Naeem Mohaiemen

United Red Army

2012

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Not on display

Artist
Naeem Mohaiemen born 1969
Medium
Video, high definition, colour and sound
Dimensions
Duration: 70min
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased using funds provided by the South Asian Acquisitions Committee 2016
Reference
T14557

Summary

United Red Army 2012 is a seventy-minute-long video with sound that forms part of the artist’s series The Young Man Was 2012–16. This group of works is based on a research-led process in which Mohaiemen excavates historic and archival material looking for anecdotes and moments which illuminate an ongoing history of failures of radical left movements, or what he refers to as the ‘ultra-left’. Mohaiemen focuses on the history of his native Bangladesh, but highlights points of intersection or rupture between radical movements, annotating and destabilising received or established versions of their often incomplete histories. Reviewing the Sharjah Biennial in 2011, in which Mohaiemen showed work from this series, Kaelen Wilson Goldie wrote: ‘Though broadly concerned with failed utopias, the project pursues a specific thesis: that the revolutionary movements of the 1970s gave the left an accidental Trojan horse by giving rise to a reactionary, counterrevolutionary right.’ (Goldie 2011, p.128.)

United Red Army has a multi-layered audio narrative and can be screened in an auditorium or gallery space. The work consists of subtitled audio recordings, images and footage from television, and a voice-over by the artist layering a personal narrative over the historical material. The title refers to a faction of the Japanese Red Army, a communist militant group formed in Lebanon in the early 1970s seeking the overthrow of the Japanese monarchy, which became known as the United Red Army when it combined with a Maoist group in Japan. Close to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, which was then seen as a model of armed resistance by international guerrilla movements, the United Red Army was responsible for a series of hijack attempts, in this case the hijacking in 1977 of Japan Airlines flight JAL 472 which they forced to land in Dhaka, Bangladesh when Mohaiemen was just a child.

The film is overlaid in sections with personal nuances; it opens with the impact on the eight-year-old Mohaiemen when news coverage of the hijacking interrupts the transmission of his favourite programme, The Zoo Gang, an American television show about four World War II veterans who regroup to fight crime. The large part of the United Red Army consists of the compelling audio recordings, which Mohaiemen unearthed years later, of the conversations between the negotiator in the air traffic control tower and the hijackers, interspersed with found footage from popular media. The tones of their voices and the nature of the dialogue reveal the tension and building up of a relationship between ‘Dhaka Tower’, subtitled in green, and ‘Dankesu’, subtitled in red, the pseudonyms used by the chief negotiator and United Red Army spokesperson.

The plane remained on the runway in Dhaka from 28 September 28 to 2 October, during which time the Japanese government arranged a prisoner exchange. The hijackers had not bargained for local conditions in Bangladesh, which was just recovering from a military coup. Mohaiemen weaves into the narrative images – taken by Japanese tourists on board the plane – of what was a side-show during the international event but a significant moment in the history of Bangladesh: a battalion of left-leaning soldiers with shared Maoist ideals attempted to stage a counter-coup against the military government of General Zia ur Rehman, and tried to storm the airport. Mohaiemen wove this material into the narrative, retaining its subversive and hidden nature, building the plot of his film in layers that allow different chronologies to emerge, including footage from films starring Carole Wells, an actress who was coincidentally one of the hostages. Eleven of the rebelling soldiers were killed on the tarmac; the only publicly accessible evidence of these events comes from the photographs taken by the hostages on board the plane. In the film, the tones of the negotiators change from banter discussing their ideological differences to terse commands, the Dhaka Tower urging Dankesu to turn his weapons on the mutinying soldiers, ‘Without hesitation, shoot those people, shoot to kill!.’ Dankesu’s wary response is, ‘I have understood that you have internal problems.’

While the hijacking ended with the safe release of 156 passengers in exchange for nine prisoners (after the plane made further stops in Kuwait City and Damascus), the coup in Bangladesh led to further internal violence and repression. Mohaiemen wrote in his short introduction to the work, ‘Behind the scenes is the secret history of a military coup, which was attempted inside the Bangladesh Air Force while the hijack was going on. The Japanese know only the “peaceful end” to the hijack, while on the Bangladesh side there was tremendous collateral damage.’(Mohaiemen, 2013)

United Red Army relates to contemporary concerns regarding the veracity and stability of historic archives and the need to explore cosmopolitan histories beyond the official version. Within his own project, Mohaiemen considers this film one element in a multi-pronged approach to fragmented histories that are difficult to capture and collect. Combining text, audio and found images, Mohaiemen also engages with the nature of the mediatised image and of what has been called the ‘poor’ or low-quality image. As citizen journalism grows and images captured and transmitted in real time on devices such as mobile phones become the norm, this work explores an early instance of the ‘tourist turned hostage turned witness’ (Goldie 2011, p.128). Mohaiemen also explored the subject in the work My Mobile Weighs a Ton 2008, a piece consisting of photographs taken on his mobile phone in the aftermath of a riot in Dhaka.

Further reading
Kaelen Wilson Goldie, ‘Sharjah Biennial 10: Plot for a Biennial’, Bidoun, vol.25, 2011, pp.128–9.
Murtaza Vali, ‘Complicating the History of the Left’, Blouin Artinfo, February 2012, http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/760433/complicating-the-history-of-the-left, accessed 15 April 2013.
Sarinah Masukor, ‘The Already Too Late – An Archive of Beautiful Doubt’, Lux online, 4 October, 2016, https://lux.org.uk/writing/new-artist-focus-sarinah-masukor-naeem-mohaiemen, accessed 6 November 2018.
Sarinah Masukor, ‘Left Behind?’, frieze, 19 February 2018, https://frieze.com/article/left-behind, accessed 6 November 2018.

Nada Raza
April 2013, updated November 2018

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