Of Dissonant Notes and Artistic Practices: The art of Naeem Mohaiemen by Haig Aivazian

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Naeem Mohaiemen on view at CUE Art Foundation September 10 - October 31, 2009.  

I first met Naeem Mohaiemen at The Third Line gallery in Dubai in January 2009, while setting up an exhibition curated by London's Green Cardamom. The show was called "Lines of Control" and it consisted mainly of South Asian artists exploring the historical, social and cultural repercussions of the partitioning of India (in 1947) and Pakistan (in 1971), the latter resulting in the establishment of Bangladesh. Mohaiemen was presenting Kazi in Nomansland, a series of monochromatic, bitmap digital prints of the eyes of Kazi Nazrul Islam that the artist had shot from photographs on display at the Nazrul Institute Museum in Dhaka. A defiantly seditious, anti-colonial Bengali poet and arevolutionary thinker, Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) was struck by a rare disease that impaired his speech and left him mentally disabled in the last thirty years of his life.

The prints, each roughly 6 by 60 cm, were taken fromimages of various landmark moments in Nazrul Islam's life. The artist had annotated each of the prints on a separate wall, with a brief description of the significance of the chosen image. The five prints, along with the accompanying text, comprised a series of probes into the key moments of Nazrul Islam's dementia.  The framed prints were displayed one above the other, with about 7 cm between them, and while they were seemingly irregularly lined up, Nazrul Islam's eyes in each of them formed a perfect vertical line.

In front of the wall arrangement, a simple white plinth displayed three small stacks of stamps of varying heights. The stamps were from Pakistan,  India and Bangladesh , each country claiming him as a national figure.

Various parties saw in his near paralysis an opportunity to use Nazrul Islam as a vacant signifier whose status could be hijacked to support a wide range of causes. Here, Mohaiemen chose to focus on the poet's eyes to suggest that, whatever he was enlisted to promote, Nazrul Islam was attempting to communicate to the outside world his true thoughts through his eyes, like a kidnapping victim sneaking out a coded SOS past his unsuspecting captors.  After his death in 1976, the poet was buried in what was declared to be his homeland of Bangladesh-this in spite of the fact that he had been a staunch opponent of fragmenting India to create Pakistan, and that, had he retained his ability to communicate, it is unlikely he would have favored the further partitioning of Pakistan to create Bangladesh.

It is precisely such nationalist fantasies that Naeem Mohaiemen likes to engage with his work. Drawing unexpected parallels between seemingly unrelated historical episodes , Mohaiemen explores recurring instances of mass euphoria, whether marking the creation of a nation or celebrating a newly elected government, or forging imagined commonalities in collective identities engendered by the fear ofreal or fictional enemies.  A good example of this exercise in building unity by designating an outsider would of course be the post- 9/11 atmosphere in the U.S., and though most can agree on the staleness of Freedom Fries today, at the time, few were the voices speaking against the prevailing mood. 

Mohaiemen worked from 2004 until 2007 on a project  called Disappeared in America with the Visible Collective, an international group of artists and activists which he founded and which brought together members Uzma Z. Rizvi, Aimara Lin and Donna Golden. The project was based on extensive research into individual cases of secret (and not so secret) detentions in the era that followed the WTC attacks. The resulting exhibitions, which were widely shown in the United States and elsewhere, included timelines, photographs, posters, publications, sculptures and videos, among other components.

This interdisciplinary approach allowed the collective to deal with a multiplicity of data, as well as political and social factors, in a manner that did not mimic traditional historical narratives or conventional news presentations. Rather, the structure of Disappeared in America resembled an archive of sorts: one that could constantly be tweaked, re-arranged, added to or subtracted from. Not only was this web-like strategy effective in capturing the intricacies of actual occurrences, but also, and perhaps more importantly, it was modest in its form. It did not pretend to possess the key to the events depicted, nor did it produce a single meta-narrative leading to a definitive truth or conclusion. Instead, viewers were invited to undertake a fact-finding mission, going from headline news to marginal notes, from front page to backstage, ultimately having to engage in their own research to truly complete the puzzle.

There has been, of course, a litany of voices sounding alarms at the American state's policy of targeted criminalization, and the collective was keen on carefully contextualizing their practice within a broader spectrum of activism and academic and artistic research. The likes of Walid Ra'ad, 16 Beaver Group, Raqs Media Collective, Vijay Prashad, and Chris Marker, among many others, offer a rich setof references for the group.

In his solo work, Mohaiemen uses a similar strategy to emphasize what he refers to as "dissonant notes" in "moment[s] of [...] euphoria."[1] Young Man Was No Longer...  Is an ongoing project which focuses on moments of transition in the rise and fall of the so-called "international left"-when leftist rhetoric achieves an opportunity at nation building, when rebels become leaders,  when opposition becomes majority. In such moments, those who distance themselves from the mass festivities and remain skeptical are (at least momentarily) brushed aside and left out of the history being written.

Mohaiemen argues that treating history through the platforms and outlets of art allows him the freedom to walk in on a story right in the middle of it, to leave before its ending and jump into another story as it unfolds.  This freedom to weave in and out of ongoing events, along with the use of personal video footage from rallies, newspaper clippings, protest photographs and other materials, allows Mohaiemen considerable scope.  Through his performance lectures and projected video works, he is able to talk at once of Sheikh Mujiburr-Rahman (widely considered to be the creator of modern day Bangladesh),  of young men protesting imperialism in contemporary Bangladesh, ofJean Paul Sartre's meeting with Andreas Baader (of the notorious Baader-Meinhofgang in 1970s Germany), as well as German foreign minister Joschka Fischer struggling to justify his past involvement with leftist militants; he also ranges back to his own childhood in Libya, and from there he segues to Moammar Qaddafi and then back to Mujib.

Mohaiemen closely monitors the transitions and slippages between militancy, terrorism and power, as well as his own relationship as an activist to those moments of slippage. His research takes us to the Pakistani government dealing with Bengali separatists in its western province as terrorists, and shows us how those same so-called terrorists then came back as victorious freedom fighters and shook hands with that same leadership,

By highlighting over and over again the cyclicality of history, Mohaiemen questions the criteria that determine the legitimacy of guerilla tactics in relation to the causes they are used to defend, in relation to their time, and ultimately, in relation to the results that these tactics are able to yield. By constantly highlighting the dissonant voices within historical episodes that have been publicized to varying degrees, Naeem Mohaiemen is perhaps himself a dissonant voice among a larger community of such voices, and this at a time that is arguably more than ever in need of complex, well informed and thought provoking forms of dissonance.  

Originally published in July 2009.

[1] Naeem Mohaiemen. Kothai Aj Shei Shiraj Sikder? Terrorists or Guerillas in the Mist. Sarai. Journal 06, "Turbulence Issue", Delhi, Part of Documenta XII magazine project, 2007