Naeem Mohaiemen

Prisoners of Shothik Itihash

For many historians, the subject of their research is often made of, and defined by, events that have a specific cause, and set in motion a specific series of effects. This way of telling history adds up to a chain of historical facts that seem to explain themselves. Nations, figures, wars, treasons, and alliances build up the seeming only order, in which history can be read and taught. The difficulty of such history writing becomes apparent when it comes to the interpretation of the sheer mass of source material any historian has access to. Contradictions begin to amass and the history that previously might have been taken for granted changes its course.

In his first solo show in Europe, Bangladeshi writer and visual artist Naeem Mohaiemen deploys the Kunsthalle Basel as a staging ground for what he calls the “exploded history book.” Trained as a researcher (he is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Columbia University), Mohaiemen’s films, photography, mixed media objects, and essays are based on the commingling of major and minor histories in relation to the subcontinental triangle of nations (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan), and the particular histories of multiple partitions of borders. Mohaiemen’s arc takes in a pre-history of the modern nation state, by looking at Bangladesh’s “first” coming to postcolonial independence in 1947 as one of the two “wings” of Pakistan. In fact, this “first” moment was already foretold in the earlier 1905 British partition of Bengal into East and West Bengal (an event that was reversed in 1911 after sustained protests). In his narrative of this early era, Berlin and Rabindranath Tagore enter the stage; later we also find W. G. Sebald making an appearance within the war years.

The country’s journey as “East Pakistan” proved precarious and new country borders were again drawn up after a brutal war in 1971—leading to full sovereignty for Bangladesh, and separation from Pakistan. From that point on, Mohaiemen develops a fragmentary history of the radical left in the 1970s, starting in Bangladesh, but radiating out to parallel underground left movements in Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Throughout, there is the idea that this is not a narrative specific only to one set of nations.

The title of the exhibition at the Kunsthalle and the accompanying publication—Prisoners of Shothik Itihash (which translates to “prisoners of correct history”) refers to the problematic of many histories, reflected in the constant alterations made to history books as governments, academics, and institutions change. The position of the citizen in relation to these official yet fluid versions of history remains in flux.

Mohaiemen considers minor “unimportant” histories particularly relevant in regard to contested national identities, constantly changing based on the state’s fluctuating approach. His academic research and the archival material he has been collecting over the years, including his father’s photographs and great uncle’s novels, enable him to put into crisis the idea of singular history.

At the Kunsthalle Basel, the sprawling history of South Asia through two partitions (1947 partition of India and Pakistan, and the 1971 separation of Pakistan and Bangladesh) is played out through a distribution of works, with a focus on particular protagonists in crucial years. Blending family and national histories, the projects construct an ongoing archive out of a series of unlikely objects: vintage stamps acquired from a puzzled philatelist, sandstone molds that reverse the first ever photographs taken by Mohaiemen’s father, expired polaroids that document the ghostly residue of victims and assailants, secret military recordings of hijack negotiations, fragments from interviews with US Embassy officials, incomplete blueprint drawings, timelines, and, always, copious amounts of text– elliptical, but also carrying “clues” of an actual event to be unraveled.

GALLERY 1 [1948] Kazi in Nomansland tells the story of iconic Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, a figure some believe could have also won a Nobel Prize like the poet Rabindranath Tagore, if not for the silent biases that left the work of this Muslim poet from a subalternized rural background internationally unrecognized. A staunch opponent of the plan to partition British India into Muslim and Hindu nations, Nazrul was rendered a mute, helpless witness to the madness of 1947 when a mysterious neurological disease destroyed his capacity for speech. Gradually Nazrul lost all his power of speech and memory, surviving another thirty years as an empty husk. Throughout this period, his “presence” was deployed numerous times for ceremonial purposes—first by post-1947 India, and then by post-1971 Bangladesh.

