Basel

Naeem Mohaiemen, Rankin Street, 1953, 2013, video, black-and-white, sound, 7 minutes 43 seconds; blueprint drawings, print on archival paper, sandstone 3-D print. Installation view.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Rankin Street, 1953, 2013, video, black-and-white, sound, 7 minutes 43 seconds; blueprint drawings, print on archival paper, sandstone 3-D print. Installation view.

Naeem Mohaiemen

Kunsthalle Basel

Naeem Mohaiemen, Rankin Street, 1953, 2013, video, black-and-white, sound, 7 minutes 43 seconds; blueprint drawings, print on archival paper, sandstone 3-D print. Installation view.

For politically topical art to achieve lasting significance, it must be profoundly concrete and operate with references to a specific context. For a formidable example, consider the first European solo exhibition of the Bangladeshi artist, author, and anthropologist Naeem Mohaiemen, arranged by the kunsthalle’s departing director, Adam Szymczyk, and his assistant curator Fabian Schöneich. In a series of discrete constellations of photographs, films, and objects, Mohaiemen traces the shift from a stance of radical activism in the postcolonial conflicts of the early 1970s to the more reflective posture of a late-born generation, writing history from a distanced vantage point. His personal knowledge of the violence of Bangladesh’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971 is limited to a few fragmentary recollections, most of which make sense only in retrospect, and to stories told by members of his extended family. In preparation for this project, he got his hands on extensive documentary material, some of it acquired through specific inquiries and some simply happened upon by coincidence, but it does not add up to an objective and internally consistent picture of recent history any more than his own memories do. The fragile traces of what is not yet even truly past—what Walter Benjamin has called the “rags” of history; Mohaiemen’s own image is that of an “exploded” history book—sit athwart the ideologically cohesive constructions of history imposed by each ruling faction through official textbooks, only to be rewritten with the next change of power.

“Prisoners of Shothik Itihash,” the show’s title, means “prisoners of correct history.” Against a mode of thinking bent on strategic purposes and broad identifications, Mohaieman offered men his clear and yet subtly nuanced contexts traversed by internal critical refractions. There was, for example, Kazi in Nomansland, 2009–, three stacks of stamps celebrating the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose art allowed for a rare case of unanimity among India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh: Each country claims him as its own. In the work Rankin Street, 1953, 2013, Mohaiemen draws on his father’s earliest photographic negatives to sketch a portrait of a family now scattered across the globe as well as of a street and neighborhood in Dhaka, an exercise that also provides an occasion for reflections on photography. The orchestration of text and image is similarly tight in the longer film United Red Army, 2012. Over long stretches, the unofficial audio recording of an airplane hijacking staged by the Japanese Red Army on the Dhaka airfield in 1977 plays over a black screen, on which only the transcription of the rigidly phrased dialogue between the hijackers and the army chief in the tower appears. The ritualized exchange between those spouting revolutionary jargon in broken English and those who wield state power with tactical dispassion is exposed in all its pompous vacuity when confronted with a powerful image from the hostage crisis.

The discontinuities built into the editing of Mohaiemen’s films dismantle a linear model of history. Another dimension of this gingerly approach to history is revealed in the artist’s book accompanying the exhibition, which includes a compilation of essays by Mohaiemen. At one point, he quotes a friend: “There is no ‘true’ history anywhere in the world. It’s all air-brushed, covered with pancake makeup, and then dipped into rosewater.” But Mohaiemen’s art suggests that critical intelligence, too, has a distinctive flavor and aroma.

Hans Rudolf-Reust

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.