My Mobile Weighs a Ton, 2008.


Conversation with Naeem Mohaiemen, moderated by Murtaza Vali

January 25, 2013
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

Jane DeBevoise (JD): My name is Jane DeBevoise and I am the chair of Asia Art Archive.  I am delighted today to introduce tonight’s talk.  Murtaza Vali is a curator and writer who began his academic career training, interestingly with an MA in molecular microbiology.  But since then Murtaza has been involved in writing and curating. Mostly recently he edited a book project “Manual for Treason” as part of the Sharjah Biennial 2011, in which he included Naeem Mohaiemen’s project “Kazi in Nomansland”. Murtaza has also written about Naeem’s work for Art Info (“Complicating the History of the Left“) and will introduce Naeem tonight. I am very pleased to have both of you here tonight.

Murtaza Vali (MV): Thank you very much for inviting Naeem and me to speak today. I am a critic and curator, more recently a curator, but primarily a critic. I’m actually drawn to artists who grapple with issues of history, especially issues of history related to exile or dislocation, or some form of trauma. That might have something to do with the precarious existence in which I grew up. [I grew up] in the United Arab Emirates — it’s the only home I’ve ever known, but I no longer have long-term claims to the space. So I have a kind of long-standing interest in artists who work with history and Naeem is one of them, and an incredibly good one. I like to joke when I’m speaking in public or with friends that roughly half the history I’ve learnt I’ve learnt from artists. Artists are unusual beings; they are obsessive and they manage to synthesize information in wonderful ways, and from them I’ve learnt the most obscure even random facts or figures, episodes and events that I would have never encountered otherwise. Naeem is one of those artists. Of course some of this might speak to my own ignorance about history. But through Naeem I’ve gotten to know a little bit about Nazrul Islam. He is a Bengali poet who has the good fortune or the misfortune to be the only man who has been canonized on a stamp of three major South Asian countries as you can see — India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Kazi in Nomansland, 2009, stamp sculptures, 3 inchx2.5 inchx1 inch, courtesy of artist and Green Cardamom, installation photo by Vipul Sangoi.

He was a fiery, revolutionary poet who gets struck with this inexplicable disease that makes him completely mute and unable to communicate with the world around him. So Naeem’s project and the larger narrative essay he wrote for a book that I did for the Sharjah Biennial picks up on that fact and [shows how these nation states] use him as a blank slate on which all three project their national machinations. They all try to appropriate him and make him their own.

Naeem has done a lot of projects along this line. Naeem is from Bangladesh and a lot of his projects come back to dealing with Bangladesh’s history. He is specifically interested in the events surrounding the birth of the nation and the back and forth of power that happened through the 1970s. Because of his politics, he’s also very interested the histories of radical left movements in South Asia and around the world and in the potential for those sorts of movements, for that sort of utopian thinking and the desire and clamor for social justice in the contemporary movement. He explores what these historical episodes were, how the moments of nation building or utopian thinking emerged and then failed, and what sorts of lessons we can learn from them for the contemporary movement. So I’ll leave the rest to Naeem. He will introduce a couple of projects and then we can take questions about how he approaches his material when he’s producing his works.

Naeem Mohaiemen (NM): Thank you Murtaza for the introduction, and Jane for inviting us to present tonight. I would like to do two things this evening. First, I would like to show a few projects that are placed outside of photography and film, because those are the two mediums I most frequently work in. I’m interested in talking about object-based projects because those often come about through a series of happenstances. I also want to show a film as a way to work through certain problems I’m grappling with right now — regarding how to sketch out histories.

Murtaza mentioned an essay that I wrote for Manual for Treason. I felt compelled to write this essay to explain some things about the Kazi in Nomansland project — things that were not so easily legible within the project and needed a nudge. Murtaza and I have talked back and forth about whether it’s the function of a project in a gallery to tell the whole story, or to leave a part of it obscured and make peace with that absence. I go back and forth about this. I’ve been thinking a lot about Debanjan Roy’s series of fiberglass Gandhi sculptures as part of the “India Shining” series — Gandhi working at a call center, Gandhi with an iPod, etc. That’s a project that is instantly legible because the binaries at work there — Gandhi’s asceticism and “indigenous” absolutism juxtaposed against contemporary India’s current hyper-capitalism — are well established as basic symbols with the audience. By contrast, a lot of the histories that I research, regarding Bangladesh and the left, are to date relatively unexcavated. So, then, it becomes a question of how much do you explain, if you explain at all.

