Mariah Lookman is an artist, researcher and curator, and holds holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford, an MA from the Slade School of Fine Art and a BFA from the National College of Arts, Lahore. She recently held the 2018 Tate Adjunct Researchership (2018) and was awarded the Asma Jahanghir Award, for Cultural Contribution towards Social Justice. The Award was one of the three grants announced by Lahore Biennale Foundation in 2018. In 2019, as part of the second Karachi Biennale, Lookman was a part of the Key Note Talks held by KBT where she discussed her research on Pakistan’s iconic sculptor Shahid Sajjad.
JA-How did being a Miniature painter from the NCA inform your work moving forward, specifically during your Master’s program at Slade?
ML-I did not study miniature painting alone- my major was painting with miniature painting and photography- and so moving to Slade, combing the many media seemed like a natural transition. For the MA my concentration was Fine Art Media with History of Art & Philosophy. This program allowed me to study film and a whole range of film and photography based media that ranged from 16mm to digital video.
JA-I’ve read that research is a big part of your visual practice. How would you describe your work and what you’re interested in conveying through it?
ML- It is correct that research does filter into my practice- some of it is a natural progression post MA and then PhD. A research based practice of sorts helps to bring all the various professional hat that I wear in one format- So increasingly film makes a lot more sense to me.
JA-What does it feel like being a diasporic artist; an amalgamation of different cities?
ML- It is understandable that I am referred to as diaspora- I don’t see myself like that. I just happen to live in many cities -that is all. For example, my mother was born in Calcutta, father Bombay (now Mumbai), both sets of grandparents and great-grandparents elsewhere. I think the difference is I never choose, one or the other, I just keep acquiring more.
JA-How does commuting between cities affect your practice and professional work? Do you think it helps inspire you, if so how?
ML- I definitively love the travel part and moving around part. While it does definitely inspire, the down side is that it can also be distracting and break concentration. I get energized through travel and it keeps me in check from getting intellectually lazy.
JA-Your work has seen a shift from towards politics. How did this come about? Could you talk about what you’re currently working on?
ML- You could say the shift towards politics is again a somewhat natural progression of studying photographs, films and lives of artists. We are at present living in deeply political times, and I think we are living through a time of rapid change and collapse of ideals built on progress and development. Environmental degradation and climate change is apparent to all now, but the political will to make change is at best rather lame. We all know we should ban single use plastics, but this practice continues. Water contamination is an issue, the seas are polluted and yet very few of us are doing or contributing towards making change happen. There is rampant corruption, and neo colonialism is on the raise. Just as is militarism, and we have no choice but to be finger printed- for visas, passport, and even use of mobile phone! I am not interested in obvious politics but acts that make you think.
JA-How is your work, research perceived in Pakistan? Do you find a shift in perception as compared to viewers abroad?
ML- I feel very lucky and honoured to be part of the artist’s community in Pakistan and to be invited. The main difference between here and overseas is the context.
JA-How has your experience been as a lecturer? Is there a particular incident you can share?
Teaching is super rewarding. One learns everyday as a teacher. And this is the best part of it. Any particular incident- not really, I had great teachers and so I know how important they were to me. And so I try and do my best.
JA-How did your research project with Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong come about? Please elaborate about your experience and research there? (Was it the essays on Lala Rukh, Akbar Naqvi and Wahab Jaffar?)
ML- I was invited to join the research team at Asia Art Archive by Hammad Nasar, who used to be Head of Research. It was a great experience as I learnt a lot and the best part of it was the numerous conversations, and living history lessons from Dr Akbar Naqvi, Wahab Jaffer and Lala Rukh. From Wahab Jaffer I learnt about the Karachi art scene in 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. I first met Akbar Naqvi as a colleague at National College of Arts in Lahore on my first teaching job- and Akbar Naqvi’s job post retirement- I learnt a lot of him and Lala I have known since a student at NCA- she was a dear friend and colleague. I really miss them both.
JA-As the recipient for the Asma Jahangir Award, your research recognises the life of artist and social activist, Lala Rukh, and you have also written on Lala Rukh in the past. Could you speak about what drew you to Lala Rukh and what your research entails?
ML_Lala Rukh was a one of a kind type of artist. Not only is her practice unique, Lala as a leading feminist activist. Lala was both my teacher and dear friend. The most compelling aspect of her practice is that it is multifaceted.
JA-Could you elaborate on what your keynote speech for the Karachi Biennale 2019 will be about?
ML-For the keynote, I will present a paper on Shahid Sajjad’s time in the Chittagong Hill tracks. At a time when most Pakistani artists were looking to Europe and subsequently working out what is modern Pakistan and how they represent the newly formed nation state, Shahid choose to learn from the wisdom of the indigenous of people. I think we can learn a lot from Shahid’s work and life, especially in our time of extreme capitalism.
JA-Though Pakistan has been a little late in joining the Biennale world, it has already held multiple successful ones. How do you think the presence of a biennale and public art projects, affect the locals of the city, specifically for a city like Pakistan where art may still not be taken as serious at it should, as well as the international artists participating in it?
ML- In general it is great that there is the Karachi Biennale- this history of Biennale exhibitions harks back to the world festivals, and the Venice Biennale (which is basically an event that take place every two years in Italian!) first held in 1893. One way of understanding the biennale could be to study the rise of industrialization and liberal capitalism. With time a Biennale is a signifier indicating openness to business/ globalisation, gentrification, and so on. In countries like Pakistan where the arts infrastructure is poor, it brings the opportunity to see art and it gets the artists together. The hope is that these events will be a catalyst for change, developments in arts infrastructure, encourage more galleries to open in Pakistan, better art education and work to build a more tolerant and compassionate society.
JA-Art is always about its current time. How relevant do you think Kb19’s theme is to the current situation of the world?
ML- The KB theme is quite relevant, but unfortunately for most artists it is just a theme- not work of long-term or sustained inquiry into environmental degradation or climate change activism for instance. This is makes the theme of the Biennale just a topic. Similarly, lots of artists all over the world have jumped on the environment bandwagon because they see opportunity in it- such as invitations to Biennale exhibitions, funding, and grants etc. The problem is that this dilutes the work and efforts of the serious artists.