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Shifting Ground: On Stories and Archives in the Work of Naeem Mohaiemen

Production still from Tripoli Cancelled, Ellinikon airport, Athens, 2016. Courtesy the artist
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie sees a non-nostalgic approach to the archive in the ambiguous narratives of Naeem Mohaiemen’s films.
Production still from Tripoli Cancelled, Ellinikon airport, Athens, 2016. Courtesy the artist

Around fifteen years ago, some of the elders in Naeem Mohaiemen’s orbit began telling him a story. Mentors and extended family members would repeat this story often, with subtle variations, whenever their conversations turned to questions of productivity – of how to work and get things done in times of great uncertainty and upheaval. Mohaiemen is known in both isolated and overlapping circles as a writer (he contributed an essay on Muslim hip hop to an anthology edited by DJ Spooky), an activist (on issues from post-9/11 immigrant hysteria and security panic to poor labour practices in the art world), and a tireless advocate of South Asian culture at home and in the diaspora. His artworks – consisting primarily of documentary-style films with occasional objects, still images and forays into fiction – have grown steadily in ambition and acclaim through his participation in high-profile exhibitions such as documenta 14 in 2017 and the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. He recently joined the rarefied line of very interesting artists – in which I would also include Willie Doherty, Mona Hatoum, Isaac Julien, Tacita Dean, Yinka Shonibare, Goshka Macuga, Tino Sehgal and the Otolith Group – who have been nominated for the Turner Prize but have not won it. Though nominally based in Brooklyn, Mohaiemen travels regularly to the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, which is both the city where he grew up and the primary site of his research. His abiding interest as an artist-plus lies in the complex history of his country’s origins, formed by the painful double fracture that broke the Indian subcontinent in two pieces and then three. More precisely, Mohaiemen’s works in the widest range of media raise consistently tough and timely questions regarding how, and to what lasting effect, that history gets ever more dangerously tangled up in the wider international experience of the radical left of the 1970s. As often as not his elders are the alumni of that moment.

Because Bangladesh’s political situation has been volatile more or less continually since gaining independence in 1971, Mohaiemen habitually finds himself listening to recollections of the past tinged with anxieties for the present. In the early to mid-2000s – a period marked by bombings, violent protests, an armed insurgency and a state of emergency – his interlocutors in Dhaka began telling him a story about Zahir Raihan. They discussed the famous novelist and film-maker who was fascinating for his own personal history of jumping linguistic and geographical borders and contributing to a pan-Pakistani film industry. Now considered an epistemic impossibility, that industry was quickly wiped off the cinematic map when the eastern and western wings of the country went to war with one another. That conflict, which created the state of Bangladesh, lasted just nine months but was unconscionably gruesome. During that time, when artists and writers (then as now) were surely wrestling with questions of what to do and whether to work and according to which ethics to address what was happening all around them, Raihan made not just one major film, but two. Every once in a while, in talking about Raihan, Mohaiemen’s elders would give the story an additional twist. Not just two films, they would tell him, but three. And it was the third film, never finished, that got Raihan killed. Before his death, presumably at the hands of Pakistani soldiers or their Bangladeshi collaborators, Raihan hid the film, on a 16mm reel, in a cannister of cooking flour. It was never recovered. Though he has been asking about it for years, Mohaiemen himself is not entirely sure it can or even should be found.

