The Exhibitions Programme at Asia House is dedicated to engaging in a dialogue with artists who take as their starting point a discourse on their transnational experiences, and who explore the implications which their visual practice has on a growing multicultural, multi-linguistic society. The concept of transnationalism also refers to the increasing trans-border relations that affect the migrant voice and one’s sense of identity and belonging as much as it is to engage with issues of national boundaries, nation states and postcolonial narratives.
Drawing upon her own engagement with language and visual metaphors, Farina Alam navigates the border-lines, contours and crevices that redefine the notion of a sense of place and belonging, and how this bears upon Pakistan as a postcolonial nation-state.
Alam’s singular works on paper are probably her most complex to date, as they combine an intricate array of text and images to expose recurring themes of religion, politics and conceptions of identity. They also blur the usual hierarchy afforded to the image over the written word, creating a myriad of literary quotations amidst the painted birds, animals, foliage and figures juxtaposed on a backdrop of textile patterns. Retrieving fragments of poems by European artists, interacting with Arabic calligraphy the artist brings a multiplicity of voices together, reconstructed to enter into a new dialogue with one another on the surface of the paper. The drawings are also host to a series of influences picked from Arab literary symbolism, local Pakistani craftsmanship and a play of words in Arabic, English and Urdu.
As a Pakistani, Alam feels the undercurrent of national political anxiety remains central to her drawings. Hence, the title, ‘My Kolachi’, has a deep significance for the artist. A play on Mai Kolachi, the fishing woman after whom modern day Karachi is named and Alam’s hometown.
Engaged in this way, Alam places words and symbols within a laboriously conceived graphic framework. A “naqsha” or map is dotted out in diminutive quill points, which she refers to as a “made-up” language of text and image as homage to the lexicon approach of craftsmen and artists under censorship imposed by Pakistani military and clerical leaders. The artist is also presenting us with various conundrums, leaving us to reflect both the power of the written word, but also how the different language styles, (here in terms of fonts and calligraphy) can perform different functions in society and can illicit very different responses.
Alam’s long-term interest in how language used by mass media highlights an immediate relationship to an image, adds another layer to the impact of social communication, whether disseminating information, attitudes and beliefs. The feeding ground for her research is certainly rooted in Pakistan and its checkered existence as a nation strained by a power battle between the army, the feudal, and the Islamic fundamentalists; however some of her themes are more universally symbolic or iconic. In a country where many things are looked at from a political angle, language often highlights “ideologies” within the media and in turn can often control or regulate language’s use.
In recent years she has taken to using the tools of the internet and other modes of digital technology to fuel her work. Both with the knowledge that language of global communication systems act as a powerful weapon in exposing government policies, and can also raise threats to social stability – take for example, her precarious juxtaposing of the word “bomb” with “paradise” speaks eloquently of the potential fragility of our lives, during periods of sociopolitical instability or unrest, and may be associated with modern day terrorist threats as much as through the various information networks globally.
Interestingly, Alam’s images often contain branches or roots upon which words and images hang, or emerge almost rhizomic in character, reaching beyond trees and woodlands to construct new imaginary flowing landscapes. I’m reminded of the sociologist Manuel Castells’ understanding of self and of social identity which forms an opposing force to the “net” where we encounter what he coined a “space of flows” – global information networks – that may create our sense of belonging locally and globally, yet also shape our concept of memory, and at times, creating a sense of rootlessness but also one of social responsibility.
‘Farina Alam: My Kolachi’ ran at Asia House, London, from 17 to 28 May 2015. Images courtesy the artist.
Pamela Kember is Head of Arts & Learning at Asia House, London