The idea of seeing a performance group from a collaborative based in Islamabad is as absurd as expecting rationale on the roads of Karachi – you can expect it every now and then, but don’t get used to it. Islamabad can never be mistaken as a cultural hub or the incubator of intellectual discourses – an honor it continues to maintain with utmost vigilance. But there is starting to be a shift: the first generation of people who truly call and consider Islamabad home is on the rise. This has seen the emergence of a new demographic who question, view and experience the city with a keen awareness, and an acute sense of the cultural baggage they carry.
The Tea Collaborative is one such set of individuals. Their first solo exhibition, titled ‘Tea Stain’ took place in May in the Satrang Art Gallery in Islamabad, along with a performance piece. The Collaborative itself defines their work as “an attempt at documenting the performative interventions” they have “undertaken around the city of Islamabad”.
Quite intrigued by their name as well as what their work stood for, it was only genuine curiosity that led to the meet-up. Hurmat ul Ain, art educationist and practicing artist, Sabahat Nawaz, textile designer and educationist, Waqar Aziz, architect/academic, Zehra Aziz, architect, form the structure of this multi-disciplinary collaborative.
The exhibition itself which started off with a critical piece of performance set much of the tone for the interview, which tries to understand the work, the rationale, how the city of Islamabad has responded to their work and what their experience as performance artists has been in Islamabad.Needless to say, what followed was an intriguing discussion – a tribute undoubtedly to a changing city.
Varda Nisar: Your practice is particularly based in Islamabad. Was that a conscious decision to do it in Islamabad considering that half of you are from Lahore, half of you are here?
Sabahat: No, initially we were all based in Islamabad, and it’s only recently Waqar moved to Lahore a year ago and I moved three months ago. We started here because we were all based here and we felt it was important to deal with the city.
VN: Because I feel that basing such a practice that you have, there is an undertone of criticism to the establishment, to the government to the capital – was that a conscious choice?
Hurmat: When you think about Islamabad as a city, you always think of people who either moved here from somewhere, are here for work, or have had their families move here at a certain point in time. All the people in Islamabad are either from Pindi essentially or somewhere else. Then what does it mean to make Islamabad your home? We were all sort of conscious about this identity crisis the city kind of offers in terms of its diplomatic and bureaucratic undertone or overtone actually, in which there is a Bohran of history and culture. And we understand that when you live here, you too are part of the narrative of this city, which it has for sure. So,what is that narrative and what is the exploration of that?
One thing that we don’t overtly talk aboutis the fact that we were also at that point teaching at NUST.
VN: At the Arts College?
Hurmat: Yes, which is a military run university and organization. And thereis definitely a leftist kind of vantage point that we all have to the center and the right.
VN: Do you think your practice would have been different had it been placed in Lahore or any other city? How so?
Sabahat: I think it depends. NUST had such a strong role to play because everything that we were doing at that point was coming from our practice, not just our individual ones but also our academic and studio practice. So, this conversation of tea and what it really means, just initiated on a winter afternoon. We were just looking at the sun outside, the metro was to be inaugurated in a few months from then and we thought we should plan something for that with the students. I remember we were doing this project called the ‘Body Extensions’, and that conversation got complex or maybe clearer in a way. And in the process, we came up with the idea of this tea session.
Zehra: Another thing about the city itself, Islamabad in a way provides a blanker canvas to what we wanted to do as compared to the many layers in Lahore or Karachi. Like a lot of the images that are in the show are in locations which are scarcely populated in terms of landscape or objects in urban space. We tend to take control more in our approach – it sort of is like activism in that space as compared to had it been in any other city.
VN: Do you thinkyour work has been taken the way you would have liked it as artist or is there a lot lacking, considering that it is such a blank canvas with little exposure of such activist art forms.
Hurmat: I think we can approach this in two different ways – onedefinitely is that performance as a means or a gesture of creating or having an activist approach orleaving a mark behind, whatever your intentions might be there is no popular way of thinking about performance.Unless you are Marina Abramovic. It is always going to be the underdog. Thereis always going to be you sort ofstanding alone naked. You are always going to be that person. Performance is a medium whose origin comes from that history. I are not trying to cover under that – I am just merely trying to look back and say when has a performance piece in history or a public intervention piece actually been a popularity venture?
I think that right now where we are, we could think that people were not receiving it well or that they don’t know what we are doing or we can just be very open and commit the fact that’s what performance is. The vocabulary to talk about performance or understand it or appreciate it, is just not there. So many people when they even criticize a performance, talk about it in terms oftheater or call us actors. But if actors don’t know their lines that is a problem, but we don’t have any lines.
