Diasporic artist Masooma Syed talks to ArtNow about the eclectic strands in her work.
ArtNow: It has been seen in some of your exhibitions, that there is no thematic thread running through the production and the works are random flashes of memory, motion, colour or thought. Is this true? Do you prefer to work in this manner?
Masooma Syed: Yes, I do not start with a single concept or unifying thought.
Usually, images and visuals take a lead in the creative process. A distinctive system of images reflects my own stream of consciousness. However, when images don’t follow any order or scheme or set notions of symbolism, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the thread of thought is disconnected but it is not easily decipherable.
According to me, a theme doesn’t mean a readable linear concept that can be fitted into a fixed time and events. I must confess here that when it comes to visual art/studies, images engage me in their making not because of aesthetic notions and concepts but because I believe that images have the inherent strength to communicate the length and breadth of human aspirations and life on their own.
To explain further I would say that to analyze connections between images and to read the form and structure of a work in its totality is different. To me, formal aspects are long distanced and divergent if I analyze each and every step of making a work. For me, the purposefulness of art – why I am making art and for whom – drives me.
As a result, the choices that I end up with are not accidental. My work is an amalgamation of many times and many events, at the core of which lies the intuitive ability to see connections through emotions.
Works such as ‘neerat soorat ke beil banaao ‘, No man’s land and To life are such works. Memory is a significant part of some of my works such as No Man’s Land, Your Highness, To Life, and white gravities.
Here I would like to quote Andrey Tarkovsky, a Russian film maker, from his book Sculpting in Time: “What does memory mean for a person when for each of us it is the bearer of all that’s constant in the present, of each current moment. In a certain sense past/memory is more real resilient and stable than the present. Time never leaves without a trace for it is a subjective spiritual entity. It’s the time in which a person lives that gives him the opportunity of knowing himself as moral being engaged in the search for truth. Yet this gift which one has in her hand is at once delectable and bitter ”.
I don’t opt for any way of working but yes I do have a resistance to a hackneyed way of working that grows up around preconceived images and ideas.
AN: How has living away from Pakistan affected your ideas or your way of working?
MS: Life in general has opened up a larger canvas with newer and longer concerns, deeper connections with people, and sharper insights into the struggle of people both here and in Pakistan. Of course, being away from one’s place of origin and people and the contrasts of both everyday and long-term life cannot be ignored.
Living away from Pakistan was not a swift shift but a slow and long process of shifting from one place to another and finally India. The political situation between Pakistan and India has always been difficult, unpredictable, and unreliable. This resulted in complicated procedures and stringent laws regarding visa, travelling, living, and working in each other’s country.
Such restrictions /limitations and experiences have affected my ideas, choices, and work options too. However, One has always had to deal with restrictions of one kind or another in their own country also.
But living in countries other than Pakistan has made me aware and realizes the deep impact of socio-economic, socio-political conditions wherever one may live. And above that the power politics of class, notion of elitism and privileges prevails everywhere, which make life and work comfortable /acceptable enough in any society.
This is beautifully said in this quote by by Hazrat Ali ‘ A poor man is a stranger in his own country’.
On the other hand the eternal system of hierarchy and dogmas in our genes has made societies and laws ambiguous and trite. It becomes an endless trap, until a man finally scums to this or that system of beliefs and attitudes.
This kind of ongoing debate around such negotiations, adjustments, impermanence, uncertainties and most of all, the struggle for basic survival in difficult situations is definitely shaping my thoughts.
Therefore, my work has not been primarily influenced by nostalgia or the angst of displacement at the moment. Rather displacement aroused the awareness of certain core issues.
Parallel to this there is the emergence of art market and trend-oriented art making, art curation, gallery systems, and art collection, challenges the inherent integrity in art. In this context, an individual that lives on the periphery – in India, Pakistan, England or Andaman Islands or any other country – stands on the abyss of isolation. Then it doesn’t matter where one lives.
As far far as way of working is concerned, I have to think of now scale, medium and logistics involved, especially if I am showing in Pakistan and I am not travelling, then there is challenge and excitement to think of alternative mediums , that I have not yet explored.
AN: For the Vasl residency in 2009, you made sculptures made of hair. What was the significance of that? Was it personal or collective?
MS: Prior to the Vasl residency and even before coming to Karachi, I had worked with hair. I used this medium first time in 2002. It was weightless, timeless, transparent, morbid, organic and fragile as life, and part of human body also. But after that hair was like any other medium such as clay, that I could use to make any object of any significance or no significance .In Vasl residency I again used it because of the certain level of comfort and familiarity and its flexible, giving nature. However I was not happy by making cactus like forms, prickly and hairy, depicting pain and endurance in a harsh climate, turned out to be a cliché. This was not at all my point and I was confined in medium. Later this led me to paint and draw once again, and I combined pigeon wings and paper collage on acrylic sheet. I felt that was the most significant work in that show, may not be resolved but close to my intention.
AN: Would you consider yourself to be a feminist artist?
MS: Of cource I am a feminist, realizing the tough nature of being a woman in man’s world and that is visible in some of my works . However, I do not believe in one-dimensional labels that define feminists as individuals who challenge established notions of womanhood and reject all aspects of the feminine.
I do not mind calling myself a woman when I am a woman.
AN: What kinds of mediums have you worked in and what do you like best?
MS: I have worked with all kinds of mixed media and materials in painting, jewelry, and installations. I am happy working with mixed media, collage, feels close to my nature. But I have also experienced that my minimal works are inclusive and crystalized. In both cases I prefer to use nontraditional mediums, from nail polishes, fingernails, chilies, wings to bones, paints, and living birds, etc. .
AN: Are there times when you can’t be creative? How do you handle periods of “artist block?”
MS: There are many times when I am not creative, which usually puts me in a state of anxiety, lack of confidence, disillusionment, and a stubborn resistance to compromise. It’s sometimes looked upon by my fellow artists as the unwillingness to produce. However, I don’t see it that way. Making art is not just a manual practice, it’s like a cardiovascular system, which means it’s a serious activity but full of enthusiasm, warmth, movement, color and life.
At the same time, I do not discount the usefulness of work that may be mundane and insipid because it can be your bread and butter when you can’t be creative and fills the gaps and holes of the creative process that may be invisible to naked eye.
Most importantly, plateaus such as these help disperse fixed regimented ideas. However, such patches of silence are difficult to handle when I like the noise and chaos. I handle my blocks very impatiently.
White Gravities, mixed media, live birds
AN: What’s next? Do you have any current or upcoming exhibitions of your work? Any special projects you’re involved in right now?
MS: I have a couple of group shows lined up in India and a solo at Rohtas gallery in Lahore later in the year.
As of now, there is quite a body of work lying in my studio from jewelry pieces, objects/installations, and large-scale newspaper collage drawings. I am toying with the idea of combining these forms to break away from my usual one-piece art.
I would like to teach art in India like I was doing in Pakistan. Iam interested in some site specific projects, after doing one at Delhi’s Khoj Studio with live birds and space.
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