Naeem Mohaiemen_ENG

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BILDMUSEET 20/02 15/08 2021 ENGLISH








Naeem Mohaiemen’s new film Jole Dobe Na (Those Who Do Not Drown) is a dream-like and meditative story about loss and care. In an abandoned hospital, a man moves through empty wards, running an endless memory loop of the last months of his wife’s life. Through his repetitive recall, Mohaiemen’s work expresses how the departed live on in the minds of those left behind. Jole Dobe Na (Those Who Do Not Drown) was commissioned by the Yokohama Triennale and Bildmuseet, where it is now being shown for the first time following its premiere in Japan. The film is presented together with earlier works on memory, photography, and history including the acclaimed three-channel film Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017). Naeem Mohaiemen (b. 1969, London) lives and works in New York. In films, installations, drawings, and essays he investigates the legacies of socialist utopias, incomplete decolonization, and how shifting borders, citizenship, and language wars shape people’s lives. His work has been presented at art museums and film festivals around the world, most recently at The Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Sevilla (2020); SALT Beyoglu, Istanbul (2019); Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven (2018); Tensta konsthall, Stockholm (2017); BFI London Film Festival (2017); MoMA PS1, New York (2017); Sharjah Biennial 13, Beirut (2017) and documenta 14, Aten/ Kassel (2017). Mohaiemen was a finalist for the 2018 Turner Prize. He currently has a fellowship at Columbia University, New York and at Lunder Institute of American Art, Maine, USA. He has a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University, New York, 2019.

Naeem Mohaiemen was born in London 1969. In 1970, his family returned to what was then East Pakistan, just before the outbreak of the 1970 war that split the country and created Bangladesh. Naeem Mohaiemen grew up in tandem with the newly formed Bangladesh, whose first decades were marked by political turmoil and military coups. The history of these years, the colonial legacy, and the failures of the 20th century global Leftist movements fuel Naeem Mohaiemen’s films, installations and writings. One of the enduring toxins of borders drawn by British colonialism is the unstable nation states that were created. Bangladesh is a product of three ruptures – the 1905 partition of united Bengal province under British India, the 1947 partition of India into India and Pakistan after independence, and the 1971 war that again split Pakistan, with its eastern half emerging as the state of Bangladesh. The complex and elusive nature of history runs through Naeem Mohaiemen’s artistic practice, intertwined with existential questions. His works are often based on the succession of small and overlooked moments that reflect or destabilize the larger events of history, where micro and macro perspectives on history meet. The works deliver a counter-history of minor events that shaped the artist, his family, and the nation of Bangladesh. A reoccurring theme in his work is the instability and unreliability of our memories, and consequently how unstable and fragile our relationship with history is. “An eight-year-old

remembers trivial things, and only decades later he understands from old newspaper articles that something cataclysmic happened on a national level in his childhood”. In the installation I Have Killed (2013), on display here at Bildmuseet, Mohaiemen imagines the rumours that preceded the military coup in 1975 when the prime minister and president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered, and he portrays these events using texts and images. “Based on my long-time obsession with writing about the 1971-war, that divided Pakistan and created Bangladesh, I have always seen the 1970s as a decade of alternatively a promise or a threat”. Naeem Mohaiemen takes an interest in that which incidentally remains after the event; the residue and incomplete traces of historical events, such as faded photographs or the corroded sequences of a film roll. This is reflected in his works such as Rankin Street, 1953 (2013) and Baksho Rohoshyo (Chobi, Tumi Kar?) [Mystery box (Photograph, whose are you?)] (2019) on display in the exhibition. He creates his artworks on the basis of the fragmentary, the insignificant and the overlooked; stories that encompass contradictory and inconclusive testimonies, that undermine their own narrative, expose doubt, and point to the precariousness and uncertainty of life. Another reoccurring motif in Mohaiemen’s artistic oeuvre is failure. In the film series, The Young Man Was, he explored the visions and the failings of the radical left (with focus on Bangladesh) in the works: United Red Army (2012), Afsans’s Long Day (2014), Last Man in Dhaka Central (2015) and Abu Ammar Is Coming (2016).