Murtaza mentioned Nazrul as the poet who was on the stamp of all three countries in the sub-continental triangle — even Gandhi was not on the Pakistani stamp. There was a process where I was tracking down vintage stamps for a year. The stamp I found from Bangladesh came out in 1977; the Pakistan one is much older. The date is unknown on the India one. I had to track all of them down from vintage stamp collectors in Dhaka. At first these collectors were quite relaxed when I told them I was going to take a thousand stamps and glue them together to make an object. They just thought I was a bit eccentric and sold them to me at a “lot price.” After the work premiered in the exhibition Lines of Control, and the gallery (Green Cardamon at that time) said I should do another edition, which was not in my plan. So I went back to the collections, and now suddenly the price had gone up, because they had realized I couldn’t get the stamps from anyone else but them. As all this started spiraling outward, it felt increasingly necessary to loop this narrative into the gallery show. That’s how the entire section of Pakistan’s particular nation-building politics in the 1960s (where Nazrul was important to be on a stamp because he was a Muslim counterpoint to Tagore, whose influence the “national integration” forces wanted to reduce) came to be embedded in the essay that was a companion to the object. On the other hand, I also felt that if people came and saw the object — stacks of stamps glued together — they would be able to parse, without needing a didactic history lesson. [They would understand] that it was the same on the stamps came from three countries. Now, is that enough, why do we feel the need to go further, why could it not be left to the audience and maybe they would never parse who Nazrul is, and would that be all right?

This is something I struggle with — what happens if there is no artist talk and you are not allowed a block of text next to the work. How does the project proceed? And what happens when the work is shown in different locations. This project was first shown in Dubai, then Pakistan, and then it traveled, and then it came to Bangladesh. Other projects I have done have happened first in South Asia, sometimes just in Bangladesh, and the reactions are all different. Of course, in Bangladesh nobody needs an explanation of what the significance of Nazrul is, but I have still experienced a push back when I’m not explaining everything.

Otondro Prohori, Guarding Who?

In this work I’ve structured the story where I don’t want to explain everything. I want to leave it up to audiences to do more research.

This is a filling station for CNG (compressed natural gas) which is now a huge business in Bangladesh because people have moved away from petrol to gas because it is much cheaper (actually not everyone, only those who could retrofit their cars to become “CNG compatible”). There are lines around the block any time of the day. This is a very lucrative business to be in and I was looking at where the sites of ownership were located. I took photographs at various sites — not just filling stations but other places — and in each shot I placed a toy soldier which partially obscures the lens. In this one you really can’t tell it’s a soldier, but in the others it becomes clearer. In most cases you have to lean pretty deep (into the boxes) to see what is going on, and there is no explanatory text, and even these little bits of text (that have been stuck on the outside) don’t make sense unless you Google them and figure out where they are from. They were all extracts from blog debates that were going on. A friend had written this great status update after the last transition to civilian rule. He said the plane has come back now but the control tower lights have short-circuited.

Otondro Prohori, Guarding Who?

When the project premiered at Shilpakala Academy, as part of Chobi Mela, there was critique via blog chatter. One visitor expressed the opinion that the artist’s wall text should be clear, that there should be captions for everything, and the captions should not be elliptical either. There was a reaction that argued some of us were taking privileges with obscurity. There is a Bengali word for which I don’t have a direct translation, maybe adekhlami? It suggests playfulness but in a harsh sense as well, to suggest you are playing games with people.

