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In Conversation with Huma Mulji

Saira Sheikh talks to Huma Mulji, a Lahore-based artist working in sculpture, painting and photography. Huma, whose works have been show in exhibitions around the world, was most recently a winner of the Abraaj Group Art Prize 2013. Here she discusses the production of her prize-winning work and the challenges involved in developing an artistic practice.
Saira Sheikh: Perhaps we start with something about yourself, how you became an artist. We can also talk about the Abraaj project since you are immersed in it, what it is, what it feels like to be involved in such a project, including the application, the frustrations, the challenges and the realizations that came along the way. And how different it is from what you had originally thought and planned it to be.
Huma Mulji: I think the roots of the Abraaj work really germinated many years ago in Karachi. As the work develops, it actually looks very much like a shrine. At the cost of sounding repetitive while talking about this project, I will say this anyway: that my artistic consciousness developed in Karachi in the 90s during the years that the collaborative practices of artists such as David Alesworth, Durriya Kazi, Elizabeth Dadi and Iftikhar Dadi were being established. Heart Mahal, and later, David and Durriya’s Promised Lands and Very Very Sweet Medina, were the works I was looking at during the critical beginnings of my practice. In some ways I feel those works handicapped me as an artist for quite a while… Where does one go from there?
SS: You begin again, by questioning things…
HM: Yes, but art-wise, I wasn’t big enough, experienced enough, knowledgeable enough, to rise above all the questions it threw up. It takes years to assimilate ideas, and to position your self around it.
SS: So how did you negotiate those challenges then? Is it clearer in retrospect how your current interests developed and evolved out of the early frustrations and deliberations, and what were your concerns during those years?
HM: Although I had always traveled, and walked in the markets in very different parts of Karachi from very early on in my life, those years were the beginnings of my interest in the idea of the flâneur, a more exploratory kind of wandering, foraging for material to work with. Literarily speaking, the flâneur is not foraging for anything; it’s more of an idle meandering. My interest in making things, in objects, in untold stories, and absurdity, a critical survival strategy, stems from this time.
If I look back on my practice in the past decade, there are several recurring concerns and devices used. Notions of failure and the dysfunctional keep appearing in many guises.
One of my earliest works, Art Vendor, 1999, has a hand-cranked knob that drops a plastic heart. But it has to be fiddled with to work. There was a period of working with the device of the suitcase, which symbolized the failure to cross borders, obligation and failure to fit in (formally in Arabian Delight, 2008, and conceptually in the Sirf Tum, 2004, photographs). The current work, The Miraculous Lives of This and That, 2013, is an authoritative looking cabinet. The objects inside tell conflicting stories that the viewer is at a loss to grasp immediately. This failure to at once make sense of all the information provided, by a scientific/religious/historical authority, a lack of understanding of the world we inhabit, despite vast amounts of information available to us, through the digitizing of the information, are some of the notions I am intending to address.
SS: So socio-political changes influenced by technological advancements? Skepticism regarding the nature and meanings of knowledge in the modern contemporary world?
HM: Yeah, shortcomings of modernity. But in a non-cynical sense.
SS: This failure that you are talking about, is it only a failure of aspirations, of progress of some sort?
HM: And of idealism. It is about time, about loss, and mortality, one’s own vulnerability in negotiating the world, my own fallibility and limitations as an artist, despite grandiose aspirations.
In the past few years I have encountered the deaths of close family members, my aunts and uncles and there are constant prompts of these absences. One of my aunts lived in a small apartment in Gulshan-e-Iqbal in Karachi, by herself. Every time I went to Karachi, I would visit her, even if I were there only for a day. I have always paid attention to her house, been interested in her aesthetic sensibilty, and I’ve always been incredibly intrigued by the fact that for years things would not be moved, she would always put things back in the same place. Her dressing table remained the same, since I was perhaps seven years old. It’s at once deeply sad and deeply comforting, to find a lipstick that has not moved since the 70’s. Or plastic flowers that have collected 30 years of dust.
If I visit her once in three months and find things as they have always been, it’s really shocking. You pay attention to time, because in a sense you’ve come back to the past in a very visceral way. And yet, I look at her, and she’s aged dramatically. So you fluctuate emotionally between a past and a future.
And there’s stillness. My own world changes so fast, in the duration I’ve been away I’ve been in several places, met numerous people, have had different conversations, and then there is this place of sameness, so these notions have returned as I’ve worked on Miraculous Lives.
SS: Coming back to Miraculous Lives, would you like to talk a little about what the proposal was and what the work is?
