With residency after residency, Basir Mahmood (born 1985, Lahore) is thriving in the international art world, while maintaining a low profile in Pakistan. Since receiving his BFA from Beaconhouse National University in 2010, the artist has travelled extensively in his nascent five years in the field.
Mahmood received a yearlong fellowship from Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2011. That was the start! Since 2011, his works have been exhibited widely: The Garden of Eden, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2012; III Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, Russia, 2012; Inaugural Show, Broad Museum, Michigan State University, 2012; Asia Pacific Triennial (APT 7) at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2012; Sharjah Biennial 11. (2013); At Intervals at Cooper Gallery Project Space, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, 2014; Des hommes, des mondes at college des bernardins, Paris, 2014 and Time of others, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, 2015. He was also awarded at 18th Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil Prize, São Paulo, 2013, Brazil. Recently, Mahmood has been awarded the ‘South Asia Institute 2015 Emerging Artist Award’ from the Harvard Art Museums. As part of this award, Mahmood has been invited to Cambridge this year to carry out a workshop and an artist talk at Harvard University. Even more recently, he has been shortlisted for the Abraaj Group Art Prize, 2016.
But what is it about his life and work that makes him so accomplished at such a young age? Let us dip into his pool.
Mahmood graduated in 2010 but his career in the arts started years before that, in 2003. After his intermediate studies, he worked through sculptures and drawings (occasionally at Alhamra) till 2006. During this time, he met Mrs. Salima Hashmi, then Dean of the School of Visual Arts at Beaconhouse National University, who saw his work and offered him full scholarship for undergraduate studies at campus. The University grandeur inspired him to “explore and exploit everything”, and to hold on to any opportunity and maximize it. His “romance” with a new set of media (camera, video, theater, performance, drama, short films, script writing, Urdu prose and poetry), during undergraduate years, empowered him to move swiftly ahead and investigate newer ways of thinking and making meaning. His early perception of art making was associated with labor-intensive tasks but he learnt “softer ways” of creating through film, video, photography and poetry.
While Mahmood is reluctant to adhere to a physical studio space, his studio, he believes, is in his mind. His aesthetic decisions are independent of logistics. Ideas are his key domain. For him, the thought embedded in the work is far more enduring than the visual and, as a consequence, the (sub)text accompanying his work becomes crucial. “Ideas are precious, visuals destroy them”, he states.
From his earliest childhood memories, Mahmood recalls long walks in the neighborhood with his father, where his father quietly observed his surroundings to later converge his thoughts into poetry for the daily newspaper. His words were simple and basic. This simplicity, reticence and acuity for social reflection is his father’s gift to him, he believes.
My Father is a narration of his relation with his father, who is forty-five years older than the artist. As he was grew up, he saw his father grow weaker, he says. This image (or its corresponding video) represents the struggle of an old man trying to thread a small needle through repeated yet failed attempts. For Mahmood, this struggle is about “importance and worth” when seen through “time and mortality”.
Although Mahmood primarily adheres to “idea-based practices”, material and formal concerns are vital to his process too. Manmade is a video diptych about a man trying to wear a three-piece suit for the first time. The works breeds an air of discomfort for the man because he is being told or requested by someone behind the frame to adopt an appearance (or a kind of skin) that is alien to his perceived identity. We are made to think that this façade is far from his actuality. He seeks constant assurance while dressing up, makes an effort to reconcile with his new attire and, in the act, questions his being in reference to what is expected of him.
Lunda Bazar is a slow motion video footage of the second-hand clothing market in Pakistan (where used clothes from the United States, Europe and Asia Pacific end up). Captured with a candid camera, Mahmood studies “the transformation that occurs when an object of clothing moves from one body to the other, from one culture to another implying both memory and change”. The garments and clothing accessories, made for a different set of climates and cultures, are transformed in their identity and meaning “through the act of wearing”. The sounds of the bazar (as part of the video) are slowed and dampened to stretch the audible time and space lapse.
With a four-year theatre background, Mahmood claims to have learnt to play the other, or “to become someone else”. Though excruciatingly personal and intimate, Mahmood’s works effortlessly relates to a wide audience across a range of cultures, and hence becomes multilingual.
The flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan is a military ritual carried out every evening before sunset at the border site. I’m on the “Us” Side and You Are on the Other is a video installation with footage of thousands of spectators from both the countries. The viewer tends to be suspended, engulfed or squeezed between the two audiences (on two vertical screens). The captured moments talk about the festivity and gravity of the occasion and subtly comment on the nature of what could bring politically polarized people together.
Extensive travelling shifted Mahmood’s core concerns and re-adjusted his positionality to create work that was contextually relevant. In an interview with Sena Arcak Bağcılar, the artist says that while he was travelling he “kept on coming back to Pakistan. I started ending up comparing one to the other. Soon, I became foreigner, an outsider, a silent viewer, even of my own country. I love the position I started to take. In Pakistan, everything for me has a tendency to become a work; that’s why it is trickier; and that’s why I have to create my own parameters to perform as an artist. “
A Message to the Sea is a significant turn in Mahmood’s practice. After multiple attempts, it was the first exhibited work he produced abroad. “This work taught [him] how to perform as an artist and, during a single lifetime, live multiple lives. The work came naturally; [he] feels the work was already there, [he] was not more than just a first viewer”. While staying at a fishermen settlement and observing its daily activity, he recognizes the dependence of men on the sea and tracks a dialogue between the man and the water “by sending a message back to the sea.” He approaches his subjects hand on by documenting his (staged) narrative through a camera and creating a synergy between its iconic, indexical and metaphoric representation.
Mahmood’s work seeks to identify connections between man and his environment and between existence and its sustenance; he reflects on the symbiotic value of this interactivity. No Land For a Fisherman is a collection of six photographs, which were also created during the artist’s stay at the settlement (at one of the fisherman’s home while he was away). Paradoxically this series talks about the impermanence or the lack of a settled place. A raw documentation of the fisherman’s everyday possessions was a glimpse into a peripatetic way of living – into landlessness.
Being recognized as video artist, many people suggested alternate mediums to support himself financially but he realized quite early on that he did not produce work for money. Artist residencies provided sustenance for him where he placed himself in varying cultural contexts to elicit a range of responses within him. “Mostly first time experiences trigger the work”, he states. Working for gallery deadlines compromises sincere practice, he believes. The artist has made a few other resolutions quite early in his career too; that he will not sell free work; that he must know who is buying his work, and that he will not rush for frequent solo shows or annual art fairs.
Receiving critical acclaim and appreciation internationally makes one more credible. People start taking you seriously. Mahmood, being one such individual, says that he, with his merit, would like to “struggle to make bad works, struggle to stay unpredictable ”, surprise his audience every time and question perceptions of what is endorsed in the arts. One of his biggest challenges would be to “escape the visual because images could be limiting”.
Mahmood takes multicultural experiences (and their nuances) in his stride. The time-based situations entrenched in his work take precedence over his visual. The conversation they generate becomes the work. Art, for Mahmood, is “a way of living” and that is why he hesitates calling his work “art practice”. It may just be a “journey” of sorts. He may be a visual artist, he believes, but he seeks to embrace a “visual-less practice”. He thinks big. He’s here for the marathon; he’s here to stay.
Images courtesy the artist and Grey Noise Gallery, Dubai.
Rabeya Jalil is a visual artist and art educator affiliated with the Fine Art Department at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, Pakistan.