Naeem Mohaiemen, Rankin Street, 1953, 2013, video, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Rankin Street, 1953, 2013, video, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes.

Naeem Mohaiemen

Families, if you look closely enough, tell the big histories. In 2010, Naeem Mohaiemen found a small cardboard box as he cleared things from the old family home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Inside, he discovered wrapped in wax paper more than a hundred negatives, carefully labeled in his father’s handwriting. These images became the subject of Mohaiemen’s film Rankin Street, 1953, 2013, where he shows us the photographs and provides narration. This year, he revisited these images with a suite of transfer prints, Baksho Rohoshyo (Chobi Tumi Kar?) (Mystery Box [Photo, Who Do You Love?]), 2019, made from drawings of the photographs he’d done by hand.

Naeem’s father, Mohammad Abdul Mohaiemen, liked to photograph cats and cousins, and he rarely took his camera out of the house. In most of the pictures, which he took in 1953 in Dhaka, then in the newly formed East Pakistan, everything happens indoors: There are no streetscapes, no big political moments with large crowds or leaders addressing public gatherings, as one might have expected from a moment of historic postcolonial tension. Each image is instead intensely private, and Naeem’s drawings of them, with wobbly, fine lines, are tender.

The drawings are captioned with snatches of transcribed conversations among the artist, his father, and his aunts. They discuss the images one or two at a time, reminiscing over who is in them and drifting off on tangents. Naeem directs the questions, looking for clues. YOU’VE SEPARATED ALL THE PHOTOS, exclaims an aunt. YES, SO THEY DON’T GET STUCK TO EACH OTHER, Naeem replies. He is sorting through the history here, picking things apart to find a narrative thread.

The effect was almost as though a missing word hung over the show, whose title was “dui,” meaning two. The word seemed, implicitly, to conjure up another, Bangla, creating the phrase dui Bangla, the two Bengals. Mohaiemen gently looks for evidence of the formerly united Bengal, which had been separated by partition in 1947 into East Bengal, a province of Pakistan that is now Bangladesh, and West Bengal, which remained in India. In one exchange, the siblings use the word didi (sister). Mohaiemen interrupts: YOU CALLED HER DIDI? BUT YOUR OWN SISTERS WERE BUA? The artist has an ear for the slightest change in language; didi has a Hindu inflection, bua a Muslim one. He asks, DO YOU THINK [DIDI] WAS A HINDU FORM OF ADDRESS THAT YOU NEEDED TO DROP? In another image, Mohaiemen notices the fragment of a Hindu temple gone to ruin in the background, visible through an open window. He asks how the family came to have this house: Was it a distress sale typical of the time—in which fleeing families transferred properties to each other just days before partition? no, they firmly reply.

In the early 1950s, Pakistan was still a new country, full of promise, with the coming Bangladesh Liberation War unimagined. Mohaiemen’s family was a middle-class Muslim household where some members were civil servants, including the women, who were all educated. The family was not forced to flee to Pakistan from West Bengal during partition; they already lived in the eastern zone, within the newly drawn up national borders. In this show, Mohaiemen took a longing look at this middle class: the product of a very particular history.

At the back of the exhibition the artist highlighted a darker episode; its protagonist was Mohaiemen’s great-uncle, the now-canonical Bengali author Syed Mujtaba Ali. His short stories have been widely read since the country gained independence in 1971. In Volume Eleven (Flaw in the algorithm of cosmopolitanism), 2015, a suite of twelve digital C-prints and twelve typewritten pages, Mohaiemen implies something uncomfortable: Ali appeared to be an admirer of the Nazi project, and imagined that Germany would come to liberate India from the British Empire. Mohaiemen writes notes on Ali’s essays with a German typewriter. He is looking for the reparative reading. EUROPE CLAIMED TO HAVE NOT KNOWN THE CARGO OF TRAINS WITH LOCKED DOORS, HE WRITES, AMERICAN SPYMASTERS IGNORED AERIAL FOOTAGE OF DEATH CAMPS. HOW COULD THE VISITING BENGALI SCHOLAR HAVE KNOWN?