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A new turn for Naeem Mohaiemen

The Bangladeshi-origin artist is one of the four nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize, 2018

A still from ‘Tripoli Cancelled’.
A still from ‘Tripoli Cancelled’.

In Naeem Mohaiemen’s first fictional feature film, Tripoli Cancelled (2017), the protagonist is an unnamed man living in the abandoned Ellinikon airport in Athens, Greece. With no one for company, he communes with his memories, listens to songs from another time, and rehearses the rituals of a life that is eerily lost in the labyrinths of history. A character who has slipped through the cracks of time, forgotten by the past as well as the present, he is an archetype in the artist’s work—a persona non grata in the eyes of the modern nation state, but also a signifier of the human condition.

Born in London to Bangladeshi parents, 49-year-old Mohaiemen was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize in Britain this year for two exhibitions featuring four interlinked works. He is noted for his cerebral engagement with the politics of the global South, especially of the vanishing left, and for working on the intersection of race, immigration, the refugee crisis and terrorism. In India, he is represented by Experimenter in Kolkata, a gallery instrumental in bringing cutting-edge work by a new generation of artists into the country. In his intermingling of texts, videos, photographs and installations, Mohaiemen’s style may be reminiscent of the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective’s, although the matrix of association he creates has deeper personal roots. “He is as much an artist as he is a writer or a film-maker. Experimenter is often considered a pacesetter for the region, and therefore it’s natural that the practices of several of our artists are not ‘conventional’," says Prateek Raja, co-founder of the gallery.

Tripoli Cancelled, nominated for the prize, draws on the real-life experience of Mohaiemen’s father from years ago, when he lost his passport in transit and was stranded at the same Grecian airport at a time when it was functional. Another nominated work, Volume Eleven (A Flaw In The Algorithm Of Cosmopolitanism), 2017, harks back to the writings of Mohaiemen’s celebrated grand-uncle, the Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-74). Interspersed with stories from the artist’s family archives are philosophical reflections—on the ambiguous figure of the “Muselmann", for instance, in philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants Of Auschwitz, based on Primo Levi’s diaries during his time in the concentration camp, or on Hannah Arendt’s theory of “the banality of evil" among Nazi executioners.

Mohaiemen’s work, as is perhaps evident from the preceding paragraphs, is difficult, if not impossible, to summarize. Every attempt to paraphrase it diminishes its complexity—and simultaneously exposes the futility of such an enterprise. If the vast intellectual superstructure on which Mohaiemen’s art is based makes it elusive, its execution is no less of a challenge to grapple with. Usually presented in the form of a narrative in which interviews, texts and sound are braided together, often based on years of research, his art demands concentration and repeated viewing.

Referring to another nominated work (Two Meetings And A Funeral), Natasha Ginwala, curatorial adviser of documenta 14, mentions Mohaiemen’s intense absorption in the making and editing of his movies. In Two Meetings, he weaves in recordings from the fourth non-aligned movement summit in Algiers in 1973, Ginwala points out. “Mohaiemen also thinks through the geopolitics of oil and faith-based forms of alliance, as evidenced in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation," she adds, “and he asks how these (events) impacted solidarity building, legacies of the left, pan-Arabism and the remnants of anti-colonialism in the global South."

The political implications of Mohaiemen’s art, as well as his audacious ambitions, are in good company. Since it was founded in 1984, the Turner Prize has ruffled the feathers of connoisseurs with more conservative tastes and this year is no exception. The others on the shortlist—Forensic Architecture, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson—are all known for hard-hitting works that compel the viewer to look at the realities they inhabit with fresh eyes. Bringing the world’s focus to non-Western modernities, Mohaiemen’s work feeds into this synergy—and signals a high point for contemporary South Asian art.

Three must-see works by Mohaiemen

Two Meetings And A Funeral (2017): A three-channel film, 88 minutes long, it draws inspiration from Marxist historian Vijay Prashad’s observation that “the Third World was not a place, but a project", and examines why it failed to sustain itself.

Afsan’s Long Day (2014): This 40-minute video charts the life of historian Afsan Chowdhury, who writes journal entries in the form of magazine editorials as a critique of the radical left.

1971, We The Living, We The Dead (2011): First shown as a site-specific installation at Dhaka, this is a revisiting of the legacy of the Bangladesh Liberation War, through diaries.

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