The global political events of the 1960s and 1970s are also at the centre of his monumental video installation Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017) which traces the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the events that sparked Bangladesh’s ideological shift from a secular to a religious state. Initially, Mohaiemen worked in a documentary format to which he would add fictional elements, but he later decided to do the opposite and instead create fictional works in which he inserts fragments of documentary material. His first feature film, Tripoli Cancelled (2017), is based on a real incident, when his father was stranded in an airport after losing his passport. In the film (shot in the abandoned airport Ellinikon in Athens) we meet a man trapped in a no man’s land, were the airport – usually a symbol for movement and possibilities – has transformed into a prison. The film expresses an existential precariousness and insists on the necessity of fiction (literature) and small prevarications to keep on living. This theme is revisited in Jole Dobe Na (Those Who Do Not Drown), that includes book readings taken from Syed Mujtaba Ali’s stories of Europe between the two world wars, in this his second feature film, which has its European premiere here at Bildmuseet.




Jole Dobe Na (Those Who Do Not Drown), 2020


Film, 64 min Naeem Mohaiemen’s new film Jole Dobe Na (Those Who Do Not Drown) is a dreamlike and meditative story about loss and care. The film explores existential questions of life and death with the focus on the afterlife of those left behind. How are they affected by the loss and how does the departed live on in their minds? The title of the film Jole Dobe Na comes from a Bengali folk song: “Those who die in love never drown”. In the film, we meet a man and a woman who seem trapped in time and space. They move through the empty wards of an abandoned hospital, in a state of suspension. During the couple’s everyday conversation, a quiet argument develops around touching on the expectations on medical science, with one of the protagonists saying, “They promised science could do everything”. Simultaneously, a number of questions resurface: “When is the end of pharma-medical care? What could have been done differently?” The film ends on an ambiguous note, making us ask ourselves if we have just seen a protocol of actual events unfolding, or, if what has played out on the screen is in fact the man running an endless memory loop of the last months of his wife’s life. Through his repetitive recall, the film expresses how the departed live on in the minds of those left behind.

Jole Dobe Na (Those Who Do Not Drown) draws on Naeem Mohaiemen’s personal experience of hospitals and goodbyes, care and the medical industry. End of life conversations are always difficult, and different religious and existential beliefs will affect our approach to death and dying – including negotiations around funeral rites. One of the protagonists in the film notes, “Maybe we expected too much of the doctors”. The film revisits themes from Mohaiemen’s first feature film, Tripoli Cancelled (2017); the family unit as locus for pain-beauty dyads, abandoned buildings as a staging ground for lost souls, and the necessity of small prevarications to keep on living. In Jole Dobe Na the married couple pauses from the medical procedures through the book readings from Syed Mujtaba Ali’s stories of Europe between the two wars. The script for Jole Dobe Na was completed when the covid-19 pandemic erupted. One of the consequences of the pandemic was that Naeem Mohaiemen had to rewrite the script due to the changed reality, and that the film had to be shot in a hospital which was not in use (Lohia Hospital in Kolkata). Due to the pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions, the final editing and completion of the film in spring 2020 had to be done on long distance between New York, Dhaka, and Kolkata.

Rankin Street, 1953, 2013 Film, 7:43 min Rankin Street, 1953: Blueprints, 2013 Installation Table, photographs In 2010, Naeem Mohaiemen found a small cardboard box as he cleared things from his old family home in Dhaka. Inside, he discovered almost one hundred negatives, neatly labelled in his father’s handwriting. These images became the subject of Mohaiemen’s film, Rankin Street, 1953 in which he shows us a selection of the photographs and narrates what he remembers from conversations with his father who was a devoted amateur photographer. “The oldest negatives I found are from 1953. For that year, there are hundreds of neatly filed negatives. Each sleeve marked with the month, in father’s neat fountain pen script. After that, from 1954-1971, everything was gone. During the war, that was the first thing to disappear. When father snaps family events now, the images are hopelessly plain, I mourn the loss of his possibilities. ‘Abba, please turn off the flash’, I request for the hundredth time. ‘Without flash, everything looks dark’, he replies. Meanwhile, mother insists: ‘Your aesthetics came from this side of the family. I used to draw so much, if only I had kept it up’. Later she did incredibly detailed embroideries. When we lost the old family home, everything had to be unframed. I wanted to pair father’s photographs with mother’s recreation of the same. Would she make cut-outs, line sketches, or embroideries? Or maybe she would insist that I complete it myself,” Naeem Mohaiemen recalls.

