Sehr Jalil Raja: Your work is almost centre stage to everyday life. Any childhood or other memories that were integral to this predisposition towards the immediate environment?
Amber Hammad: I was born and raised in Lahore as the only child of elderly parents. They both had opposing opinions and approaches towards life. My father the liberal man and my mother the religious practitioner gave me all they had learned from life in their own ways. The only thing common in their teachings was to hold on to our middle-class socio-religious cultural values. There were certain unsaid rules in our household, which grounded me to form my very own identity, strictly within the precincts of our middle-class urban society. For years I was confused and tested these fluid limits. But it was only during college that I addressed these issues formally and tried to explore the right questions and answers. More than a decade later, I am still exploring.
When it comes to South Asia, particularly Pakistan, its middle class is taken for granted, I feel. The music, food and contemporary art scene in Pakistan is thriving. We don’t have a monolithic culture but there are multiple subcultures here and the middle class nourishes it all. The presentation of contemporary Pakistan in media, literature and even arts is mostly stained with stories of extremes: violence, injustice, inequality of gender or status, etc. But there is a big number of people in this region, who are dealing with matters far less thrilling but similar in their personal strive. This is the middle class of Pakistan. Their issues and problems are subtle, difficult to comprehend but important in nature. Their culture, their understanding of culture and their transformations and adaptations of it, in my opinion is what the future of this society depends upon. They are the ones who are truly painting the county’s urban picture. I just share my experiences and observations as an artist in a quantitative analysis of how I feel the social culture of middle class is changing rapidly in the urban Pakistan. That’s where I have been born and raised. That’s where I have given birth and raising my children. I am living it, breathing it, responding to it and reproducing it. Everything I do is “it”. I am “it”, biased and all.
SJR: Are art history and art the same? You bind the unexpected into one surface; what is the source behind your choices of subject and form?
AH: When I was a student, I couldn’t help but notice how the pedagogy of art was heavily influenced by the history and movements of “western art”. The labels of eastern, western, Islamic etc., in art and architecture are fascinating yet questionable. The continued concerns in my art practice are the changes in the fluid middle-class social culture of urban Pakistan in the contemporary times, where formation of an individual “identity” is in a perpetual formation as a result of the socio-cultural transformations around it. This identity formation for people of my generation in this region has been a mix of many identities. The presence of media, internet, corporate culture and international brands, and an extremely easy accessibility to it all has led to a very easy adaptation of it. Where the east ends and the west begins is a blurred boundary today.
SJ: In one of your statements you refer to the “‘self’ as the most amazing phenomenon of creation and the key to understanding everything else but on the other hand, can your work be seen as a consolidation of the self into otherness and situation? And how can – or not – the self remain singular?
AH: The presence of consciousness can only be realized by the acknowledgment of another. The whole universe was created from a singularity which has multiplied or divided into fragments so far off from each other that the duality has been considered as the reality of its existence. I believe that the universe is within, rather than on the outside.
I invite contradictions and confluences in my work, and try to embroil layers of time, space and culture through compositional elements of visual contract. In addition to appropriation, while reusing what has already been created, I use personification and make myself the protagonist in my creations. Since “I” am the only source to consciousness and its realization for “me”. “Self” is and has always been singular. Its perceptions are distorted due to the form of its presentation.
SJR: Your digitized works can also be seen as definitive collages where your technique and content blur the lines of ‘cut-paste-manipulate or juxtapose’. Why is that believability so crucial in your work?
AH: Though trained as a painter, I use photography to create images. Photography was invented as a tool to depict reality, which was prior to that a job done by painters and artists. So with the advent of photography, painting and art making changed its course, and personal perceptions and views started taking over realism. Eventually the roles are reversing, now that photography has served its purpose so well.
My works are appropriations of images already produced in the genre of art. I recreate paintings (mostly) which have already been in a way manifested an idea of reality. Just the fact that my chosen tools are camera and Photoshop somehow places my works in the realm of realism (which is expected to be somewhat believable). But unlike documentary photography, my approach is to create something which cannot be perceived through the simple use of a lens. For me the process of manipulation and juxtaposing are just other words for image-making.
SJR: Your practice is rich with metaphor and universal knowledge…any specific inspiration from literature, cinema, philosophy etc. that has played an important role in your visual-making?
AH: That list is endless. I am a movie buff, TV show junkie, book lover, and a sucker for enlightened conversations But to name a few: over the years I have been awe-struck by Simulation and Simulacra (Jean Baudrlidard), Camera Lucida (Roland Barthes), Sophie’s World (Jostein Gaarder), A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking), Horton Hears a Who (Dr Suess), Michio Kaku’s talks, The Matrix, Transcendence, Intersteller, Gamer, the notions of reality and existence, practices of appropriation, borrowing and stealing in all forms of art, and the constant changing cultural climate around me. I think an artist cannot be inspired by art alone – there is a whole world out there to be inspired from.
SJR: How do you see your studio space and work routine – is it your ideal state or do you have other goals and dreams regarding it?
AH: My work routine has been heavily affected by my familial obligations and my personal emotional journey. I was the caregiver to both my parents who lost their battles to cancer, individually. While my father’s lymphoma was very quick, my mother’s fight was in particular long and painful, spanned over eleven years. I have managed to keep producing art during this struggle, only because of the phenomenal support of my husband and his relentless love.
SJR: Even your static works have a quality of ‘tension and movement’. Kindly comment on that.
AH: I would like to know more about that from you, the viewer.
SJR: Your works are a constant amalgamation of cultures and identities. In reference to your works can you shed light on the perpetual division between the east and west. Does it exist or is it just an illusion?
AH: I encounter images from art history through books and screens. My relationship with these images is based on the impression of simulated reality (the created image/painting), since when you print these images, on a hard or digital surface, you are simulating the simulation of reality. I take this process a step ahead by changing the context of these images, overlapping time, special and cultural veracities, all the while creating yet another illusion of another reality. Sarcasm and pun surface, as the interface between east and west fits in perfectly in the social culture of Pakistan’s urban circumference.
I deal with the notion of “glocal”, by appropriating images from “global” art history, and bringing them in the milieu of my “local” regional context of living cultural agents of urban Pakistan.
SJR: Would there be art without history and academia, do you think?
AH: History itself is an art of editing stories by those who ruled and documented it. Academia is an indoctrination that needs to be updated and checked constantly in today’s world. Art on the other hand is only a word encompassing the encounter between the realization of consciousness and the process of creation from there on. Anything and everything can be art, may it be palpable or impalpable…it is a question of intention.
But of course…the awakening of this process can be helped and nurtured. Hence, historians and academicians are integral to the understanding of art.
Sehr Jalil Raja is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore (BFA, NCA 2006). She is currently pursuing an MA (Hons) in Visual Arts at NCA and teaching O-Level Art at the City School.
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