The trope of the lost or missing film is so prevalent on the research-based fringes of contemporary art these days that it may well form its own genre. Among the more successful and inquisitive examples – notable for the interests they share with Mohaiemen’s work in both exploring the conditions of the film’s disappearance and interpreting the stories filling the space of its absence – the artist Mathieu K. Abonnenc has constructed a mesmerising body of work around the French-Guadeloupean film-maker Sarah Maldoror’s Guns for Banta (1970), which was set among revolutionaries in Guinea-Bissau but confiscated by the Algerian government, who had financed the film, over questions of creative control. The reels of Maldoror’s feature have likewise never been found. Similar to Abonnenc, the artist Eric Baudelaire, in his masterful film The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years without Images(2011), delineates the destruction, in a Beirut air raid, of the Japanese cineaste Masao Adachi’s later film footage, which he had shot sporadically after joining the armed Palestinian resistance in 1974. As part of their research for ‘Past Disquiet’ – a 2015 exhibition at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, which travelled to Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt and Beirut’s Sursock Museum and became a publication in 2018 – stemming from the story of a long-forgotten solidarity project for Palestine, the curators Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti, with help from the long-time diplomat Leila Shahid, discovered a lost film by Ma’mun al-Bunni, Morts pour la Palestine, starring none other than Jean Genet and Ezzedine Kalak (the film was shown for the first time in Beirut in July 2018, with the film-maker in attendance and Shahid moderating the wider discussion). The work of the artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige revolves around two lost films – one is their own, the subject of the documentary The Lost Film(2002), which was lost and never recovered in Yemen; the other a damaged Super 8 film reel that was shot by an uncle of Joreige’s before he was kidnapped in 1985 in the context of the Lebanese Civil War. After long deliberations, Hadjithomas and Joreige decided to expose and restore the film, which they incorporated into the installation Lasting Images (2003). Beyond single films lost here and there are entire national and pseudo-state film archives – Palestinian, Mozambican, Indian, former Yugoslavian – that have been destroyed, reconstructed in whole or in part and filtered, often quite beautifully, into contemporary artworks that are as compelling in their sense of cinematic déjà vu as they are wildly divergent from one another.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Tripoli Cancelled, 2017, video, 1h 33min. Courtesy the artist

Not only do these artworks involving the search for a missing film or the restitution of a wider cinematic effort constitute their own potential genre, but also they are part of the broader archival turn in contemporary art since the 1990s. In many ways this has been driven by artists coming from or concerned with places variously defined as postcolonial, post-conflict, third world, developing, emerging or – perhaps most accurate – fitfully and experimentally engaged in processes of decolonising. Much of the archival work that makes up this turn is melancholy or elegiac in mode. Often, the impulse is to restore a sense of wholeness to the past, or to show the fullness of a utopian moment that was destroyed and left in ruins. But while sorrow tends to dominate, the best of these works actively interrogate the past, whether playfully, mischievously, angrily or urgently. And they tend to be motivated as much by problems in the present as by missing links to the past. Examples include: Anri Sala’s Intervista (Finding the Words, 1998), in which he tries (in vain) to restore the sound of a film reel he discovered of his mother giving a political speech; Tayfun Serttaş’s work on the archives of the Armenian photographer Maryam Şahinyan in Istanbul, which was published as a book, Foto Galatasaray, named after her studio, in 2011, and belongs to the artist’s wider project on the tumultuous twentieth-century history of Istanbul; or Akram Zaatari’s long-term deconstruction of the photographer Hashem El Madani’s portrait studio in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, which has yielded two books, several films and numerous photographic series, which are now housed in the permanent collections of Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, among other institutions (another series by Zaatari from Madani’s archive, titled The End of Love, was included in the 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale). These projects are more notable for illuminating the inheritance of past politics – their contemporary fallout, their flimsiness in translation, their obvious lack of foresight, their occasionally disastrous trickle-down economics and oblivious sexual/gender politics – than they are for remaining faithful to what those past politics entailed in their day.

Visible Collective (Naeem Mohaiemen, Tausif Khan), Invisible Man, 2006, video, 5min 9sec. Courtesy the artists

What is striking and perhaps distinct about Mohaiemen’s approach to the lost or missing film is his honesty in admitting that the film itself might not matter so much.01 For Mohaiemen, the more important thing is what else the search turns up, the digressions and diversions, the real and fantastically imagined reasons for the desired object’s absence in the first place. Even when the thing itself is found, it often proves disappointing, or fascinating in totally surprising or minor ways, for the details to be found on the margins or in the background, for example. The most important thing may very well be the storytelling to which the search gives rise. Mohaiemen’s work tends to thrive in narrative: in the enthusiasm with which he orchestrates twists and turns in a plot; in the humorous, ironic or whimsical details with which he marks a character and/or that character’s fate. Mohaiemen’s interest in Raihan’s abandoned film reel is also indicative of other particularities in his archival practice, of his characteristic engagements with history. In a manner that is relatively quiet and does not fetishise upfront the notion of collectivity itself, he pursues his various inquiries in constant dialogue with artists of his own generation and earlier. He never loses sight of the simultaneity of his subjects, of what was happening elsewhere at the same time. And because he tends to discover materials by chance, not the thing he was looking for but the other things he uncovers by accident, he is committed to leaving those materials open and to a certain extent ambiguous.