The presentation of the work Rankin Street, 1953 here at Bildmuseet also includes an installation – a table with prints where Naeem Mohaiemen has added ink line drawings to build a blueprint of the house on top of his father’s faded photographs, mapping and inscribing the memories as he constructs a melancholic portrait of an extended ekannoborti (family that eats meals together) that no longer exists. “The Rankin Street house was sold sometime in the 1970s. A greedy city came and swallowed up entire blocks. Seven sisters each got one-seventh of the sale price, a pittance in the 1970s. Three brothers inherited the main plot in Dhanmondi. These are the ways the swaps happened. My aunts are so young here. Later one became a university teacher, another worked at the World Bank. No one managed to stay in the same space.” Naeem Mohaiemen says. Depicting family members and familiar local scenes in 1953, the photographs his father took precede the founding of Bangladesh by two decades. They contain images of the country’s future capital, Dhaka, that appears full of uncertainty and potential. Naeem Mohaiemen treats the family house in Rankin Street as a metonym of the city’s subsequent transformation. Rankin Street, 1953 premiered at Art Basel, 2013.

Baksho Rohoshyo (Chobi, Tumi Kar?), 2019 Installation 60 solvent transfer prints, table, contact prints from vintage photo strips, magnifying glass “The box was inside a book closet behind a set of books no one had been very interested in. Opening it up, I found a set of almost a hundred negatives, each one stored in a wax sleeve, with my father’s neat handwriting on top in fountain pen, June 1953, July 1953, and so on. There was also a roll of printed contacts, spooled around a hollow cardboard spindle. I thought that was a strange way to store things. At each bend at least one photo was getting twisted. Father could not remember this box, but when I showed him the handwriting he said: “Yes, that´s my handwriting all right.” Naeem Mohaiemen recalls in the film Rankin Street, 1953. Mohaiemen’s father was a surgeon as well as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. In Baksho Rohoshyo (Chobi Tumi Kar?) the artist tries to recreate the stories behind the photographs his father took in the 1950s in what was then East Pakistan. Together with his father Mohammad Abdul Mohaiemen (b. 1935, Mymensingh, East Bengal) and two of his father’s sisters, Suraiya Begum (b. 1937, Diamond Harbour, West Bengal, d. 2019, New York, USA) and Sadia Afroze Ali (b. 1949, Pabna, East Bengal) he looks at the photographs which no one has looked at for decades to try to stitch together the story behind each image.

The first half of the title Baksho Rohoshyo [Mystery Box] comes from legendary Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s detective novels. In the exhibition, the contact sheets developed from his father’s lost negatives are displayed on a table where we can study them with the help of a magnifying glass. In the images on the wall the photographs are represented as line drawings together with the transcribed conversation between the four family members. The person talking is identified through the multi-coloured dialogue between Naeem Mohaiemen (black), his father Mohammad Abdul Mohaiemen (blue), and aunts Suraiya Begum (green) and Sadia Afroze Ali (red). The length of the answers gives a sense of who remembers what, and which details shine through. During the conversation they are reminded of familiar faces that are only meaningful for the immediate family. At other times, fragments of a national history appear; a history marked by the two partitions – the 1947 partition of Bengal and the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh. Through their comments on the transformation of everyday language, transfer of property between families on different sides of the border and migration between countries, glimpses of larger national histories appear. Embedded in the memories of this one family, we find clues that point to a broader political scenario and key moments in the history of Bangladesh. The tension between history with a capital “H” and domesticity inheres in these family snapshots.