In a series of images sliced out of official press photos of Nazrul, Mohaiemen constructs a monologue that Nazrul may have spoken if his power of speech had ever returned. The final image is of Nazrul at his funeral; here the perspective is flipped, so that the sunglass-clad eyes of President Ziaur Rahman come to the forefront. Nazrul’s family wanted to take him back to India to bury him, but the request was refused by the Bangladeshi state. History’s ironies—President Zia did not know, at that time, that five years later the next grand funeral would be his own, after a brutal assassination.

Unable to speak (and therefore defend himself), Nazrul became a blank canvas for competing fantasies of the place of the Muslim “citizen” after 1947—did he belong to the “pure” homeland of Pakistan or was he an equal claimant to India? All of these ideas waged war over Nazrul’s mute body. Small wonder then that Nazrul is the only figure honored by the national stamps of all three countries (India, Pakistan, and then Bangladesh)—represented here through three delicate towers made entirely out of vintage stamps collected from post offices and obsessive philatelists.

[1947] Schizophrene draws on the poetry of Bhanu Kapil, who ties together the partition of India, contemporary migrant lives in Europe, and mental illness as a metaphor for the displacements of modernity. Mohaiemen draws inspiration from the origin story of Kapil’s book of poetry, derived from recovered fragments of her abandoned novel on 1947.

GALLERY 2 & 3 [1953] Rankin Street, 1953 constructs a melancholic portrait of a sprawling home, and an extended, multigenerational ekannoborti (“those who eat each meal together”) family that has been pulled apart by the ruthless rush of capital that has rendered contemporary Dhaka into a relentless real estate speculative bubble. The core of this project is a set of hundreds of negatives that Mohaiemen’s father shot around the family home in 1953 with his first camera. The negatives for this year are meticulously preserved, each in a separate sleeve. But all subsequent years are missing, possibly thrown away during the family’s move away from this fabled Rankin Street house where the extended family lived in the 1950s. Does it matter to history that Mohaiemen’s grandfather, Emdad Ali, received this land as part of the post-1947 Pakistan government’s attempt to create a new Muslim middle class? Or that Ali, as the first Bengali Muslim to receive a “gold medal” in Sanskrit language, represented a vanishing way of being Muslim and syncretic? Or, telescoping forward, what is the significance of the year 1953, a mere twelve months after the 1952 Language Riots that first shook apart the Bengali peoples’ faith in their place in united Pakistan?

These event histories lurk unspoken in the background, while in the foreground Mohaiemen is seemingly focused on reconstructing a family and a home that is theoretically his, but in actuality scattered all over the world long before he became an adult. In fact, the noble patriarch figure of Emdad Ali, ruling with a stern hand over an extended family, gently dictating choices of school (he was an obsessive fan of Jadav’er Patigonith mathematics), career, and marriage are a way of life that vanished in contemporary Bangladesh with the arrival of neoliberalism. Here, a film gives kinesis to the discovery of a forgotten box, line drawings build a blueprint of the house on top of faded photographs, and sandstone molds “speak back” to his father’s work—and all along, there is a tangential imagining of the larger histories.

GALLERY 4 [1971] Der Weisse Engel is a short film that continues Mohaiemen’s experiments with using text on screen to narrate story, almost in the mode of inter-titles such as were used for the silent era (these explorations reach a fuller intensity in the 70 minute film United Red Army). The brutal 1971 war that ruptured Pakistan and created Bangladesh is an ongoing haunting figure for the region, and much of Bangladeshi cinema and literature oscillates around the war in increasingly ritualized, performative ways. In a conscious move away from that exhausted national discourse, Mohaiemen deliberately makes very little visual work about the war (although he has addressed it extensively in his academic writing). Here too, he has approached the war in a tangential way, using artifacts that are in no way familiar to historians of 1971. The film repurposes one scene and the orchestral soundtrack of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976), in order to draw an oblique contrast between the rich popular vein of stories of delayed justice for individual German perpetrators of the Holocaust and the absence of any similar narratives directed toward the Pakistan army after 1971. The accompanying photographs pair dialogue from the Kafkaesque “dentist torture” scene in the same film with a contemporary staging of a moment of violence in Bangladesh. Hanif Kureishi’s film about London burning, a famous cameo in Casablanca (1942), and Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa (1991) are all referenced, but with a speed that refuses to let the viewer settle on the details.