Visible Collective (Naeem Mohaiemen, Ibrahim Quraishi, Jawad Metni), Patriot Story, 2004, video, 7min 5sec. Installation view, ‘Down by Law’, a project by Wrong Gallery (Massimiliano Gioni, Maurizio Cattelan, Ali Subotnick), 2006, Whitney Biennial, New York. Courtesy the artists

‘I am an archive obsessive’, he says. ‘I collect without an end goal and without much output.’ The materials that make their way into his films, which are labour-intensive to make and slow-moving to watch, appear absolutely central. The magic of Mohaiemen’s breakthrough film United Red Army (The Young Man, Part 1), which premiered at the Sharjah Biennial in 2011, comes directly from the audio recording of hostage negotiations between A.G. Mahmud – a velvet-voiced army officer in the air traffic control tower of Dhaka’s international airport – and the tinny, disembodied sounds of Dankesu, a doctrinaire but increasingly desperate member of a radical leftist faction, the Japanese Red Army, which had hijacked a plane on behalf of the Palestinian cause in 1977. But for much of the film’s research and production, Mohaiemen hadn’t even known the recording existed. He conducted a contemporary interview with Mahmud, and at the very end of their conversation, Mahmud mentioned the tapes, and then gave them to Mohaiemen. The audio footage became the spine of United Red Army, but as archival material, it remains malleable. Its relevance shifts and changes. It resonates because the meaning remains in play.

Mohaiemen is rarely nostalgic for the bygone eras to which his historical materials attest. He is more often interested in reviving them for the sake of a good argument, and for a long, hard look at the ways in which the failures of the left were somehow always already apparent, lurking somewhere in the details, even in its seeming moments of promise, ascendance and triumph. The resistance to nostalgia, he says, ‘comes from the fact that you can desire those outcomes [of the radical 1970s left], but you have to recognise that yes, they failed because of external enemies, but also because of their own issues’. The problems are always already there, whether the films are missing, or the footage is lost. ‘You know how the ending will come.’ In the beginning of his career, when he first found himself in a room surrounded by archival material, he thought he would simply write about it. ‘But I was later struck by the possibilities [of presenting] the material itself’, of telling stories with, through and around that material, which was of interest not only as evidence or testimony but also as images and objects. Of his wider interest in the 70s left, which links everything in his work so far, he explains: ‘I don’t know that I am finished with it yet. A project starts in one place and ends in another as the ground beneath your feet shifts.’

Naeem Mohaiemen and Walid Raad, discussion during ‘Home Works III’, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, 2005. Courtesy the artists

It is interesting to consider that Mohaiemen’s earliest artworks were archival only in the sense of proving that what was happening in the present tense – the fear, suspicion and targeting of brown-skinned foreigners and immigrants after the September 11 attacks – was neither new nor unprecedented. Short films such as Patriot Story (2004), made with the Visible Collective as part of the larger body of work titled Disappeared in America (2004–07), set the post-September 11 roundup of Muslim men in the United States in a timeline stretching back through Japanese internment to previous eruptions of violence and injustice in the early twentieth century.02Others, such as Invisible Man (2006) and Fear of Flying (2005), plunge viewers into the total complexity of, say, the political and religious landscape of modern-day Karachi, or the hierarchies of racism and classism dividing Muslim communities in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Nation of Islam in the US. In those works, the volatile jumble of facts and experiences that constitute ‘being Bangladeshi’ in the contemporary sense, against a backdrop of ignorance and retributive politics, appears most prominent with cross-border, inter-communal solidarities held up as the most powerfully responsive, intellectually critical tool. Only later, with the beginning of the series The Young Man Was (2011–16), do the intricacies of specific episodes in Bangladeshi history-as-history come to the forefront, as a means, among other things, of questioning how previous moments of solidarity, revolution and resistance faltered in their own time. The importance of the present moment never leaves Mohaiemen’s work. But starting with Young Man, he tunnels deeper into the past and brings his viewers along. He does this most often on the strength of a good story, be it that of Raihan or Dankesu or the unshakably optimistic Marxist historian Vijay Prashad. Prashad re-treads the meetings of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in those same, fabled, fiendishly unsettled 1970s, in Mohaiemen’s magisterial three-screen projection Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017).

