Voglio andare alla Biennale (I want to go to the Biennial)
Naeem Mohaiemen / Paris Furst
Sound installation, 2015
[“Solidarity Forever” was chosen to honor Peter Custers (1949-2015), who played a piano version of this union song (based on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the final scene of ‘Last Man in Dhaka Central’ (dir: Mohaiemen, 2015). The film was playing at the Venice Biennale and was the occasion for the May visit. The musicians improvised based on Peter’s performance of the score.]
Visitors to this year’s 56th Venice Biennale (“All The World’s Futures,” curated by Okwui Enwezor) may have noticed the ubiquity of Bangladeshi street merchants outside the Giardini and Arsenale. Migrants from Bangladesh are a dominant and thriving presence in Italy, as noted in Amara Lakhous’ novel (Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, 2008) and Paul James Gomes’ installation (Prego Selfie, 2015). The community contains distinct sub-groups, not all in sync or even simpatico. At the top of the hierarchy are those who arrived with some education and learned Italian well. They tend to be lighter in complexion, and can sometimes pass as darker Italians. When arguing among themselves (“vaffanculo!”), they sound local in their confident invective. They look down on their darker Bangla siblings on the street (“not the same class”) and are sometimes indifferent to discovering a Bangladeshi customer in their restaurant (no extra chips).
Their darker brothers are the new merchants of Venice– sellers of selfie sticks, soft gummy blobs, flying light helicopters, kaleidoscope torches, and, of course, red roses. Among this group is a large cluster of new Bangladeshi refugees from Libya, guest workers who fled when that country’s oil rig economy collapsed into civil war. Group hierarchies are based on time-in-country, with more recent arrivals relegated to blobs and selfie sticks. After all, selling roses requires the confidence to interrupt couples, or the chutzpah to stride into a fancy restaurant– this task goes to those who have been here longer and can muster passable speech.
In between these categories is another group– living here long enough to speak decent Italian, but lacking a path to become waiters or owners of restaurants. In this space is Narshingdi B___, a man who has been here for a “long time,” worked many jobs (including for the local communist party and as a docent for a previous Venice Biennale), carried a sunburnt face that spoke of many border crossings, and could be spotted taking an afternoon break near the Arsenale.
When Naeem arrived in Venice for the Biennale opening in May 2015, Narshingdi stood out as an exception among the merchants he was meeting. He was the first person to agree to give an interview without any fear regarding his immigration status. Sitting at a sidewalk cafe near the Arsenale, the conversation began with a question that is almost trite in its self-evident nature: <Why don’t the Bangladeshis visit the Biennale?>
Over a hot afternoon, Narshingdi spoke about the parallel city within the city, occasionally interrupted by Biennale visitors who stopped to say hello. In the evening, he went back to work and the conversation took a long pause.
In August 2015, Paris Furst traveled from Berlin to work at the Creative Time Summit in Venice. While there, she learned about the earlier encounter with Narshingdi, and connected it with her own work collecting individual stories from Berlin’s current refugee influx. Tracking him down, she asked Narshingdi if he would agree to a second interview, this time in Italian.
The two interviewers (Naeem, Paris) did not know each other’s questions and did not understand the language of the other interview (Bengali by Naeem in May, Italian by Paris in August). The interviews were mixed by Marcelo Añez, who spoke neither language and went intuitively by the feeling of a sound and the curve of waveforms. Hamburg-based musicians Rachel Aumiller, James McIver, and Stefhan Link recorded a slowed-down version of Ralph Chaplin’s union song “Solidarity Forever” for the mix, a tribute to activist-academic Peter Custers who passed away last month.
At Helicotrema, this sound project will be installed at “Polveriera Francese,” a 19th century powder magazine built by the French army. Among all visitors to this space, perhaps only the Venetian Bangladeshis will understand everything that is said in this room. For other visitors, there will be fragments of Italian, stray English words (“Europe e tokhon crazy namlo”) buried in the Bengali, and snatches of laughter.
Narshingdi is the most supple character within this mosaic – he is here in two languages, as a polyglot messenger signaling abrave new world. Aldous Huxley’s dystopic vision of a reengineered new man is made flesh in a radically different way in our time: a time when capital moves everywhere, bodies are turned away at borders, and language becomes a weapon for survival.
In a final conversation, Narshingdi said he was not sure how much longer he would stay in Venice. He said Italy “is finished” for him, and for Italians as well. He worked here for thirteen years, and had not returned to Bangladesh in six years (Narshingdi has a child he has never seen).
Recently he had been feeling exhausted, and went to a doctor for a checkup. The doctor’s diagnosis: “Tu non stai male - sei stanco, sei triste, devi tornare a casa, devi tornare al tuo paese.” (“You’re tired, you’re sad. You need to go home. You need to go back to your country.”)
For the last two weeks, Narshingdi’s phone has been switched off (“il cliente da lei chiamato non è al momento raggiungibile.”). An invitation to attend the Helicotrema opening went into the ether.
But he will reappear, in Europe’s future and in ours.