On the morning of 15 August 1975, junior-level army officers entered the residence of Bangladesh president Mujibur Rahman in Dhaka and killed him, his wife and his three sons. In a very personal, allusive and elliptical manner that is not unusual in contemporary art, Naeem Mohaiemen’s work titled I have killed Pharaoh I am not afraid to die takes this gruesome episode in his country’s history as its subject.
The work will comprise three walls—and on each wall will hang a row of six individually framed photographs, under which will be another row of six framed panels, each bearing a few lines of unpunctuated text.
Lights off: Frames from I have killed Pharaoh by Mohaiemen. Courtesy Experimenter
Kolkata-based Experimenter gallery, which turned a year old in April, is taking I have killed Pharaoh to the prestigious Frieze Art Fair in London, along with a sculptural installation by the artist Sanchayan Ghosh. “It was a pleasant surprise to be invited to Frieze,” admits Prateek Raja, who with his wife Priyanka runs the gallery and acts as the curator for most of the shows. “Frieze is important,” he says. “It is exploratory and not necessarily market-driven.” Mohaiemen’s work will be on display at the section of the fair called Frame, which is devoted to galleries that are less than six years old and tends to show younger artists as well as more experimental works.
Experimenter will be the only gallery from India showing at Frieze this year and Raja attributes the gallery’s early recognition to its curatorial strength. “Our approach is research-based, whether it is our programme, (or the) choice of artist, sales and placing of work,” he says. He also points out that almost all the shows in the gallery’s short life have been political—featuring artists such as Bani Abidi and Mehreen Murtaza and shows such as the ongoing Say Everything that looks at evolving norms of individual privacy.
Mohaiemen’s choice of subject is very political even if his mode of treating it can be described as poetic and evocative. The photo sets on each of the three walls are like a clip from a film reel—the first set shows a plane in the sky; the second, two shadowy human figures silhouetted against tubelights; and the third, a series of images of a shattered glass pane. They act as props for the free-flowing text which, in a few words, talks about, among other things, an exile whose family fled Bangladesh ahead of the assassination; the unexplained and troubling absence of standard security measures on the day of the assassination; and the feelings of a woman whose father was the lone army colonel who lost his life trying to protect the president. Mohaiemen is reminiscing, reflecting and posing questions about the fateful day.
“I work through research,” he says, “excavating the history of post-liberation Bangladesh as a way of looking at Asian epochs, especially the history of failure.” This work is the latest in a series that, as he puts it, “has been conducted over multiple platforms—long-form essay, video, photography and installation.”
He points out that unlike a written historical tract, the museum and gallery space offers room for ambiguity and experimentation.
Mohaiemen adds to the ambiguity by inserting many fictional elements in the work, as well as clues that help separate fact from fiction. For instance, there was no shatterproof glass in use in Bangladesh at the time, and yet it features prominently in one of the photo sets. He says he wants the viewer to decode his work, which he likens to a puzzle.
He sounds keen, as well as a little apprehensive about Frieze. “At an event of this scale,” he says, “the audience comes partly to look at work, and partially to look for a commercial exchange. It will be interesting to see how that viewer responds to research that attempts to engender open-ended dialogue.” Speaking about the gallery, Raja seems to echo the sentiment. “At this juncture, the world is looking at us (Indian art) with some interest, so it is important to present ourselves in the right light,” he says.
The Frieze Art Fair will be held in Regent’s Park, London, from 14-17 October. For details, log on to www.friezeartfair.com