Precarious Citizenship

8.1 / Art + Citizenship

Precarious Citizenship

By John Zarobell November 10, 2016

In the United States, we tend to think of citizenship as a privilege, but it is not hard to imagine how it could instead be a curse when your very right to exist is challenged in your home country. In 2015, Europe received more than a million refugees—many of whom destroyed their own identity cards in order to erase their national identity so that they could not be deported back to their home countries. The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention guarantees asylees the right of non-refoulement, which prevents any signatory state from sending refugees back to countries where their lives are in danger due to persecution. This was a response to the persecution of Jews and others under Hitler’s Third Reich, and the Convention constitutes an effort to ensure that such genocides never happen again. But as the global refugee population climbs to sixty-five million, receiving countries struggle to adjust, and many countries have closed their borders altogether so that refugees might never arrive. Forced migration is an issue that often remains in the shadows, but many artists are struggling to find a place where they can express their own views without fear of persecution.

The singer Paul Robeson famously quipped that he was a citizen of the world, and while this sentiment is more common than ever in our globalized age, Robeson’s own experience demonstrates citizenship’s limitations. While speaking out against injustice in the United States, he was hounded by Joseph McCarthy’s infamous House Un-American Activities Committee and was even denied the right to travel abroad in the 1950s. Robeson’s story is tragic and represents a kind of wound that many artists confront to this day. Ai Weiwei was jailed in 2011 and had his passport confiscated for years by Chinese authorities due to his criticism of the government. These cases are but symptoms of a much larger trend of persecuting artists whose work transgresses the norms of their eras or expands social or political conversation beyond the views advocated by the government. Robeson and Ai allow us to see how making art with a conscience can lead to a form of precarious citizenship.

Gazi Nafis Ahmed. Amit and Rana #1, 2009. Courtesy of the Artist. “Our love may remain undeclared, but it would not be wrong to label us husband and wife. We may be from different religious backgrounds, but our love is beyond the moral judgments of society. We profoundly experience, and appreciate, every single moment of our relationship. We have a good life, a pretty life. Almost as if it is wrapped in beautiful colors.”

The Bangladeshi artist Gazi Nafis Ahmed sees himself as a citizen of the world, although these days, that is not really a choice. Born in Dhaka, Ahmed studied in the UK, in Denmark, and in Spain, and his photographs have been exhibited throughout South Asia, China, and Europe. He is also a fellow at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference for 2017. Although Ahmed continues to gain international recognition for his photographic work—with recent reviews in The Guardian, Slate, and Daily Serving—this image of success elides the fact that Ahmed is no longer safe in his own hometown. In fact, in February 2016, when he attended the Dhaka Art Summit—the single largest event for contemporary South Asian art—he received threats and phone calls to his cellphone asking him to disclose his location. In one of these calls, it was requested that he be interviewed by students in a remote part of town.

Dhaka as a city has since experienced terrorist attacks and targeted killings perpetrated by Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, a fundamentalist group. In July, twenty-nine people were killed at the Holey Artisan Bakery in the city’s embassy neighborhood. On April 25, Ahmed’s friend Xulhaz Mannan, who ran the only LGBT magazine in Bangladesh, was the victim of a targeted assassination. One of the assassins was found to have attended the same school as the students who wanted to “interview” Ahmed. At the time Ahmed learned of his friend’s murder, he was finishing a graduate degree in Spain and facing a return to Dhaka. Needless to say, he began looking for other options.

Gazi Nafis Ahmed. Ratul, 2009. Courtesy of the Artist. “I always felt extremely attracted to men. After class 10, I could not afford to continue my education. I began working as a sex worker. The deals are done mostly through phone calls and sometimes I pick up clients from parks. I have experienced all kinds of clients. Married, doctors, schoolteachers, students, drivers, laborers. I support my family and keep some money for myself. Life goes on.”

