project by The VISIBLE Collective
a social activist, writer and filmmaker, Naeem Mohaiemen has
been especially concerned with the human rights violations
of minorities -- wherever they are. In 2004, he made the film
Muslims or Heretics about the persecution of Ahmadiyya
Muslims in Bangladesh. In an interview given to The Daily
Star (6/20/04), he says, "Muslims have become the
new disenfranchised minority in America and Europe. Yet, in
our own country where we Muslims are the majority, we do not
hesitate to disenfranchise our own minorities. So, global
activists cannot condemn only oppression against Muslim minorities
in America. We have to speak out against oppression being
carried out by our fellow Muslims. Otherwise it's a double
those words into practice, Naeem and a group of other activists
have launched Disappeared in America, a project looking
at the detention of Muslims after 9/11. The project premiered
at the Queens Museum of Art in February 2005, and will be
on display until June 2005. At the same time, Naeem continues
to screen Muslims or Heretics at human rights festivals to
raise awareness of the Ahmadiyya issue.
in America is a walk-through multimedia installation
that uses a film trilogy, soundscapes, photos, objects and
the audience's interactions to humanise the faces of "disappeared"
Muslims. Since 9/11, thousands of American Muslims have been
detained in a security dragnet. The majority of those detained
were from the invisible underclass of cities like New York.
They are the recent immigrants who drive taxis, deliver food,
clean restaurant tables and sell fruit, coffee, and newspapers.
The only time we see their faces is when we glance at the
hack license in the taxi partition, or the ID card around
the neck of a vendor. Already invisible in our cities, after
detention, they have become "ghost prisoners."
has been profiled by New York Times, Wall Street Journal,
Time Out, Queens Courier, and Q-News (UK). Time
Out listed it as one of the "Don't Miss" events
in New York. New York Times called the exhibit "politically
hard-hitting" and selected Visible as one of four artist
groups to represent the new art scene in Queens in an article
titled "The New Bridge & Tunnel Crowd: New York Art
is filing a change of address." Wall Street Journal
called the installation "moving and eerily impressionistic,
so that the piece occupies an uneasy space between documentary
and political theatre."
is also touring various venues as an interactive lecture,
most recently at Pixelache (Electronic Arts Festival) in Stockholm
and Helsinki. In the process of lecturing in other countries,
Naeem has pointed out that Islamophobia is not a uniquely
American phenomenon. "It's really easy in Europe to bash
America, but Islamophobia is just as much of a European trend,"
he says. "In fact, if you look at France and the Netherlands,
it's clear that anti-Muslim hatred is more virulent in Europe
than in America. You have had scores of mosques attacked in
Europe, and that hasn't happened to the same scale in the
US. So I think Europe really needs to look at how it is turning
into 'Fortress Europe.'"
Visible collective/Disappeared in America project
is directed by Naeem Mohaiemen. Collective members are Shahed
Amanullah, Vivek Bald, Kristofer Dan-Bergman, Toure Folkes,
Donna Golden, Amy Heuer, Aziz Huq, Sarah Husain, Ron Kiley,
Anjali Malhotra, Sarah Olson, Ibrahim Quraishi, Anandaroop
Roy and Sehban Zaidi.
Daily Sta recently interviewed collective members about
how the project was formed and what the future holds.
was the Visible collective formed?
NAEEM MOHAIEMEN: Originally Ibrahim Quraishi and I were working
on a short film about a Pakistani man who was detained after
9/11. But after completing the film, and screening it at Rooftop
Films' "Against Empire" festival, we felt we were
not having a real impact. There's a strong aspect of preaching
to the choir in these film festivals. In some ways, film also
seemed a very flat medium for this particular issue-- we were
not being able to convey all the complexities of the post
9/11 crackdown. So we wanted to expand into a film trilogy
and multimedia installation, which would use photos, text,
objects, sounds, etc, to sketch the contours of an entire
community that is disappearing. We also wanted to place it
in a very democratic museum space, which would get many people
who would not otherwise ever come to a work of political art.
And finally through our work, we expanded to become a 15-member
collective of Muslim and Other Artist-Activists.
it's worth pointing out that many of our collective members
and allies are non-Muslim. This is not just a Muslim issue,
and we should not be parochial about it. Rather, it's an issue
that affects everyone. Also, in the spirit of constructive
criticism, I must say that we Muslims have not always been
empathetic to the plight of others. There have been major
struggles waged in America by working class Black, Latino
and White workers -- and Muslims have not been a strong voice
in that struggle. Similarly you have global crises as in Rwanda,
where Muslim voices have been silent. So I hope that, from
the current crisis that affects Muslims, we will learn the
necessity for united struggles, and in the future, stand up
for the rights of others as well-- not just our own communities.
context, I have to point out an irony. We have received a
huge response to this project from Muslim arts groups, community
organisations and activists. Yet many of these groups shunned
the film Muslims or Heretics. We cannot be in a structure
where we only speak up when Muslims are the victims, and remain
silent when Muslims are the victimisers.
