Naeem Mohaiemen

Naeem Mohaiemen

Fellow: Awarded 2014
Field of Study: Film - Video

Competition: US & Canada

Naeem Mohaiemen (b. 1969) is a Bangladeshi writer and visual artist, working in Dhaka and New York. Since 1999, he has worked on a series of projects that use the museum as staging ground for pages of an “exploded history book.” The inspiration for this came from The Shobak Tapes (1993–1994), an oral history of the 1971 war that split Pakistan into two nations and created Bangladesh. The collapse of that project under the contradictions of Naeem’s own and prevailing ideas (in Bangladesh) of the “good war” led to his gradual transition to the visual arts as a space where more incomplete, “gray zone” research was possible.

Naeem uses essays, photography, film, and mixed media sculptures to explore borders, wars, and belonging through Bangladesh’s two postcolonial periods (after 1947 and 1971). Inspired by recent scholarship on Haiti’s slave rebellion as the inspiration for “universal history” (including Susan Buck-Morss’ burrowing inside Hegel), his argument is that Bangladesh’s trajectory since 1947 can be a template for understanding the conditions, and possibilities, of postliberation disenchantment.

Projects on the schizophrenia of new borders include Kazi in Nomansland, an exploration of a poet claimed, in contradictory ways (“Muslim poet,” “secular thinker,” etc.), by India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The project has shown widely and is in the collection of the British Museum. Other interventions on historical debates include his comprehensive essay response to Sarmila Bose’s revisionist history of the 1971 war—the debate between Bose and Mohaiemen has been reprinted widely, including in Lines of Control: Partition as Productive Space (Johnson Museum).

From 2001 to 2006, Naeem worked on activist and art projects on globally connected security panic, including through Visible Collective (Disappeared in America). Visible’s work showed widely, including at the Whitney Biennial of American Art (inside “Wrong Gallery”). A related series of projects look at the national security state in Bangladesh that draws expertise and rationale from the post-2001 security-militarized American state. His concerns include the puzzle of how migrants in marginal, liminal, securitized identities in Europe and North America can still support majoritarian and authoritarian behavior in their “home country.” The projects include My Mobile Weighs A Ton, and the anthology Between Ashes and Hope: Chittagong Hill Tracts in the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism.

Since 2006, Naeem has worked on The young man was (no longer a terrorist), a fragmentary history of the global revolutionary left, through the crucible of Bangladesh’s experience of radical-left movements in the 1970s. Among the project’s chapters is United Red Army, a film about the 1977 hijack of Japan Airlines to Dhaka by the Japanese Red Army. The film was described as “how to make engagements with a revolutionary past meaningful in the sudden eruption of a revolutionary present” (Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, Bidoun), and is in the collection of the Tate Modern. A more recent chapter, Afsan’s Long Day, premiered at MoMA, New York. The young man was project has been supported by Creative Capital, Creative Time, Franklin Furnace, Rhizome, Arts Network Asia, and others. Naeem will work on the next chapter of this research during his Guggenheim Fellowship term. All the project chapters to date will be shown together in summer 2014 at Kunsthalle Basel, and in late 2015 at Iniva, London.

The young man was project explores, through the stories of doomed and defeated (and yet defiant) protagonists, how people put aside the weight of recent history, and continue to invest hope in new movements, in an almost impossible optimism. What lies, in the end, within the capacity for imagining utopia, in spite of contrarian evidence? The language of the work is somewhere between enumeration, whimsy, and darkness. Because of the ironic tone, the projects have sometimes been read as “overly critical” of the left. In discussions, he has stressed that he makes work as a believer in left futures, but with the understanding that tracing where things went wrong is part of such processes. As he writes in the text for Live True Life or Die Trying: “A lover tries again, flower in hand.” However, he acknowledges that irony and distance are complicated devices in contexts where history is never past. The pressure for creating what Naeem has elsewhere called shothik itihash (correct history)” is suffocating, and he explores the visual arts as a space where contradictory conversations have more space.

Project themes have been described as “gently question the efficacy of activism” (Brian Boucher, Art in America), “not yet disillusioned fully with the capacity of human society” (Vijay Prashad, Take on Art), and “ultimately more illuminating than Jacques Rancière’s microscopic examinations of the utopian kernels” (Ben Davis, ArtNet).

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