New York City “Now, every time I photograph a protest rally, there are bits I’m leaving out.” So begins a catalogue statement by Bangladeshi writer and artist Naeem Mohaiemen (b. 1969). The admission sets the tone for his wry photo-and-text works, which gently question the efficacy of activism—and of his own art vis-à-vis political change. This was the first U.S. solo show for Mohaiemen, who works in Dhaka and New York.
Slightly over letter size and pinned to the wall, the color photographs ostensibly represent two rallies that took place on the same day in 2009 in Dhaka. Wall texts label one rally “Islamist”/Islamist and the other “leftist”/leftist, the doubling and quotation marks seemingly intended to question the accuracy or specificity of the designations. One text further notes a considerable overlap between the demonstrations’ targets, which included imperialism, the UN and multinationals. In fact, there is no visible evidence that distinguishes one event from the other. The texts go on to recount, in a likably skeptical and self-doubting tone, Mohaiemen’s experience of photographing the crowds throughout the day, as if he were an independent photojournalist.
One closely cropped image, from the “Islamist”/Islamist rally, shows a boy in a prayer cap standing in front of a T-shirt that reads “I am going to live true life or die trying,” indicating the passions of the protesters while broadly hinting at religious extremism. Accompanying text tells of Mohaiemen sending the picture to Annu (an editor? a fellow artist?), who accuses the photographer of “selling stereotypes.” Others, including CUE’s catalogue designer, subsequently edit the image to suit assorted needs and preferences. If the artist leaves something out to start with, Mohaiemen suggests, things only get messier before the works reach the viewer.
Other photos show groups rushing through the streets, men glaring or shouting through megaphones, and flaming effigies. Mohaiemen describes a conversation with a flirtatious girl, an exchange with a disarmingly open police officer and a trio of young men who request a picture (one that he’ll doubtless fail to send them, he confesses). The show’s sole video, with English subtitles, is as hard to pin down as the photos. It shows two groups engaging in an apparent shouting match just before they smile, embrace and march off together, further evidence of the fluidity of personal and political associations.
In contrast to the lighter tone of some of the works and the pleasing riddle of whether anything here is what it seems, one group of photos, hung on a column, depicts Bangladeshi special-forces officers; accompanying text tallies the protester deaths credited to them. Leaning against the column were several plastic riot shields. Those, at least, appeared to be for real.
Photo: Naeem Mohaiemen: Nayak/Hero of History, 2009, digital video, 9 minutes; at CUE Art Foundation.