Talking about ‘scale’, Mulji describes how much failure artists battle with, to arrive at something akin to the idea they begin with. ‘It always reminds me of a verse by Sophia Naz: “The weight of night and all these crumpled boats of paper that fail to reach the shores of a poem”; If you’re lucky, after weeks or months of struggling, the work suddenly gains resolution, and you look at it with a kind of recognition. It is both familiar and unfamiliar at once, knowing that it is this very thing that you have been struggling to reveal. Then of course, ironically once you have it, you have nowhere to show it, once you’ve shown it, you have nowhere to store it. Over the years I have had to throw away so much work, particularly if it’s large scale, as I don’t have the space to keep it indefinitely. Thankfully, I’m not very prolific! To look at it another way, she says it is sometimes beneficial to clear out her studio and avoid facing all the off-cuts of success or defeat. Painters turn away their canvases; I sell my work to “kabari walay”. Inevitably someone will gasp and say “But why didn’t you sell it!? (i.e. to a collector)” – sculpture just doesn’t have that market.’
While on the topic of ‘unsellable sculptures’’ Mulji recalls the highs and lows of creating pieces such as ‘The Miraculous Lives of This and That’ – a large four sided cabinet with multifarious decoration pieces, a taxidermy cow busting its’ head through the drawers with plastic dolls in glass cases. As some of Mulji’s most iconic pieces have utilized animal hide and taxidermy, such as ‘Heavenly Heights’ and ‘Arabian Delight’, it is interesting to compare these pieces to Mulji’s recent work for the Pioneer Residency as well as the smaller works for her exhibition ‘The Country of Last Things’, in 2016. There are staggering differences in the scale and materials applied.
During her time at the Pioneer Cement Plant, Mulji created a series of photographs which are eerily quiet and critically capture an ostensibly utopian environment. The stillness of the visuals are interestingly contradictory to the ceaseless movement of the factory Mulji photographed at Khushab; powdery cement dust in the air, machinery and wind creating furrows in powdered limestone, and scored markings with slaps of red paint on tree barks. At the heart of the industry a blazing kiln runs 24/7, processing and churning the limestone, gypsum, clay and coal.
With an interest in the expanse of rising cities and booming economies parallel to the demolition of ancient civilizations and the environment, these images convey elements of urbanism which city dwellers are familiar with. The artist remarks that perhaps because Pakistan is a young country, there is an optimism towards growth and a non-critical ambition to expand. There is a buoyancy and willingness at all levels of society, despite it all. The relatively older economies of Europe and the US have moved their imperial ambitions to other parts of the world, other ‘industries’, and on home ground advocate environmental responsibility. ‘I’m ambivalent about claims of “banning petrol cars by 2040” for example, to make way for electric vehicles, as the currently available batteries depend entirely on mining for rare minerals in (mostly) the developing economies. This is not a critique of environmental stewardship at all, I am merely making a point about economics.’
The contrast between the two geographical locations she inhabits, also reflect within her. She speaks of code switching when moving between the two places; ‘This is particularly true each time I arrive in Karachi. I am hyper aware on the drive from the airport, that the shift in temperature, language, smell, speed of the car, feel of the seat, sweat, conversation in the taxi, all of these promote a radical metamorphosis and so by the time I ring the doorbell of my mothers’ house, I am not the person who left England the night before. So many artists work in multiple locations and occupy a non-singular identity today. As someone said very aptly: “today, home is where your digital devices automatically connect to the Wi-Fi”.’
The photographs produced at Pioneer are given titles such as ‘sabza, ‘mist’, and ‘Abshar’, perhaps a record of this shift from one identity to another, un-translated. Titles are generally of particular importance to the artists’ work– they (titles) provide the underlining story and create the stepping stones from conceptualizing an idea, to the interpretation of the work. Recalling the title of her work for the Karachi Biennale, ‘Ode to a lamppost that got accidentally destroyed in the enthusiastic widening of canal bank road’ as an example of a lengthy and narrative title, Mulji elaborates on her enthusiasm for fiction writing, and the ability words have to move her deeply. Perhaps more than art! ‘I borrow from fiction writers, form, structure, and the ability to evoke the essence of an idea, an emotion or a place.’
Recognizing what a fantastic opportunity residency programs and grants can be, to allow visual artists to create work freely, Mulji comments on how critical it is for these to be offered to artists to pursue work without pre-conceived outcomes or obligations. This freedom allows for speculative thinking, which may produce something in the future, whereas a perceived ‘ending’, particularly for public display only allows enough space to prepare for this visibility.
It’s about time for Mulji to head off to Jodia Bazaar and collect research for new stories with familiar interests. Although there are many threads in the artists’ work which work in tandem to create a visual, her ability to address particular issues with a sense of pervasive curiosity is perhaps the main artery bringing together multiple landscapes, hierarchies and narrations.