Otondro Prohori, Guarding Who?

xThis is another project — one Murtaza and I have talked about a lot because even though the project has many pieces, it’s the physical object that has the compelling draw in an unexpected way. The larger part of this project is a series of photographs that were presented around four walls, but it was the physical object (that is located in the center of the room) that got the strongest reaction. By way of explanation, this is a project about the 1975 military coup that assassinated the country’s first Prime Minister. It was a very traumatic event for the country and yet what lurks underneath the events is the unfathomable tragedy that no one came to defend him. The prime minister and his entire family were killed inside their house. So I made this piece — it’s an imagined artifact, like something found in a fossil. It’s made from newspaper photographs of the people that were killed that day. [It also included] newspaper photographs of all the accused killers, who were brought to trial almost twenty years later. Five of them have since been hanged, and others were hiding in the US and Canada. There was one famous case where (one of the accused) was deported from the US because his immigration papers were not in order. In Canada, on the other hand, there is a law that prohibits deportation to places where you can face the death sentence — so one of the accused is there and Canada won’t deport him.

I Have Killed Pharaoh, I Am Not Afraid To Die, 2010.

Then I took these photographs [of these images] with a Polaroid. The Polaroid [film] was expired so the images were already quite washed out and then I put them inside resin that makes them explode. The orange coloring comes out so that’s why the inside [of the object] is this milky. There are two resin blocks, which were meant to be two sign posts. One is of the people killed in 1975 and the other is of the officers executed twenty years later.

I Have Killed Pharaoh, I Am Not Afraid To Die, 2010.

So we have two resin blocks in the middle of room (surrounded by) four walls of photographs which are time lapses with microscopic changes. The whole narrative is unspooling in the photographs and the text underneath is telling the story. It’s slightly opaque, but (with time) you can put it together. But one thing I started becoming very interested in, and I’ve talked to Murtaza about this as well, is how (during the exhibition) everyone gravitated towards the object and away from photographs, that in a way the object was almost too compelling and everything else was blanked away. One reviewer came away calling it the “Polaroid in resin project.” So, in some way, I felt that the form overpowered the story. I have a complicated relationship, and Murtaza knows this, when certain things become too compelling to the audience. I start to question why that is happening and what’s going on. Obviously in a commercial market context, other kinds of questions come up. Why was this something that everyone wanted?

I Have Killed Pharaoh, I Am Not Afraid To Die, 2010.

When someone at Frieze told me no one would be interested in the photographs because they speak about assassination in the text and no one wants that in a board room, I began to think about how works circulate (is the destination always a bank board room — well, in this case, yes, because Deutsche Bank were lead sponsors and I suppose their acquisition team arrived early looking for objects for their offices), what’s compelling and what scares people, not scares them but what discombobulates them.

My Mobile Weighs a Ton, 2008.

I had been experimenting with taking photographs with mobile phones, and these were [taken with] early 2007 mobile phones. Back then there were fewer smart phones (in Dhaka a least), so these are terrible images and I then blew them out further and made them huge to exaggerate the artifact.

My Mobile Weighs a Ton, 2008.

But at the core of the project, along with five rooms of photographs, was this little soccer match that I had set up with Transformers toys — you can’t see it here, but if you look down, you will see a satellite map of Dhaka, with red soldiers defending the Cantonment military area, and yellow soldiers defending the Dhaka university area. Anyone who lived in Dhaka in 2007 knew which incident that was linked to. Ironic of course, two equally matched teams… in a way, because the battle is also on the turf of public opinion.

My Mobile Weighs a Ton, 2008.

After five rooms of very intense photographs accompanied by very intense text and a lot of forceful conversation, I wanted to let go in the last room — the sports room. And again it was interesting to me that the audience was most drawn to this. Somebody asked, “when the show is over, can we take some of these soldiers home for our kids?” Interesting and amusing side conversations started happening. You can be precious about it or get into it, and I got into it and the transformers were given away.

Still from Rankin Street, 1953: notes from a box, video, 7′ 43″, 2013. All images by Mohammed Abdul Mohaiemen. Except Lovings portrait from Estate of Grey Villet.