QURAISHI: Given the already explosive dynamics of power politics
on the global stage pre- 9/11, the tragedy itself was co-opted
as a raison d'etre to enforce neo-conservative monolithic
agenda on the larger, already traumatised population in naturally
singling out those immediate invisibly - visible targets who
just happened to be recent migrants. Even though none of the
hijackers were either US permanent residents, US citizens
or part of the complicated socio-economic American landscape,
there is no justification to unconditionally detain those
deemed dangerous due to some fictitious sense of security
of lynching has great historical precedence in America but
to get my fellow Americans to understand the horrors of what
her government is doing to those citizens who belong to her
but are of a different shade, when it comes to religion, cultural
outlook, socio-economic realities and maybe even political
thought, that the only way for us to address these issues
is through conceptual mechanisms, forms and language that
hopefully may resonate to the larger public that we are all
equal Americans and not just those belonging to Anglo-Saxon
paradigm or those co-opted by the primarily "white,"
patriotic media. That due process and the presumption of innocence
until proven guilty is a basic right under our constitutional
system of a just society inside a mature America where we
ALL belong to it.
about the films that are a core of the trilogy. Patriot
Story is about a detainee, Fear of Flying is
about the no-fly list and Lingering: Twenty is a
Godardian meditation. How did these films come about?
MALHOTRA: Fear of Flying is a film about Khalid,
a man on the no-fly list. I met Khalid when he sat next to
me on a plane back into the US. He was on vacation with his
family, and on his return he had been detained for a few hours
since his name had appeared on a no-fly-list forcing him to
miss his original flight. His anger, frustration and confusion
fueled our conversation that ultimately formed Fear Of
a valid fear of being prosecuted for being "anti-American"
for going on record against such laws. I am grateful that
Khalid thought it important enough and had the courage to
go on camera to talk about his situation.
ZAIDI: Well, I'll talk about Lingering: Twenty. The
use of fictional characters was a choice to force audiences
to face it as an idea instead of an incident. We ignore incidents
all the time, it's ideas that scare us. The idea that there
are people just trying to get through their days, taxi drivers,
businessmen, 16-year -old high school students who are being
abducted or detained, is the product of a very dangerous idea.
It stems from the idea of a police state, and guess whose
idea that is. There was a danger that in trying to represent
the true weight of the content we might end up pandering to
dramatic filmic cliches often used by films who are in awe
of the weight of their own content. Our film had to be simple
and honest. Most of the people detained weren't embroiled
in love triangles or trying to save the world they were mostly
members of the honest, nose to the grindstone, proletariat
who often don't have the luxury of inconceivable ambitions
(but that is a whole other tragedy). The apparent principle
victim of the disappearance in <>Lingering: Twenty<>
is a hungry cat...but that would be missing the point...for
every hungry cat there is a person who has been forcibly removed
from everyday life.
we first approach the museum, the first thing we see are the
overpowering six images. They dominate the space in a way
only comparable to Chitra Ganesh's two-story painting. It
also seemed to have been filmed in almost a glamour photo
session style. What were the inspirations for this work?
DAN-BERGMAN: Well, the project is focused on people so we
thought that the photographs needed to be enlarged to make
the impact we wanted. The way they are photographed reflect
more the "realness" in the persons (except for the
size, of course). I don't personally agree that they are photographed
in a glamorous way but yes, they are photographed in the studio
which might make the looker see it more as a magazine shot
but that is up to the beholder. It was shot in the studio
so that the viewer would not be distracted by the background.
soundscape is divided into two segments. One portion is straight
interviews, the second portion are staccato, repeated audio
loops that create a ghostly effect. Can you talk about the
pieces, and how they were made?
BALD: The way the soundscape is constructed, there is a kind
of low wash of electronic sound underneath, on both speakers,
which sets a sombre and unsettling tone. Over the top of that
you hear short, but self-contained segments from the six interviewees'
stories, one after the next, alternating back and forth between
the two speakers, which are about 20 feet apart. So, as you
circulate through the exhibit, you will hear a segment of
one person's testimony first in the left speaker, then a segment
from another interviewee in the right speaker, then another
back in the left speaker and so on. In addition, as each person
speaks, I have isolated one word or phrase from each segment
of testimony, which then echoes in the opposite speaker continuously,
fading slowly into the wash of sound in the background beneath
the next several segments of testimony.
OLSON: In January of 2004, I interviewed members of Arab,
Muslim, and South Asain communities around the country. From
an Afghani automechanic who was forced to clean toilets in
a court house, to a woman whose husband was arrested and is
still in detention and whose children were put into foster
care and who was forced to go to a hospital for clinical depression,
these interviews documented a little seen side of the new
climate of civil rights in this country. In conjunction with
the Not In Our Name project, I produced a radio documentary
called Under Attack which was aired on radio stations
around the country, and was distributed to community groups
organising around these issues. This became the core of the
audio soundtrack that later went into Disappeared In America.
the Internet version representative of the Muslim masses,
or is it an elite ivory tower phenomenon?
AMANULLAH: With the advent of the Web, Muslims around the
world who lived mainly with people who shared their cultural
and spiritual beliefs (and living in countries where free
expression was rare) were exposed to the breadth and depth
of the ummah for the first time from Salafi to Sufi,
from practicing to secular, from conservative to Marxist,
and all the colours in between. Some couldn't deal with it,
descending into endless flame wars on bulletin boards. Others
gasped in horror and turned away from the screen. But, for
those who embraced this brave new world, an enriching dialogue
there exists a plethora of opinion, analysis, expression and
debate that puts an end to the myth that Muslims are mindless
automatons, just waiting for the right fatwa that
will put a mass killing machine into motion. As of now, it
still is a refuge for the technologically elite. But as wired
Muslims around the world come to accept - and even embrace
- the theological and cultural diversity of the worldwide
ummah, I have hope that these communal feelings will
spread to the non-wired Muslim world. I think you're beginning
to see that with the small yet growing group of Muslim webloggers,
journalists, artists and thinkers that are cross-pollinating
the Muslim world in a manner not seen since the days of the
(R) thedailystar.net 2005