Ahmed first came to the attention of the fundamentalists because of his photographic series Inner Face, a group of sympathetic portraits of gays, lesbians, and transsexuals living in Bangladesh. The artist’s explicit intent with this series was to promote acceptance of diverse sexualities in his own conservative country. The project was shown in Dhaka at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts in 2014, and Ahmed has been on television in Bangladesh multiple times to discuss the issues his work raises publicly. He described this project to The Guardian as follows:

The LGBT scene in Bangladesh is very, very underground. There are essentially two different social groups: the upper/middle classes, they refer to themselves as “gay,” they have access to the internet, they’re part of the global network of gay communities and have friends all over the world…and then there is the different social class who don’t refer to themselves as LGBT but as MSM. This is a public-health designation which stands for Men Who Have Sex With Men. They are low income—cooks, dancers, rickshaw pullers—and there is huge stigma towards them. My work was with both groups.1

The photographs are black-and-white and possess a rich range of tones that saturate the image. There is a documentary aesthetic here that brings to mind Robert Capa and street photographers of the 20th century. These images provide a sense that these figures are caught in a vivid drama that is their lives. This is the result of Ahmed’s process, which involves spending time getting to know his subjects before ever picking up a camera. He engages with them, learns their stories, and shares their lives before trying to record them. In a recent interview, Ahmed explained, “I want to talk about their lives, to create a world[;] the world itself is my photographs.” He additionally provided paper for his subjects to write or draw on to reveal something about themselves, with the hope of “involving them even more” by providing a forum for their self-expression. This was an exceptional offer for gay Bengalis, as the ability to narrate their own lives was one they never had.2 In some cases, this represented their first coming out. He exhibited these personal documents with his photographs at the Dhaka Art Summit in February, 2016.

This process has led to the intimate nature of Ahmed’s deeply sympathetic photographs, and while the images look spontaneously captured, they are in fact the result of a careful process of acclimation and trust-building. The confidence that Ahmed exudes when discussing issues of inclusion and awareness of sexual diversity in public, even on television, makes it clear why he became a target of those who do not want to accept these kinds of social advances. It is not the government that is persecuting Ahmed. The government cannot protect him, and his security has clearly been compromised. His website has even been attacked with malware, making it inaccessible. Attempts to isolate him in his country have largely succeeded, and for now, he has accepted his exile. When asked whether he will apply for asylum upon reaching New York, he said he had not even considered it.

Gazi Nafis Ahmed. Shahinoor & Nipa #2, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist “I am a woman and I love another woman. I want to live with my lover. I don’t want anyone to come between us. We don’t want anyone among us to commit suicide, to get hurt, to become addicted to drugs, to cut themselves. Let us live the way we want to. Now is the time to open up and talk about it.”

Ahmed has received a grant from the Artist Protection Fund to allow him to flee immediate danger. This program is run by the Institute for International Education and funded by the Mellon Foundation. The presence of this program and the robust advocacy organization PEN International Foundation highlights the fact that artists and writers are subject to persecution and forced migration worldwide. The listing on PEN America’s website is extensive and continues for nine pages, but it is only an exposition of some of the most visible cases. Even more examples can be detailed— some of them featured in Home Land Security, organized at the Presidio in San Francisco by the FOR-SITE Foundation.

Precarious citizenship is a fact for countless artists, and we must seek justice and asylum for these artists who cannot be safe in their home country. There are, however, broader implications to consider. If the act of expressing yourself, criticizing traditions, or questioning government practices can put your life in danger, how does that change the character of citizenship? In other words, what does it mean if your citizenship is not precarious? Is there any way that citizenship can hold as a principle if it does not mean the same thing in every location? The conditions that support citizenship are not universal. And if citizenship is precarious for some, it ought to be precarious for all, and not something that anyone can take for granted.


  1. Bibi van der See, “'I Want to Help the LGBT Community in Bangladesh Make Their Voices Heard,'” The Guardian (UK) online (April 28, 2016). Retrieved at:
  2.  Interview with the artist, October 14, 2016.

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