[Excerpt of Audio from the film, Rankin Street 1953]: “The box was inside an old book closet behind a set of books no one had been very interested in. Opening it up I found a set of almost 100 negatives. Each one stored in a wax sleeve with my father’s neat handwriting on top — in fountain pen July ’53, June ’53 and so on. There was also a role of printed contacts spooled around a hollow cardboard spindle. I thought that was a strange way to store things. At each end at least one photo was getting twisted. Father could not remember this box. But when I showed him the box he said yes that’s my handwriting all right. And so it had to be. That mixture of decipherable script and pause. Later after studying medicine his prescription handwriting transformed into the current indecipherable scrawl. Practice made perfect.

… Yasmeen writes a letter to me. She says, “we have to use a flash these days. The flash keeps us in the pleasant darkness so the shadows that show our stories, our faces, the worry in our irises, our wrinkles of almost forced smiles, these things are all hidden in the bright light. It is easier to use flash, it is more comfortable.” Why not think of comfort when the alternative, forces us to face divisions of memories, of properties, homes, lives, and children. A life that no one but he who did not use a flash in 1953 could ever put together again. Father says he took all the photos. But there are three where he is inside the frame, posing with a cousin lying on a chowkhee standing in front of a calendar. The date says it is April 1953. Who took this picture?  He says he can’t remember.”

MV: Thank you Naeem. I guess this isn’t entirely a question, [but as you can see] Naeem’s work somehow always manages to have this wonderful blend of a personal narrative and a public collective history. Often the personal narrative, which can be everything from poignant to profound, or something silly, is often the way into a larger story [about a] country called Bangladesh — which maybe a lot of us really don’t know much about, or don’t really care about.  What strikes me about this [film] is that it is very much about a personal history. So I was wondering whether you could talk a little about how this [film] was or was not different from your approach to the other material [and whether you found it] more challenging. Naeem also made a film about the plane hijacking that happened in 1977 in Dhaka. The core of that film is hours and hours of audio tapes of negotiations between the field marshal who is in the control tower and the spokesperson for the Japanese terrorists. In some ways finding this box of [your father’s] photographs is very much like your finding the cache of audio recovery. I’m just wondering whether there were similarities, differences, and difficulties in this particular case.

NM: In the case of the film, United Red Army, those were real audio transcripts that I found. That was the backbone of the film.  But then there’s an entry point, which was my memory as an eight-year-old of watching the hijacking drama on TV, and thinking that nothing was happening, and being frustrated because my TV show had been disrupted and would not come back on. That’s a true detail. But in a way I pushed it up, made it part of the narrative in a crucial way. For people who watched this film, that was a gentle moment because they could find a way to locate my place within that timeline. But the overall backbone is still “important” history. In Dhaka and Chittagong, leaving aside formal technicalities, audiences were excited that this audio existed and many wanted to hear the full twenty hours or so. When I’ve shown it in New York — that hasn’t been the case. The entire audio archive is not as critical for an audience here.

So, going back to the Rankin Street, 1953 project — this box of negatives which I found by accident, the part about my father not remembering — all of it is true, except that a few details are shifted around a little bit. When I found the box of negatives, I thought they would be photographs of the city. They were taken in 1953, and I was curious to see what the city looked like then. There really aren’t very many photographic archives from that period — at least I have never found any. One reason photographs of the city at that time were scarce is because it was not common to have a camera back then, and almost everyone I talked to who had a camera said their negatives were eaten up by the humidity. My father’s negatives were well preserved because they were kept inside a steel cabinet along with house legal deed documents. They were damaged but they’re not gone — I could scan them. But when I started looking through the negatives, I found there were many pictures of a cat, and then my aunts. It’s good to see your aunt at five years old holding a balloon, but after a while there isn’t another story to unravel there, at least not macro history (or maybe there is and I haven’t been able to come up with a path to it). But you also start realizing that people on the street were, perhaps, not considered something to photograph — that language wasn’t there yet. So my father photographed the cat and family members. First that is exciting, but when you go through the thirtieth negative, you start thinking, oh there isn’t any official important history here — there’s no picture of the street, there’s no picture of the President. I mean I say this and then I pause because of course in some ways family images are the most valuable archives, but my generation was trained to look for the “great man” icon within history, even hidden history.