Waqar: I think basically it has been a hit and miss, there have been moments when it worked nicely – at Rawal Lake, the whole idea was a guerilla activity, in which we wanted people to get critical and do a journey with them on the boat. And they were curious, and wanted to talk to us about what was happening in front of them, and to engage. They had definite impressions about it! But then especially the initial performances that we did in Hurmat’s previous apartment, the content had been testing in terms of cultural milieu and it was difficult to digest for people. There was a critique on culture. We were trying to put them on the spot by exposing this status quo social dynamics and they just didn’t know how to respond.
VN: There was a lot of improvisation happening in that moment. There were some decisions that were being taken right there and then. Sabahat left for a long time, and we were waiting for you to come back and then the rest of you had to improvise. Has the experience been different when you have done it at places like D-Chowk or the New airport site.
Sabahat: I feel that the sites were chosen as a response to something. For instance, D-Chowk piece was a response to the protest that had already taken place there so the site automatically became the backdrop. We were trying to bring in that narrative and knit in further. The interpretation of that was seen very differently. The audience that was present on site, they took it very differently and the audience that viewed it later, they understood it in a very different perspective. That was a very decided piece.
Waqar: We keep on talking about us trying to create an artwork – art traditionally seen as image. I would try to give an alternate definition, image for us especially in the moment of a performance when we are there, is more about frames. From the way we sit, to the way the table and chair are pointing in a certain direction, we try to humanize that place. We try to go in the zone of our own characters – someone gets up, drifts to a tree or the road edge therefore marking or extending that space. When we decide to do a performance in a space, we start building alternate images for ourselves, perceived more as a stop motion happening with each one of us, there isn’t one continuous performance, but moments that happen which you can call images. When we finish and we talk about it, our personal images are different from the pictures of that performance. Anyone who has tried to make an image out of an experience can understand how personalized it is, and that ties in with improvisation, which adds to the originality of that experience. It is a two-way process, and anything that happens on the other side you respond, so you become as much a spectator as a performer. In the motorway performance, there was this beautiful emotive response we got when standing at the side of road – a bus full of college students passed us by and all of us felt a certain fear what if they stop and start saying things. We were still in our characters, so we had to respond to it. The performance thus becomes as if we are living in that moment rather than performing – that becomes an interesting medium to being in than a theatrical-scripted one.
Zehra: (On those sites) That audience is sort of an accidental or unexpected audience whereas the audience that came here (gallery space)had certain expectations of what they think the performance should be about, and those two expectations clash with each other. For the accidental audience, we are more often an anomalyin that space, people are curious and at times, like when we went to the (Lake View) Park,there were a lot of people taking our video on their phones thinking we are doing some kind of a tea commercial whereas at Metro Station, it was mostly construction workers at that time and they would not cross a certain threshold and just look and walk by, thinking that this is beyond their understanding.
VN: How does the critique of the Establishmentcomes across to the general audience?
Zehra: I think it is more about archiving rather than critiquing cause that isn’t the only undertone there are a lot of other undertones, the way we dress, the hair, the body language, the outfits we wear –they are all coming from the way we have been practicing.
Sabahat: Going back to what Hurmat was saying, there is a difference between a theater and a performance piece and again if we keep on doing rehearsals, or if we keep planning the structure of it, then it would become very practical. It would automatically, then there would be expectation from each one of us and we would keep thinking that okay this is my turn to do this or that. There are certain tasks that are allotted to each character for instance, Waqar, how he is meant to break the cup or stack them but apart from that, the fact that we give each other the room or space to repeat something or to get up and leave, I think that is what makes it more exciting for us.
Hurmat: I think presence is a very important factor in all the works we have done up till now. The idea of just existing and just being present almost to an almost nihilistic moment, the idea that nothing happens during the pause, so there is anexpectation for us also that Sabahat will return. But she made that choice during the performance not to and we were with the audience when we had to accept that.
Then what does it mean to constantly having to entertain your audience inside a performance? That kind of discomfort that comes from holding a moment in encounter where nothing happens, what does it mean? I feel that the public interventions that wedo they are not so stretched out. D chowk – so much has happened there, there are trucks behind us burned down, we don’t need to do anything, we just sit and drink tea there. But twenty minutes of silence, of doing nothing, when you bring that in a gallery space, there is always that thing that what are they doing – why are they wasting my time! And I find that is something that we all need to negotiate together because you do have a choice to leave.