HM: The proposal I made to the Abraaj Group Art Prize was to be a kind of contemporary wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities, a room of wonders. The thing that interested me most about these 16th century wunderkammern is not their (most obvious) representation as a precursor to the modern museum, but that these are pre-enlightenment collections, where fact and fiction are really mixed up. The cabinets are more about the unknown than about the known. I love the stories of expeditions, for example, Captain Cook bringing back a platypus from Australia to England in 1798. The fact that no one could believe a creature like this could exist in nature; they thought it was a rabbit’s body with a duck’s bill. We didn’t know what a dodo looked like for decades! I love these misunderstandings, so the uncertainty of ‘fact’ is interesting to me. I think that it’s somehow very relevant to the times we live in today, because the more information we have the less we know. In a sense, we think we know, but there is an unreliability, and lack of nuance to information.
SS: Besides the unreliability of information on the Internet and elsewhere, there is also this general idea in human beings that we know now; there is a complacent sense of self-realization and consciousness of self-knowledge.
HM: Yes, that we’ve arrived. We live in times where knowledge is still constructed out of a mix of religious beliefs, scientific fact, and superstition. We have a big appetite for conspiracy theories about everything; obviously a result of gaps in factual information, we end up grappling with the world through concocting believable and detailed narratives.
SS: And they have substance for people who believe in them.
HM: Yes, and everyone believes in one or another kind of such narratives. So in Miraculous Lives. I am partly trying to mimic this, to create mixed narratives, to put the viewer at a loss as they try to make sense of the connection between the objects. It is a four-sided cabinet, and as you move around it there are multiple views, isolated stories, connected stories and sometimes conflicting narratives. You see something on one end, and then you encounter something at the other end of the cabinet, in between processing information acquired on the journey, decide what to believe in and what to discard.
There are other things at play in Miraculous Lives. For years I’ve collected cheap plastic toys and a lot of them are dolls. These dolls are cheap plastic copies of copies from somewhere else, look-alikes of a modern world, a world that is other to us, but that we aspire to parody. We import something or copy something that looks like it comes from somewhere else. There is another highly subversive aesthetic act that takes place in Pakistan where Japanese motorbikes get plastered with stickers to become entirely different, hybrid objects. So I transmuted some of these dolls into Porcelain, a paradoxically fragile but durable material. Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation was significant, where the imitation is the fact and the porcelain dolls speak about how value accumulates and of multiple translations.
One of the aspects of the cabinet, which I’ve been able to quite effectively resolve, is the use of dust. Right from the outset, I wanted the cabinet, or parts of it to be covered in a thin layer of dust, to establish a sense of decay, of neglect and of age. Like looking into cupboards and drawers in my aunt’s house as a child, the viewer can open drawers and find objects sitting there as if for decades.
SS: How important was it that the cabinet be viewed from all four sides, and what other criteria, motivation, did you employ for the selection of objects? You selected only particular kinds of things, and not other things.
HM: The cabinet to me is first a sculpture, and the four-sidedness solves a number of conceptual and aesthetic needs of the work. The cabinet is glazed, so there is an illusion of transparency. Of knowing what might lie on the other side. I’m trying to subvert that by misaligning the narrative on each side. I’m saying all this to you, but the work is not entirely finished and some of these thoughts are really more intentions than interpretations of the work. The second is the fact that I’m very envious of what literature can do. A writer is able to slowly reveal his work to a reader, page after page, on his own terms. An artwork is consumed all at once, and then you slowly go back into it, or not. So an artist does not have the durational edge (unless you’re a video artist).
SS: And that is similar to your dictating what the viewer will see first and what later. In your Abraaj cabinet you are trying to do that with drawers, niches, different views?
HM: It’s interesting you say that. Although I’ve said I am trying to achieve these objectives, I hadn’t actually thought that the work is already interactive.
SS: And even if they don’t open the drawers, they see things one at a time; it’s not all obvious all at once.
HM: Exactly.
And scale. This is another thing with sculpture that’s critical, whether you make something very small or very large you will always confront the work with the scale of your body; whether you stand on tiptoe to look at something or bend down to encounter it, these experiences determine your reading of the work.
SS: What determined your decision of making this cabinet slightly bigger than the human scale?
HM: Something that is bigger than our bodies physically overwhelms us. I want the viewer to be engulfed by the visual information they are confronted with; to be at a loss, to not know where to begin to decipher all the information. Something bigger than our bodies also has an edge of authority, and I want this authoritative looking cabinet to be unable to convey anything with clarity.
Something I was unprepared for is that at some point, once the cabinet was illuminated, it started to look like a taazia, visually, but also as a monument commemorating loss. I had not planned this at all, and I found it distressing. One knows, as an artist, you sometimes, out of curiosity or whimsically, go along with where your work takes you. There is an element of euphoria in playing the game. Sometimes you resist it, edit it or force the work to go somewhere else.