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Lasting Images, 2003, Super 8 photographic film transferred onto DVD, 3min. Courtesy the artists and In Situ – fabienne leclerc, Paris

The turning point in his practice, between his work with the Visible Collective and that under his own name, between one rather narrow set of concerns and another set, related but more capacious (and I would argue more generous all around), must certainly be I Feel a Great Desire to Meet the Masses Once Again. That lecture-performance by Walid Raad, his first work to abandon the collective guise of the Atlas Group, was initially presented in 2005 with a presentation by Mohaiemen, on behalf of Visible. Among Raad’s dense layering of multiple subjects, from the history of car bombings in Lebanon to the roundups of the Guantanamo age, it delves into the case of Steve Kurtz. A member of the Critical Art Ensemble, Kurtz was arrested in 2004, interrogated by the FBI and tied up in a long legal battle over unfounded suspicions of bioterrorism (all stemming from a 911 call he made the night his wife died quite unexpectedly of heart failure). Undoubtedly, Mohaiemen came into his own as an artist in the immediate post-September 11 moment. But he was indelibly influenced by a number of other works he encountered around that time – installations and performances by Emily Jacir and Raad, in particular – which toyed with history in different, notably fuller and more narrative ways. By the time it became possible to speak of the War on Terror era’s canonical works – by Trevor Paglen, Laura Poitras, Mariam Ghani, René Gabri and Ayreen Anastas, with Amitava Kumar’s essay collection A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb (2010) perhaps a culmination point – Mohaiemen had turned to the intricate matrix underlying Young Man. Those works, leading up to and including the not-one-but-two major films he made for documenta 14, Two Meetings and the surprisingly ethereal fiction of Tripoli Cancelled (2017), are significant in their length, the patience they demand, their insistence on steady explication and their willingness to debate, to tarry with one side of an argument and then another.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017, video, 1h 28min. Installation view, Landesmuseum, Kassel, 2017. Courtesy the artist

Young Man exists, so far, in four named parts (Two Meetings is both a part of the series and extends beyond it, to consider what happened when left revolutionary movements shifted into positions of state and institutional power). Part one, United Red Army, about the time when the foreign adventures of Japan’s ultra-violent radical Left crashed out briefly in Bangladesh, is also a rumination on perception, on missing knowledge, on misunderstandings within the internationalist strains of the radical left and third-world liberation movements. One might also read it backwards, between the lines or beneath the surface, as a reminder: the protests in the Middle East that rocked the world, starting in 2011, would be misinterpreted and misused. They would sit uncomfortably with Occupy Wall Street. Was there common cause to be found? Pitfalls to be avoided? Part two, Afsan’s Long Day (2014), follows a thread of international terrorism from Baader-Meinhof to the emergence of an eccentric dictatorship in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya (where Mohaiemen lived as a boy) and on to the spectre of militant Maoism in Bangladesh. It ends with the recollections and diaries of Afsan Chowdhury, a charismatic and notably disputatious former Bangladeshi Marxist, whose reflections on where the Left went wrong are priceless, haunting and prescient. Parts three and four, Last Man in Dhaka Central (2015) and Abu Ammar Is Coming (2016), consider the fates of one Dutch journalist in Dhaka, mistaken for a leftist insurgent and imprisoned in 1975, and the supposed thousands of Bengalis in Lebanon who were said to have joined Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, which may have been more of a myth.