History as the name of the inevitable drive that splits and scatters the family across the globe. Bengali was used in the original version of this work, but in this version, the dialogue has been translated into English. Although the translation extends the work to a wider audience, a Bengali speaker will notice that something of the original meaning is lost. The dialogue between the artist, his father, and his aunts, is also available in Swedish. Baksho Rohoshyo (Chobi, Tumi Kar?) premiered at Longitude Latitude 6 in Dhaka in 2016.

I Have Killed, 2009 Installation Archival prints on acid free cotton rag paper, Polaroid photographs, resin. I Have Killed looks at the 1975 military coup that murdered prime minister and president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family. In poetic texts Naeem Mohaiemen imagines the rumours before the coup, the rehearsal the night before the events took place, and the aftermath. The text uses real elements interwoven with fictious scenarios which are paired with photographs from other times and other places. The installation includes two sculptures with a set of Polaroids completely immersed in resin. Each Polaroid is of cropped newspaper photographs that depict the military coup. The Polaroids were shot using expired film, making the images almost disappear. The immersion of the photographs into resin and the heat from that process cause the colour of the Polaroid surface to leak and float within the hardened material. In the absence of official archives, this project imagined an archaeologist’s discovery many decades after the original events – tell-tale images frozen in what appears to be amber. I Have Killed premiered at Experimenter, Frieze, London, 2009.

When Worlds Collide I, II, 2020 Sculptures 3D-print (PA12 Nylon), spray paint In the two sculptures When Worlds Collide, Naeem Mohaiemen imagines hybrid architectures conjured out of fragments of buildings in Algiers, Dhaka, Lahore, and New York that have been featured in his video work Two Meetings and a Funeral, presented on floor 0 here at Bildmuseet. Architecture has a prominent role in this film about a key moment for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the new nation Bangladesh in 1973-1974. In this work, Mohaiemen introduces us to the buildings designed by famous architects in which global political meetings were held. He reminds us that architecture does not merely serve as a back-drop, against which historical events play out, it also manifests political ideas, dreams and utopias. The sculptures visualize the collisions and intersections of the architecture that served as vehicles for divergent ideologies during the Cold War.

The sculptures reference the following buildings: When Worlds Collide I 1 a: Palais de Nation, Algiers, 1961 by Luigi Moretti. 1 b: Bangabandhu International Conference Center, Dhaka, 2001 by Beijing Institute of Architectural Design. 1 c: Provincial Assembly of the Punjab, Lahore, 1938 by Bazel M. Salune. When Worlds Collide II 2 a: La Coupole, Algiers, 1975 by Oscar Niemeyer. 2 b: UN General Assembly, New York City, 1952 by Oscar Niemeyer & Le Corbusier. 2 c: Houari Boumediene University of Science & Technology, Algiers 1969 by Oscar Niemeyer. When Worlds Collide was commissioned by the Power Plant, Toronto, Canada, 2020.


Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017 Three-channel film, 88 min In the video work Two Meetings and a Funeral, Naeem Mohaiemen takes us back to the global political events of the 1960s and 1970s. The work focuses on the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), in which formerly colonized countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America came together to devise a union to rival the Soviet Union and the Western Bloc. The focal point of the film is the relationship between the Non-Aligned Movement, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the birth of the nation state of Bangladesh. Architecture is one of the main protagonists in this work that takes us to the actual sites and buildings in Algiers, Lahore, Dhaka, and New York that housed the meetings and pivotal political shapeshifters of the Non-Aligned Movement. Empty spaces are brought back to life by the documentary material – archival footage, photographs, and sound recordings from the meetings. La Coupole in Algiers, designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, is one of the gigantic structures that acts as the backdrop for these historical moments and simultaneously manifests the utopian ideas of this era. The film traces the trails of people and events that were instrumental for the historical outcome. In interviews, we meet community activists, artists, politicians, and scholars who ask questions and at times struggle to arrive at a conclusive answer. They wander through buildings and archives with us and reflect

upon hopes and failures born within the political visions that the Non-Aligned Movement represented. “The Third World was not a place, it was a project” as historian Vijay Pradesh expresses it in the film and in his book, The Darker Nations, which served as one of the sources of inspiration for this work. Two Meetings and a Funeral was commissioned for documenta 14, 2017.