And when I spoke to my father, he couldn’t remember any of the details — why this, why that, who. So then I start inverting the situation where I was trying to invent what was going on — tracings on top of a surface with very little information.

At the end of the day, with the Nazrul project, all I knew was that he was on the stamps of three countries which I learned from a stamp collector. Gradually, the rest of the project unspooled from that one fact. Some might say: but that’s not the most important part of the Nazrul Islam’s history, because all the stamps were printed after he developed a neurological disorder and couldn’t speak. His poems are after all what is the most important. Why didn’t I focus on translating his poems? I’m often compelled, in this way, by the off center incidents — just a little distant from the main event. Because sometimes that is what I find in a more organic way — a box of photographs by someone who is not a photographer, instead of by a famous photographer. Or, I find something away from the central event that allows an interesting other way of working through it.

Audience: Naeem, at some point you make reference to a larger circumstance, what was happening between 1953–1971, during a time when something significant was happening. You’re inviting us to wonder, if we don’t already know, about the history of Bangladesh.

NM: It was still technically Pakistan in that period…

Audience: You’re inviting us to question what was happening during that period that has made the existence of this photography impossible. This film may not be as focused historically, as the moment in the United Red Army film but you’re still pointing to it. In a way, the personal narrative is covering up the larger historical things you’re interested in.

NM: Many of the things I find are often far outside the main events, so I wonder what I would do if I stumbled across the center stage. My family first lived on Rankin Street, which was in old Dhaka. Then they moved to Dhanmondi, the newer house, which was just across the bridge from the Sheikh Mujib family home. If my father had turned away from those cats and gone to photograph Mujib, that would have tremendous historical value, in a way. The government would probably want to “appropriate” them. But it is interesting that we lived a few minutes away from the Prime Minister’s house and never took a photograph. That house was not very guarded in those days, which of course had tragic consequences on August 15th, 1975 when the army officers came to kill him. So it would have been possible for my father to perhaps walk in with his camera. But I wonder what would happen if I actually found something “important” in that conventional fashion among his papers — maybe it would actually be too much, difficult to make work around that which is at the center of the light. I don’t personally fetishize such objects, but I’ve thought about these sorts of things often — imagining I would find this mysterious trunk full of photographs that would be the missing history. But I’ve always found little fragments of something else instead.

Audience: So it’s the slippage, the ambiguity of those images that interest you?

MV: For me one of the most fascinating things about this film is actually the sheer frustration you feel with the fact that your father can’t remember. But I mean who remembers who took a photograph? More so given now how many photographs are taken digitally. I have an 18month old daughter. About two weeks after a photograph was taken, we can’t remember whether it was I, or my wife, or which one of her aunts, or uncles, or grandparents. So in some ways it goes back to one of the core (issues) of your practice which is how to I get a historical narrative out of this material that has some link to the past moment.  How to I squeeze what you want out of it?  There is no reason why he (your father) would know. There is no reason why even if he did know it would give you any more information about what you’re looking for. He could have incredibly detailed notes, but no matter they may not give you what you’re looking for.

NM: He did have detailed notes about each son’s height, ranked by months. Those he kept in a little red notebook. That’s interesting too. He eventually became a doctor. So I think he was keeping track of our physiognomy in other ways as well. It’s interesting what he found compelling. My father and family members in general are baffled by my interest in what I am interested in. And even after the project is done, that remains. Well why this? Why these photos of a cat? There’s a resistance within them of this being important in some way.

Audience: But isn’t that what history is all about, its interpretation? About what you choose to show, how you look at it, what you ask etc. This hijacking incident, for instance, there is your version and there could be twelve different versions of it.  There could be completely different views depending on who interprets it.

NM: Here, in this context, we are may be a little more acclimatized to slippage of fact and fiction, and we may even expect some of the details to be made up — maybe my aunt doesn’t work at the World Bank, that kind of thing (she does actually, but I was making a point). But I think in another context, people will insist fact is fact. It’s very solid and there is a huge resistance to any fact and fiction commingling.