GALLERY 5 [1974] Afsan’s Long Day is the latest film in a cycle of projects (The Young Man Was) about the 1970s ultra-left. Each chapter explores a different facet of the radical left of the 1970s in Bangladesh, but also with linkages to Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. In this film, Mohaiemen builds a series of interconnected vignettes that travel with Jean Paul Sartre, Joschka Fischer, Rote Armee Fraktion, and finally settles on the diaries of a Bangladeshi journalist who recounts an almost-execution.

GALLERY 6 This room builds the show to a peak, as it brings together multiple projects that mark the turbulent 1970s. [1973] The Year Brought Many Problems for Imperialists, derives from a Bangladeshi magazine story from that period that hints at the convulsions that were shaking the world from Chile to India. However, as Allende’s tragic end in the Presidential palace showed, the forces of global Imperialism struck back quickly against the “problems,” and by the end of the decade hopes for global revolution had been crushed, replaced by authoritarian regimes. Though this Bengali magazine’s optimism seems tragically misplaced, the questions of what that dream was and how it came together that year remains relevant. [1975] I have killed Pharaoh, I am not afraid to die reconstructs another violent assassination of a state leader, this time one that seemed to be the chronicle of a death foretold but not prevented. The exploded Polaroids in resin that accompany the text and photograph pairs stage the deaths of two sets of people. In one, we can make out the outline of newspaper photographs (captured on Polaroid) of the assassination victims. In the other, the assassins themselves, executed after a trial twenty years later. [1976] Red Ant Mother, Meet Starfish Nation extracts a series of “key phrases” from a journalists’ report on the alleged CIA connection to the coup and pairs them with a lonely vigil at the graveyard of the slain leader.

The other two pieces in this room lead up to Gallery 7’s film. [1977] You Will Roam Like a Madwoman is a single issue of a popular Bangladeshi magazine of the 1970s. This is the special issue that came out during the 1977 hijack of Japan Airlines to Dhaka. Mohaiemen has built an annotated archive of the entire magazine, translating one phrase from each page for his extended “footnotes” on the wall. The arc traced here ranges from a stern list of the number of dead during an attempted airport coup to a spurned lover’s letter where he tells a woman she will one day be mad in grief for him. [1977] United Red Army::Timeline charts two timelines, of Bangladesh’s journey to 1977, and the arc of international hijacking over the same ten years—the two streams merge to land the crisis of the Japanese Red Army on a Dhaka Airport runway in 1977.

GALLERY 7 [1977] United Red Army is Mohaiemen’s most ambitious and widely seen film. Building entirely off the recorded negotiation tapes between the Air Force chief in Dhaka control tower and the lead Japanese hijacker on the plane, the film slaloms between tense one-upmanship and moments of surreal humor. The work looks at a time when hijackers made proclamations such as “we hurt bourgeois people,” but the unintended finale on the runway shows that global south nations often paid a heavy price in “collateral damage.”

For the last ten years, Mohaiemen has practiced forms of history writing that escape the journal, the book, and the classroom. He does this by staging interventions that bring together photography, film, and mixed media objects, in order to play out the lacuna, bylanes, and diversions from the “main events” of large historical events. Inspired by the recent research on the Haitian slave rebellion as a possible source of Hegel’s idea of the dialectic, Mohaiemen works on bringing the history of decolonization, and post-liberation antimonies, into the main narrative frame.

While Mohaiemen’s exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel can be understood as an expanded history book, the accompanying publication becomes a simultaneously concentrated and expanded version of his work as an artist. We, the readers and viewers, become witnesses of a past that imprisoned people within history, while also liberating them from other, even more limited horizons. This publication brings together essays and images by Naeem Mohaiemen. The experience delivers a counter-history of minor events that shaped the artist, his family, and the nation.

The exhibition is generously supported by Peter HandschinLUMA Stiftung and Samdani Art Foundation
With additional funding provided by Fiorucci Art Trust and experimenter