All of these inquiries take place in a mix of voice-over narration, interview footage and archival montage including press clips, documentary photographs, newsreels, mainstream cinema, over-the-top music and other such pop cultural artefacts. All of them fit within the tradition of the essay-film and yet they are notable for moving consistently side to side in their arguments, as well as back and forth, between past and present. To situate them within a matrix of influences would mean tying Mohaiemen’s efforts to the impish irreverence of Jean-Luc Godard, the rigour of Chris Marker’s questioning, the formal experimentation of the Black Audio Film Collective and the Otolith Group, the activism of Amar Kanwar’s early documentaries, Hito Steyerlian punk and a hip-hop agenda I can’t quite associate with anyone. This makes Mohaiemen’s work generationally slippery – he is both older and younger than he seems – and ultra-contemporary, resolutely present, fixed in its moment. Young Man, for example, is not only about what happened during a demonstration in Dhaka 40 years ago. It is also about what happens during similar protests in Dhaka today (Mohaiemen occasionally cycles into his films his own previous experiments in activism and journalism). It is often the case that we, as viewers, do not know exactly what we are looking at, or how it fits into the narrative we are listening to. The necessary interpretive work that Mohaiemen’s films demand seems to dwell precisely in those gaps – of recognition, understanding, familiarity and knowledge – between and among archival material.

Visible Collective (Naeem Mohaiemen, Anjali Malhotra, Vivek Bald, Fariba Salma Alam), Fear of Flying, 2005, video, 9min 39sec. Courtesy the artists

Those are the gaps that are most generatively expanded in Two Meetings and Tripoli Cancelled. In the former, details from the warm historical glow of the Non-Aligned Movement are spun out and split across three screens; in the latter, an anecdote about Mohaiemen’s father haplessly losing his passport and getting stuck, alone, in the Athens airport en route to Tripoli becomes a glacially moving single-screen feature. Those works, twinned as they are by the circumstances of their making, represent the two most opposing impulses in Mohaiemen’s work: digging down for a kernel of hard truth and being swept away by the mercurial winds of fiction. Yet both films require the same admission. Maybe it doesn’t matter what happened on the main stage or in the audience of the Non-Aligned meeting in the 1970s in Algiers. Maybe it doesn’t matter if the story of Mohaiemen’s dad is exaggerated or absolutely true. The footage of those meetings is incredible. The story fires the imagination. History returns in waves. Artists in the direst of circumstances make new works, despite all. They say something about injustice. They are fiercely self-critical. Their efforts leave traces that are overlooked but rarely obliterated. For an artist like Mohaiemen, there are traces to be gathered together and rearranged, new stories to tell with different accents, unusual inflections, shifted emphases – and always new variations on the question, so what can we do about this now, how can we find better ways to live with this history, with ourselves and with each other, in the light of the world as it is now?

‘I have never been able to find Zahir Raihan’s unfinished film’, Mohaiemen says.

The material in my studio is not of any historical value … There is no story I can spin from this material as grand history, and maybe that is the point … The missing film reel is nothing at all. But it has served a useful purpose. For any archive obsessive it has become an excuse to start a journey through dusty attics. Along the way you find all sorts of other odds and ends and never what you are looking for… An archive fever without release. It is meant to go on.

That is as true of him as it for us, as viewers, as interpreters, filling in the gaps in his material with our owns facts, obsessive pursuits and fictions, arguing with him, and perhaps amongst ourselves.


  • Zahir Raihan’s hidden war-time film reel was the subject of Mohaiemen’s artist talk (he considers the text a work in progress), ‘A Missing Can of Film’, ‘UNFIXED: Material Challenges in Contemporary Art’, Art Institute of Chicago, 28 June 2018, available at (last accessed on 24 January 2019). All quotations from the artists are from this talk and from my own conversations with the artist in December 2018.
  • See (last accessed on 30 January 2019). In the recollection of Mohaiemen and others the group began working together from c.2001–02.