Because modern medicine allows us to extend our lives, does that mean we should?
That and related questions lie at the heart of Naeem Mohaiemen: grace, a quiet, understated, and profoundly moving exhibition on view at the Colby College Museum of Art through April 23. It explores death and the decline of the human body from the perspectives of an artist who asks difficult questions and a Maine resident who is approaching her terminal diagnosis with “a seeker’s curiosity.”
The exhibition includes two films by Mohaiemen, a 2020-21 Lunder Institute for American Art senior fellow and the inaugural recipient of the Alfonso Ossorio Creative Production Grant, and artwork from the museum’s collection chosen by South Portland, Maine, resident Karen Wentworth, who is living with a terminal cancer diagnosis.* The two met and became collaborators when Mohaiemen began researching a topic for his Lunder Institute project and learned about Wentworth’s story.
Born in London and raised in Libya and Bangladesh, Mohaiemen is associate professor of visual arts at Columbia University, with films in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, and others.
Wentworth was the second Maine resident to seek the right to die under provisions of the Maine Death with Dignity Act, which became law in 2019. She was diagnosed with rare appendiceal cancer in 2012 and almost died in 2018. She sought and received an end-of-life prescription soon after the law was enacted. The law specifies how a doctor may prescribe life-ending medications to terminally ill, capable adults.
She has outlived her prognosis, and part of this exhibition is about Wentworth’s graceful approach to life during that time, her ability to appreciate everyday moments with family and friends, and the unexpected opportunities of simply being present.
Mohaiemen had become a healthcare caregiver to his family because of the personal experiences of his father, a cardiovascular surgeon in Bangladesh who suffered more than a decade of serious health problems. As a long-distance caregiver over many years, Mohaiemen traveled between the United States and Bangladesh to help his father, who died in 2021.
During one difficult visit toward the end, Mohaiemen began asking: Is more extensive medical intervention always the best option? Is it acceptable for a family to decline medical care? His 2020 fiction film, Jole Dobe Na (Bengali for “those who do not drown”), on view at Colby, explores over 64 minutes the experience of a couple as they navigate an empty hospital that symbolizes the labyrinth of modern medicine. As the film progresses the viewer comes to understand that the wife has died and the husband is caught in a loop as he reflects on the last weeks of their life together.
Mohaiemen pursued those questions further when he began his Lunder Institute fellowship. With research assistance from Sam Scott ’21 and Yan Xuan ’22, he learned about Maine’s Death with Dignity Act and Wentworth’s desire to end her life on her terms at a time of her choosing in consultation with her doctor. Mohaiemen approached Wentworth about photographing her and a collection of books that she intended to read.
At first, she was uncertain what to make of Mohaiemen’s inquiry. “I needed to Google him,” she said. “Who is he?” The Google search impressed her. “He was a serious filmmaker, so I agreed to meet with him.”
Wentworth said she felt “instant rapport” with Mohaiemen. “He was not rigid at all. He was open to ideas,” she said. “It was always a couple of people making decisions together.”
As trust between them evolved, so did Wentworth’s role in the exhibition. Instead of photos, they agreed to tell Wentworth’s personal journey in the video grace, based on their many conversations and the quiet routines of her life.
“This is a universal experience, deciding the terms on which you are on the planet and deciding the terms on which you depart,” Mohaiemen said. “And what it means to have a good life. As Karen says, ‘I want to say goodbye to everyone.’ She is extraordinary.”
Taken as a whole, the exhibition is a testament to the power of family, friendship, and discovery. It also represents Wentworth’s lifelong interest in folk art and nature, and the project benefits from the expertise in elegiac art that she has pursued in response to her illness.
The surprise and unexpected visual core of the exhibition are the two- and three-dimensional artworks in the Davis Gallery. Mohaiemen and Beth Finch, the museum’s head curator, invited Wentworth to choose work from the collection that expressed her feelings, outlook, and visual aesthetics.
She was flabbergasted by the offer and cherished the experience. “They let me pick out artwork. Who gets to do that?” she asked. “The opportunity was irresistible.”
Finch sent some catalogs, and Wentworth spent many hours exploring the collection online. Eventually, she, Mohaiemen, and Finch met at the museum to look at work in person together. She chose a lot of photography—by Salvatore Mancini, Harry Callahan, Denise Froehlich, and a black-and-white photo by Professor of Art Gary Green of a large, old tree carved with graffiti.
She gravitated toward work by Bernard “Blackie” Langlais, a native Maine artist best known for large-scale sculptures made from wood. For grace, Wentworth chose the Langlais painting Helen Reading, an image of the artist’s wife reclining and facing away, immersed in a book.
It was an appropriate and perhaps obvious choice, given that this exhibition began with Mohaiemen’s inquiry about photographing the books on Wentworth’s final reading list. Langlais made the painting in 1955, and it is having its first viewing since the museum acquired it in 2010.
It was meant to be, Finch said.
“If Blackie and Helen were here today, they would probably say, ‘We were waiting for you to find it, Karen.’”
* Editor’s note: Since the publication of this story, Karen Wentworth passed away in South Portland. Her obituary appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram on Jan. 15, 2023.
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