As a caregiver to a family shaped by an uneven experience of migration (those who left, and those who stayed), Naeem Mohaiemen has experienced hospital bureaucracies in Dhaka, Delhi, and New York. While there have been many moments of precision, kindness, and guidance, there have also been experiences of isolation, mismanagement, and indecision. During one such interminable period, Atul Gawande’s book Complications (especially the chapter “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”), read in an ICU waiting room, began a process of thinking and feeling around this question: is more extensive medical care always the science-driven boon we imagine, or can there be moments when families make the decision to decline medical care? What does it mean, in the end, to accept a body’s decline?
These questions are considered in recent works by Mohaiemen, a 2020–21 Lunder Institute senior fellow and the inaugural recipient of the Alfonso Ossorio Creative Research Grant. Naeem Mohaiemen: grace will include the film Jole Dobe Na (Bengali for “those who do not drown”) and grace, learned from karen, a new video based on conversations with Karen Wentworth, a longtime Maine resident who Mohaiemen met while researching Maine’s newly ratified Death with Dignity Act.
Jole Dobe Na, 2020
film, 64 mins, stereo
In the second film in his Abandoned series, Mohaiemen returns to the themes of the family unit as locus for pain-beauty dyads and the necessity of small fictions to keep living. The site is an empty hospital; a married couple spirals through medical routines, interspersed by readings from Syed Mujtaba Ali’s stories of cosmopolitan Europe between two wars.
In an empty hospital in Kolkata, a couple confront protocols of blood samples, a subtly Islamophobic office, regulations against bribery, and an abandoned operating theater. There are no doctors, signs of life, or residue of death. The husband’s mind is on a loop of the last weeks of his wife’s life, when a quiet argument developed between them. They were an estranged couple, thrown back into intimacy by an unknown epidemic. Even in an idealized dreamworld of his making, the overwhelming paranoia of infection is also the hesitant touch of intimacy.
The film’s title comes from the Bengali folk song:
Prophet Ayub fell in love
Rahima Bibi in love with he
Eighteen years a cursed life
But mother would not give up love
They who die in love never drown
প্রেম কইরাছে আইউব নবী
তার প্রেমে রহিমা বিবি গো
তারে আঠারো সাল কিরায় খাইলো আঠারো সাল
ও তারে আঠারো সাল কিরায় খাইলো তবুও প্রেম ছাড়লো না জননী
প্রেমের মরা জলে ডোবে না
Jole Dobe Na was co-commissioned by Yokohama Triennale (Japan), curated by Raqs Media Collective, and Bildmuseet at Umea (Sweden).
grace, learned from karen, 2022
Mohaiemen’s new project evolves out of his conversations with Karen Wentworth, a Maine resident who has registered her intent to use provisions of the state’s 2019 Death with Dignity Act. While writing a book on cemeteries in 2003, Wentworth researched sustainable burial grounds and purchased a burial lot for herself in Maine. A stone placed on the lot gives her arrival date as 11-11-1956 and goodbye date as “infinity.” This exhibition will feature an arrangement of artworks from the Colby Museum’s permanent collection, selected by Wentworth in conversation with Mohaiemen. We will also premiere a new video based on the quiet routine of Wentworth’s life. While there is a path to a dignified end, Wentworth’s time is spent living life to the fullest. Collecting a set of books she wants to finish reading; taking care of repairs to her home; spending time with friends, family, and a new grandchild; and enjoying the Maine summer.
Still from Baksho Rohoshyo (Chobi Tumi Kar?), 2019
Naeem Mohaiemen was born in London in 1969, and grew up in Tripoli, Libya, and Dhaka, Bangladesh. He combines photography, films, archives, and essays to research the many forms of utopia-dystopia (families, borders, architecture, and uprisings). He holds a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University, where he is Associate Professor of Visual Arts. Mohaiemen’s work is in the permanent collections of MoMA, Tate Modern, MACBA, Van Abbemuseum, Art Institute of Chicago, Sharjah Art Foundation, Singapore Art Museum, and Kiran Nadar Museum.
Banner Image: Naeem Mohaiemen, grace, learned from karen, 2022 (video still)