MV: I would like to get back to what I was trying to say about the challenges with your father’s memory.  For me it’s that history is irretrievable. There is melancholy in this account — that is basically you coming to terms with the fact that as much as you might want to, you’re never going to be able to capture certain elements of the past.

Audience: Addressing your point about what is being represented in your work, I’m taking a curatorial position, which is how I read your work. The question is how didactic you think your practice has to be. In my mind, I don’t think it is necessary for it to encompass history in a very comprehensive way. It is in fact the gaps that make it interesting. The things you’re alluding to may still be quite easily understood — even though the audience is not from Dhaka or Bangladesh or have some personal connection to Pakistan history. It is not necessary to be too anxious about it. I want to ask what kind of public discourse occurs in Dhaka, in Bangladesh. Are there certain topics open to discussion? What kinds of public discourses are occurring there?

NM: Things have changed a lot. Even since 2008 when my My Mobile Weighs A Ton project happened. Even the position of the visual arts has changed. Earlier there was deeper resistance to certain kinds of conceptual practices that were considered imported — whether from India or elsewhere. I even had that reaction after my Kolkata show, when an Indian newspaper reviewer called the work “cold, Germanic.” I don’t know why the Germans should be given some type of WTO TRIPS like patent on a glacial or removed tone. Is that automatically European, and if not, why not — those debates are starting in Dhaka. This perhaps is an initial reaction to anything unfamiliar. That’s shifting because there’s more and more of this kind of work happening. When I did the Mobile project some of the text was organically elliptical, but others more so, because I needed the show to continue — I needed Gallery Chitrak not to receive a visit from Intelligence Agencies. For example, the reference to “my mobile weighs a ton” came naturally, but it’s also a reference to a Public Enemy song that is coded. Not everyone would pick that up. So there were little clues — that was also partially to keep the show intact. But then ironically, after ten days, when there was no trouble you start to wonder if you went too far in the other direction. [Even though this is not] history, you expect them to have some reaction, but the fact that no one from the government came to the gallery and asked to speak to me was surprising.

Audience: Does that occur often?

NM: It does in works that are easily legible. There was a famous incident with a piece that showed students walking into a meat grinder and coming out as sausages. It was a sculpture at the Dhaka Biennial. It was shut down, because it was immediately understood as a critique of the educational system. So if it’s clear — yes, work gets shut down. There are definitely things that are off limits. But limits are being stretched, although still the history of the 1970s is a very sensitive issue. But sometimes I wonder if we — those of us working in the visual — are imagining it to be more sensitive than it is.

Audience: Naeem, I wanted to ask you about the idea of the making of modernity and history in terms of consciousness that is uninterrupted with events. Just to expand further — what I am thinking about is the people’s right to build the narrative of their modernity despite the fact that they have lived, for example, in turmoil or war. How does that not lessen their recounts of modernity that is very much anchored on material growth and material development?  I find that it’s interesting in a lot of your works because you’re saying that you’re emphasizing the narrative of the mundane, of the lived — the right to prosperity, family, etc. For example, in United Red Army, you are watching TV. There is this other language you want to develop which is of the discourse of a development of a different kind of modern narrative. I’m wondering how you juxtapose this intention. Is this intentional? Are you trying to say that this is a validation of a modern voice in the way you recount history. I’m excavating those histories. I just wonder about how you tackle it. Is it about the revolutionary voice, or the post-colonial discourse, or the anti-colonial discourse, or is this about how we [in Bangladesh] live and are modern despite the trauma, despite the war, despite all that.

Audience: There also seems to be a continued amount of anti-iconic tendency in your work, from the sculptural installation of the disintegration of the Polaroid to the films where you juxtapose [TV with] iconic photographs that becomes married to the narrative of law and from the interest in the excess and the remainder of what the iconic promises to be. This perhaps parallels the previous question.

NM: I know one thing that is intentional. It is a middle class family that grew up in the city that went through tremendous ruptures during that period. It’s a family like many middle class families where everyone who is a government employee got left behind. Part of selling the house is also about that. You can’t resist and don’t get anything out of it either — and now the grandchildren will say where is our history. It’s definitely that the entire extended family was overtaken by history where today the “important” people are, for example, the business class. It was a family that prided itself on everybody being university professors. I referenced that fact, that university professors are not the highly prized sector — especially the ones working in public universities. This is something that is in some other Bangladeshi work.