I am not a conceptual artist, and unable to abstract emotion. I count on form to transform itself into ideas. To avoid this possibly didactic outcome, I hid some of the clues, to be ‘found’ later. The cabinet is also a document of its time, but true to the times, I wanted the information to be imprecise, and to be revealed slowly and quietly.
And editing is also about drawing boundaries. A work can be all sorts of things, but you draw a line and say, ‘this is what it’s not’. The editing process is actually quite a revelation, because that’s when you get to know the work really well, when you get to know your own position.
SS: Defining it in the opposition, through what it’s not?
HM: Exactly.
SS: So in the context of the recent events, the taazia is very symbolic socially and politically. However, a taazia is something that commemorates, mourns and recalls some stories, which may be fact or fiction or somewhere in-between. The taazia does evoke these broader and more abstract ideas but may become literally about the current events given the recent tragedies. Are you uncomfortable with that direct association?
HM: In the climate of Pakistan today, a work that looked like a taazia would fall neatly into all the traps set for it by the seekers of “political commentary” from informers willing to do so. Yes I’m extremely wary of what one vacuously calls “political art”. It’s as reductive a term as “truck art”. I’m uncomfortable with the work advocating an attempt on the part of the artist (me) to do something about the blatant genocide of Shias in Pakistan, a token gesture to change the world, from the comfortable mess of the studio. I think at best, an artwork expresses a spirit. The reason why I mentioned it at all is that I am surrounded by fragile threads of ideas right now, grappling with all that the cabinet offers itself up to be, and drawing lines.
SS: Your studio practice, as you were just saying, does not have any socialist or activist agendas. You’ve also mentioned themes of mourning, loss, transience, corporeality, temporality, very basic human feelings and needs and motives, as being the sources where it stems from.
These themes are reflected in the kind of hand-made visceral production quality of your work. But how do you situate this aspect of your practice within the context of art production, the art market?
HM: Perhaps this stems from boredom with the idea of slickly produced artworks, which is so prevalent now. It’s possible I detest it because I have no ability to maintain high production values, or perhaps it is just that it’s an aesthetic that I don’t respond to. As the art market intersects with the global economy, there is pressure to create works that will last a hundred years. Most of my works are deliberately clumsy; the recent paintings Ode to a Tubelight, 2011, and Memory of a Blue, 2012, are particularly so. To use material like dust, which is transient, and can only be secured so much, is important to the work. I don’t necessarily want my works to last a hundred years, or to not age. Contrary to what my work is perceived as, I don’t sell that much. Buyers don’t want to take risks with animal hide, or objects that might fall off a painting, and galleries are not always brave or generous enough to show or transport large-scale works. Sometimes it’s legally not possible to export taxidermy works.
SS: Are these selections, of materials and of modes of production, conscious decisions on your part to subvert the market?
HM: Not at all. I don’t think it is a primary concern while I am making the work. Perhaps when I am having a conversation like this and thinking of my work retrospectively then it is inevitable that one makes these connections, but I think there is an element of discomfort with the gallery. There always has been. I think again of where the conversation started, going back to the nineties in Karachi, this could be a legacy of Heart Mahal, Promised Lands and Very Very Sweet Medina. I have said earlier that the works paralyzed me as a young artist, and I think that’s what I meant; that I’m left in a place where my relationship with the art market and institutions will never be easy. This criticality is not a part of my art practice though, but very prevalent in my teaching practice.
SS: Ok.
And how, or in what ways, is this work for Abraaj similar to and/or different from what you had originally proposed and imagined?
HM: When I proposed The Miraculous Lives of This and That, I had a single drawing in which the cabinet was unstable. Asymmetrical. It was leaning to one side; all the drawers were crooked, and looked like they were stacked on top of one another, on four sides. When I actually started making the work, I couldn’t find anyone interested enough to make a cabinet like that. The span of the project is huge, and the cabinet is a small part of it. The pressure of time is immense, and in the end I compromised the idea to practicality, like so many other things in the cabinet subsequently.
SS: At what point did you realize that the cabinet could not look like the way you had wanted it, and how difficult was it to let go of the initial idea?
HM: It was extremely difficult and I kept going back, even when the construction of the cabinet had begun. I had several tentative conversations with Yousuf Sahib, the carpenter, asking him if he would mind if we worked in an open, cut-and-paste sort of way. To his credit he agreed, but I saw him work on every detail so meticulously, that I didn’t have the heart to take it apart.
SS: So the whole process of making the work is like a research project, where you write and re-write, ask and re-ask? Like trying to find out different things, just asking different questions.
HM: Yeah, entirely.
Saira Sheikh is a visual artist. She holds degrees from National College of Arts, Lahore, and Columbia University, and teaches post graduate courses at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.
– See more at: http://www.artnowpakistan.com/articles.php?article=In-Conversation-with-Huma-Mulji#sthash.oI48jBpe.dpuf


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