VN: But the passivity of such a performance, it links very much to that drawing-room politicsnarrative of Islamabad.
Sabahat: And also government institutions and organizations, generally.
Zehra: There is a lot of societal baggage involved.
Sabahat: It is a very deliberate kind of act.
VN: How does each one of you contribute to the practice? What’s each person role in it?
Sabahat: I think every time we discuss it we come up with new ideas or new ways of looking at it.
Zehra: The boundaries are a bit blurred now. If you had asked this question in 2014,it would have been a bit easier to distinguish.
VN: What was the distinction then which has been blurred now?
Zehra: We are all from different disciplines. Waqar and I are practicing architects; we were in academics, he still is! There is a lot of talk of building narratives and scenarios, marking and reclaiming space and thinking about where to do what and how whereas Sabahat is all about materiality and texture.
Sabahat: I have a background in textiles and even that practice is about public spaces, it’s about using materiality to engage in public and social activity. This idea then of using unique objects, hence the helmet (in the performance). I still have not been able to decide what the helmet is doing because I think it changes with the context, it has multiple layered meaning. It is an anomalydefinitelyin that setting. Hurmat is wearing a sari, Waqar is wearing a suit, Zahra a sherwani – the attire somehow fits into the narrative, but the helmet is awkward.
Hurmat: The objects that we build with the assemblages for the piece…I definitely think as a visual artist, I don’t have a history in creating sculpture and that work has been realized when working with this group. The way the collaboration comes together, is this idea of having to work with different materials and how they come together. The geometry of them is very similar to the structure that we annotate inside the performances and this idea of where certain texts end and whenanother begins, and where do I find an entry to join in.
Waqar: Being an architect, I probably pay more attention to the space, the light, timing of the day or the movement of the sun, the weather, the dynamics of movement; not so much about choreography – but how people walk around and chalk out space, of structuring things rather than creating a superstructure to the whole performance, which can be marked by certain linkages or duration of the performance.
VN: Why these objects in your performance – why the white color, why the costumes, the flower, what was the thinking and the concept behind it?
Zehra: What is common between the four of us is that we are all involved in making of images. We do think about what the piece is going to look like in the end. Because the way we record them is through photographs,that kind of led to the choices of color especially and the way that we compose our setting. So, yes, white, and different shades of white and black, have been constant in all of our work.
VN: Any symbolism behind it in your mind?
Hurmat: I think we are very aware of the kind of decision in terms of color palette, symbology, it is reference sometimes to gender roles, misogyny, because Zahra’s sherwani is not necessarily a woman’s dress. We are very conscious of these aspects.
VN: Your concept note says, “Performance is an act of classification of urban landmarks”. How so? Aren’t you in a fact borrowing from the landmark to make a statement?
Hurmat: There is a visual dictionary that exists with every city. And I think we are being slightly pretentious in assuming that in Islamabad its only in places like Faisal Mosque or Parliament Building. What does it mean to create a work that is permanent, so that the image that you capture then becomes part of the vocabulary of the city?
When you for example look at the Parliament house, you don’t see the D-Chowk, you have been told that this is D-Chowk. So, what is the recognition of a place such as this?
Zehra: Which is why we wanted to have postcards for this exhibition, but it didn’t follow through. The intention to make postcards, and then giving it out to everybody where the same images would be repeated with a description of those particular urban spaces where we enacted this tea party. It is a way forward for us to classify through our event and redefining that urban space.
VN: Why is making an image so important to you?
Sabahat: I think it has to do with my training as a designer. It’s important to make a visual because that is how you design something and design can only bein the head for so long. It has to have some visual form to be conducted or to be performed, to lay out a structure. A visual is so much more powerful!
Hurmat: There is a certain visual kind of character that you have about a city you have grown up in terms of certain bougainvillea plants at the corner of the street, you already know what the city looks like in your head, which corner looks like what and you might have a name for it. In Islamabad, the whole city looks the same. When we say classification, I think we are trying to forcefully come up with ways of calling things something. We have a new airport now – no one has seen, no one knows what the building looks like. There is a certain abstraction when it comes to Islamabad. Even like F6 and F7 sectors, they have the same name – Jinnah Super and Super. We are interested tojust see for ourselves what kind of vocabulary can we build.
Zehra: It is sort of like a compromise that we reached as collaboration, since we are all not from the same field, so it is an underlining objective of how we want what we are doing to be tangible. I think that’s what this Collaborative agrees upon as a whole.