I consciously don’t explore rural life because that’s not my experience or my family’s experience. Even though there is definitely a romantic bucolic focus in lot of work, especially in painting and sculpture. Ours was very much a city family at a time when the city was changing. The film suggests that the negatives disappeared for some mysterious reason. But they probably disappeared for some banal reason, which is that people had to leave their houses. They did not hang on to their negatives because for a family that’s working it wasn’t a priority, it’s not important. But I also like the fact that besides the photograph of my aunts, there is a photograph of a typewriter — so why did he want to take it? This family cautiously and not intentionally is working their way through a particular kind of modernity — but at a certain point modernity also leaves them behind. That’s part of my interest. When you look at this work — you think this could have been an important family — the fact that they lived ten blocks from the Prime Minister. All kinds of things could have happened. And yet they did not. The fact that my father doesn’t have a single photograph of the PM shows that there’s a huge gap where things were happening. And there is more of the family history that has this left behind quality.

Audience: I’m not sure of the left-behind quality. You know there are moments that happened and there’s the humiliation of how those moments continue to happen. I think there’s a rupture in how the narrative is told as one. I find that to be the case all across South Asia — segments when you don’t have continuous narrative — that’s the interesting part for me. There’s a conscious effort to amalgamate — to bring it all together. I think that is a different kind of narrative. The approach that you’re taking does that in many ways with the juxtapositions. How to make that continuous portrayal and to break that erasure — I’m not sure about being left behind. You want to think about — it’s not beyond us all. It’s not in my definition of modernity.

MV: It’s kind of interesting what you say about the potential of this family and the family not living up to that potential. But you don’t allude to that in any way. It could be much more explicit. It could have been a narrative where your family became a model family for a class of families in Dhaka. It could have been about broader issues. But it’s not — it’s really about a father and his son. For me it’s this frustration about how history remains in some ways inaccessible. When we find evidence of it — how do we get any story out of it? You could have made those allusions. You’ve given a lot of background of what’s happening in the country, in the city in 1953. You could have started with ‘49.

NM: ‘52 was where I began.

MV: You could have provided some of that as background information, but instead this is very much a hermetically sealed discourse about you and your father.

NM: And it ends on the calendar.

MV: You don’t even provide information on how old he (your father) is — it would have been interesting — it might have explained why he was shooting certain things and not others.

Audience: I think when we go in that direction we get caught up in the facts and I see your practice very much about creating a mythology which is what is desired in this context. The act of mythologizing and the act of myth making is very modern and a modernizing one. I kind of enjoy that about the work — this is what one is looking for in a work, not just simply the facts. Yes, the facts feed into how the myth evolves and develops the complexity of that myth as well.

Audience: Also this relationship of the work from dealing with movements of the left from the 1970s — there’s so much space for the machinations of mythology building — that is the key element.

NM: I think a roadblock or a bump [I face] is when the people I interview for a project are “important people.”  Sometimes when they’re important I find myself getting stuck because of their importance. You wonder how you need to treat that material — that socially there might be an expectation that you can’t be light with the material. I was thinking of a very close friend I collaborate with — he’s a photographer — Zaid Islam. His father is somebody important. His father was one of the key lawyers that was around the group that brought the country to independence. When I went to his house for the first time and saw photographs of his father with Mujibur Rahman — I think, oh goodness, that’s “uncle.” Well I have a total fascination with these moments. His father is part of history — but then he got pushed out in the 1980s, and is no longer with that ruling party anymore. But his father is living history and unlike my father, he wants to talk. My friend has been interviewing his father for a while. But I think the importance of his father, and the epic position he occupies in history — that he was the lawyer involved in constitutional debates–makes the project very heavy. It’s too significant. It’s almost too big — there’s too much there. I’m more free because my father doesn’t have anything to do with these histories (although of course every now and then I show how he does in an accidental way — the spare bedding given to the man at Karachi Airport who later become the chief of the Air Force). So that liberates me to imagine something in that place.

