemen, who wanted nothing more than to watch his favourite television programme, The Zoo Gang. This viewpoint, one which has an intimate and subjective frame to his own life, allows Mohaiemen to collapse personal histories with national ones, suggesting that the distance between oneself and historical events is a matter of perspective that can be traversed.
In a video interview with London Consortium TV, Mohaiemen notes that because of its contentious nature and ability to be manipulated, the political archive has often not survived very well, as records can be used to undermine current political authority. In the case of Bangladesh in particular, Mohaiemen notes that the struggle for political legitimacy between Islamists and the military has resulted in each change in government taking the form of a “rupture”. Thus, governments have always approached history as a source of danger, and the archive has often been destroyed – not always intentionally, but often through neglect.
Mohaeimen’s objective in his film is to work against this neglect, but creating the film had its own hurdles: because he could not obtain video records from this period through Bangladesh Television, he had to rely on footage acquired from Japanese television sources. The audio dialogue between the Air Force Chief and Danketsu, leader of the Japanese Red Army hijackers, was obtained directly through the Air Marshal: no one had thought to ask for it before. Mohaeimen’s artistic approach centres on the disjuncture between history that is accessible, but perhaps forgotten, and history that has made itself the dominant discourse, and much of his practice is devoted to the moment at which these two formulations of history intersect to create new spaces for dialogue.
The curators at Tensta Konsthall similarly highlight the idea of competitive, parallel narratives of history by situating material histories alongside Mohaeimen’s film. Presented in glass vitrines are two timelines, one which presents Bangladesh’s history in the ten-year period from 1967 to 1977, and the other noting international hijackings within the same decade. While the two timelines run parallel to one another, they converge at the year of the Japanese Red Army’s hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 472, indicating the intersection between the political upheaval of a fledgling nation under military authority, and the attempt of a communist organisation to centre itself in mainstream politics.
As a historian and researcher, Mohaiemen asks whether these intersecting movements, specific to a time and place, bear relevance to contemporary global leftist movements. The Konsthall exhibition places annotated editions of the Bengali magazine Bichitra from the same period, the cover emblazoned with the headline “A 105 Hour Saga”. In positioning these contemporary markers of history alongside Mohaiemen’s film, the exhibition underscores the central question of how anti-state movements such as the one made by the Japanese Red Army become appropriated and remembered through time and within specific localities.
How might have the histories of Bangladesh and Japan crossed otherwise? And what is the impact of such an interaction, depicted in the tense moments of negotiation between Danketsu and Mahmood, on the conception of anti-state movements today? As Maria Lind, Director of the Tensta Konsthall notes,
“It is Not Necessary to Understand Everything” by Naeem Mohaiemen (Dhaka and New York) at Tensta Konsthall takes on the global left’s relationship to visions and failures […]. The security panic that appeared in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks triggered Mohaiemen to research into earlier periods when similar sentiments flourished, like in the 1970s, away from current headlines. He is asking challenging questions about the aftermath of state and non- state violence. While doing so, he is turning his eye to the anti-state left which failed to come into power in many countries, a contrast with the more successful statist left which became so influential in Scandinavia.
The “visions and failures” of the global left as seen in this particular exhibition at an internationally renowned museum encompass an anti-state movement, an international security crisis, and embedded within both, a test of a nation’s strength in governance. The particular narrative depicted and re-imagined by Mohaiemen has a conclusive end. Takeo Fukuda, Prime Minister of Japan, announced that the government would pay the USD6 million ransom and release six imprisoned JRA members; the JRA then released 118 passengers and crew members in Dhaka and 11 more passengers in Kuwait and Damascus. Yet, as Mohaeimen’s practice suggests, despite the quiet ways in which such narratives seem to conclude, their impacts still resound over the course of time, reforming and re-emerging across points in history.
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