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What Naeem Mohaiemen brings to the Turner Prize

Shortlisted for the Turner Prize, Mohaiemen's work is a watershed moment in South Asian art

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

On 4 December, when the UK’s most prestigious award for the fine arts is announced in London, it will not go to a painting or a sculpture. But that’s hardly surprising, knowing the prize’s track record. Since it was instituted in 1984, the Turner Prize, named after the great Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, has made it a habit to ruffle feathers. In 1999, Tracey Emin’s infamous bed—with its rumpled sheets and surrounded by the jilted squalor of life, including tampons and used condoms—left the purists outraged. And as recently as 2016, when the 50-year age limit for the nominees was lifted, the exhibition for the prize featured a disconcerting number of phalluses, buttocks and chastity belts.

In contrast, the nominees in the 2018 shortlist—Naeem Mohaiemen, Luke Willis Thompson, Forensic Architecture and Charlotte Prodger—present work that is deeply serious-minded. While each of them relies on film to create beautiful, haunting montages that interrogate identity and geography, Mohaiemen’s four interlinked video-based works, some of which were first shown at documenta 14 in Kassel last year, are of particular interest to those of us who live in this part of the world.

The Turner Prize is awarded only to British nationals or to those who have lived and worked in the UK for a considerable period of time. Mohaiemen, who was born to Bangladeshi parents in London in 1969, is one of the few artists of South Asian descent, in the history of the prize, to make it to the shortlist. In 1991, the prize was given to Anish Kapoor, who was born in India. Others, like Runa Islam, who is of Bangladeshi descent, and Tino Sehgal of Indo-German origin, have also featured on the shortlist over the years, though none of them has won the prize. In India, Mohaiemen’s work is shown, fittingly, by the Kolkata-based Experimenter gallery, home for the niche and cutting edge in contemporary art.

Left bereft

The two movies by Mohaiemen, showing currently at the Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate Modern in London till 6 January, trace their roots to his mixed inheritance. Two Meetings And A Funeral and Tripoli Cancelled, both made in 2017, run for over 90 minutes each. They demand immersive viewing. Two Meetings looks back at the failure of the ambitious Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the collapse of the global Left in general. The subject may not seem outrightly suited to art but Mohaiemen adapts it spectacularly, splicing and braiding archival footage and projecting it across a three-channel installation.

Renowned historian and theorist of the Left, Vijay Prashad, is the viewer’s guide through the labyrinthine alleys of Two Meetings. Like the sutradhar (literally, the holder of strings) in classical Sanskrit drama, he threads together an intricate narrative of vaulting idealism, widening conflict and the unspooling of promises, which describes the arc of NAM.

Naeem Mohaiemen.

Mohaiemen leaves his intricate mesh of a narrative almost as a provocation through which the viewer must stumble and find their bearings. We hear voices declaiming tall promises. We see vignettes of political luminaries like Yasser Arafat, Indira Gandhi, Fidel Castro and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman floating in and out of the frame. We are reminded of Russia’s space mission and US death tolls in Vietman. These circuits of information may not seem obvious as “art" in a conventional sense, but they do stir the art of memory and make us reckon with uncomfortable pasts.

The vanishing past

In a brief interview recorded by the Tate for the Turner Prize, Mohaiemen emphatically points out that he works with memory: “Memory and the disjuncture between what I remember and how it must have been." In Tripoli Cancelled, he explores this dichotomy by juxtaposing a fragment of his family’s history on to the amorphous canvas of fiction.

In 1977, Mohaiemen’s father lost his passport while in transit in Delhi, a fact that he discovered only after he had reached (the now defunct) Ellinikon airport in Greece. Following this mishap, it took the Bangladesh embassy nine days to issue a letter stating that he could be deported back to his country. This information, which comes at the end of the slowly unfolding Tripoli Cancelled, is the frame that puts the movie in context. But without the knowledge of this real story of one passenger who was trapped in a no-man’s zone, we begin to watch the movie as a witness to the life of an unnamed protagonist (played by the Greek actor, Vassilis Koukalani), suspended in limbo.

The camera starts rolling on an arbitrary Day 3753 in of the life of this man. He passes his hours in the abandoned Ellinikon airport in a futile attempt to reach his family, a bit like a modern-day Odysseus marooned in the middle of nowhere. The man composes letters to his wife in his head. He reads aloud from his son’s favourite book, makes a trunk call using a broken payphone. He dances to the tune of Boney M. from a cassette player. At his most forlorn, he pretends to be a pilot of a plane that will never take off. He even fondles the mannequin of an air stewardess, who stays unmoved by his caresses.

Shorn of the direct historical references of Two Meetings, Tripoli Cancelled is a more poetic work, with fewer clues to help us navigate its cryptic truths. Yet it is also a vital snapshot of a very contemporary moment: where populations across the world are engaged in a daily struggle to cross over, to make the leap, to escape into the life on the other side of transit lounges and airport terminals. Only an artist with a cultural inheritance as complex as Mohaiemen’s could capture this tussle between the East and the West with as much subtlety. By reaching the Turner Prize shortlist, his work not only assumes a global prominence, which it justly deserves but also signifies a watershed moment for a South Asian consciousness in art.

At a glance: the shortlist

Luke Willis Thompson: An immigrant from New Zealand of biracial descent, Thompson is inspired by Andy Warhol’s screen tests. One shows a close-up of the face of Diamond Reynolds, who livestreamed the shooting of her partner by the police on Facebook. Another is inspired by Donald Rodney, who turned his own skin into the material for his art.

Forensic Architecture: Working as a collective, this group operates as experts in “reading ruins". By looking at the devastations on the ground in war zones, or the wreckage of a criminal scene, they unveil the truth behind the lies told by states and governments.

Charlotte Prodger: By using her mobile phone to make movies, Prodger makes a point about the connection between technology and the body. While her work draws heavily on her “personal, diaristic content", it also records the subtle inflections of her body: the hint of a tremor as her hand steadies itself, the zigzag movement of the phone as she moves, or the gentle shake of a static shot, indicating the flow of her breath.

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