MV: One of the important things that struck me (I’ve now seen this movie twice) is that it has a very strong visual resonance with Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. It might be the tiered quality of the film, the focus on the young girls, the play of everyday life. There’s one photograph that reminds me of Devi. It would be interesting to learn more about how your father learned to compose — he may not know, or he is not going to give up that information — but some of the photographs are really lovely. They are unbelievably well lit and well shot.  They have this incredible innocence that resonates with [these other] films.

NM: There’s a photographer that my friend Zaid and I have been tracking for a while. He was taking photographs of important people in the 1970s and the 1980s, gorgeous photographs that are really stark. But when we look at the photos he started taking in the 1980s and 1990s, when he started using color, they become quite ordinary, and we can’t believe it’s the same person. So it may all be about the houses and the quality of light that came from their old fashioned windows when they weren’t surrounded by tall buildings. Zaid has said that the same sort of light doesn’t exist anymore. No interior house would produce that look anymore — now there would be a ten-story building next door, and the light would be florescent or something like that. With all love for my father, the quality of his photographs may have had a lot to do with the quality of (natural) light at the time.

MV: There’s also a certain unfamiliarly with the act of photography — because the photographs are so incredibly candid. You don’t get the sense that any of these subjects knew what was happening, except your father who is facing the camera in the (last) photograph and looks like he knows exactly what’s going on. There’s an interesting quality (in the people being photographed) because it suggests an unfamiliarity with the apparatus.

JD: I know we could go on, but I think we will have to stop here, for intermission, and return later to view the United Red Army film.  Thank you both very much.

EXCERPT: The Young Man Was, Part 1: United Red Army from Naeem Mohaiemen on Vimeo.

All images courtesy of the artist.
Transcribed by Bansie Vasvani, edited by Jane DeBevoise.

Naeem Mohaiemen (b. 1969) is a writer and visual artist working in Dhaka and New York. He uses essays, photography, film, and archives to explore borders, wars, and belonging in post-partition South Asia. Since 2006, he has worked on a history of the 1970s ultra-left (The Young Man Was…), chapters of which have shown at Kiran Nadar Museum, Delhi (2013); Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka (2012); Sharjah Biennial, UAE (2011); New Museum, New York (2011); and Frieze, London (2010). His work is in the collection of the Samdani Art Foundation (Bangladesh) and the British Museum. Naeem’s essays include “Islamic roots of Hip-Hop” (Sound Unbound, MIT Press), “Live true life or die trying” (Visual Culture Reader, 3rd Ed., Routledge), and “These guys are artists and who gives a shit” (System Error: War is a force that gives us meaning, Silvana). Visual projects have also appeared in GrantaModern PaintersRethinking MarxismDatabrowserSecret identities: Asian Superhero Comics, etc.

Working between two countries, Naeem also organizes activist projects that explore the contradictions of Bangladeshis inhabiting liminal migrant lives overseas, and majoritarian (and authoritarian) roles in their own country. This work includes the edited anthology Chittagong Hill Tracts in the blind spot of Bangladesh nationalism (on militarization and ethnic displacement of indigenous people), and the co-edited Bangladeshi blog Alal O Dulal ( He is also a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Columbia University.

Murtaza Vali is a writer, art historian and sometimes curator. He received an MA in Art History and Archaeology from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts (2004). He is contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific, and was co-editor of its 2007 and 2008 Almanac issue. He also writes for ArtReview, Art India and Bidoun and has penned monographic essays on artists such as Bani Abidi, Siah Armajani, Emily Jacir and Reena Saini Kallat. As winner of the winter 2010 Lori Ledis Curatorial Fellowship he presented Accented, an exhibition examining the ‘accent’ as the stubborn trace of cultural difference in the age of globalisation, at the BRIC Rotunda Gallery, Brooklyn (2010). He has spoken at Cornell University, the Yale School of Art and Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum (2010), and served on the Selection Jury for the 2010 Sharjah Art Foundation Production Programme Grants. He lives between Sharjah and Brooklyn.