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Naiza Khan

Naiza H. Khan studied art at the Wimbledon School of Art, and later, whilst at Somerville College, University of Oxford, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. Now based in Pakistan, she is a founding member and former coordinator of the Vasl Artists’ Collective. She was also part of the Fine Art Faculty of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi. Khan’s work has been exhibited internationally and she has won various awards, including the inaugural Unilever Lux Award for Visual Artist in 2002, the National Excellence Award (Pakistan National Council of Arts) in 2003 and the 43rd Premio Suzzara in 2003. In 2010, Naiza Khan curated one of Pakistan’s most seminal shows of contemporary art titled ‘The Rising Tide -New Directions in Art from Pakistan 1990-2010′ at the Mohatta Palace Museum Karachi
Naiza Khan was recently invited as Rybon Art Centre’s first international artist in residence in Tehran. Here she speaks to Simone Wille about her experience of working in Tehran and of her unexpected and fascinating encounters with artists and the local people.
Simone Wille: You were invited as the first international artist for the residency programme with Rybon Art in Tehran. How did this happen?
Naiza Khan: The Rybon Art Center is a new residency programme that has been set up by a group of artists under the umbrella of the Triangle Network. This was their first international residency, and I was very honoured to be invited.
SW: During this short period of only 2 weeks, what were you able to achieve in Tehran?
NK: Surprisingly I managed to do a number of works, some which I shared with an audience at the Open Studio, and other works that I am working on. The dilemma for me as an artist in a residency program such as Rybon, was how to hold onto something critical, something tangible and meaningful in this short period of time, and to make sense of the space, the society and its customs that I encountered
The day of my open studio, apart from the video installation ‘Metro Behishti’ and the ‘Bread for the people’ I did a performance piece at the gallery and I had prepared a questionnaire with 3 questions. That was interesting for me — it was spontaneous and the response was enlightening. I wanted to discover the psyche of the people but I would have had to ask several people before I could learn an answer. So I handed out three questions on pieces of paper written in Farsi.
SW: What were the questions?
NK: The first was “Why do Iranian women dye their hair blonde?” This was something I noticed on the bus and amongst the public in general and I wanted to know the reasons for this. The second question was “Why do men and women in Tehran wear dark, dull clothes?” I rarely saw people wearing anything bright. The third question was “Is your name of Farsi or Muslim origin?”
The reactions led to a host of interesting conversations. I had asked seemingly simple questions, not very subversive I would say, but each person who came to read these three questions, said they were very political questions, and of course the answers were very complex. But then I think everything in Iran is political! We deliberated over the notion of names and they explained that after the revolution, everybody had to have a Muslim name. Parents were encouraged and in fact paid extra money if they named their son Ali. But many younger people were proud of their (non-Islamic) Farsi names.
SW: How far back does Farsi date?
NK: People referred to pre-Islamic times because Farsi dates back to the Zoroastrian religion. From the questions, many unique facts about Iranian society emerged and I understood many of its complexities and how people are thinking now, in a post-revolution, post-war, sanction-ridden society.
SW: I saw your blog and got the impression that you were enticed by your immediate surroundings in Tehran. What was it that captured your interest?
NK: I sensed and experienced new sensations in Tehran. I was living in downtown Tehran, in Sheykh Hadi, in a very interesting neighbourhood. I felt I needed to see and experience the city from the ground, so from the first day, I began to use the bus system and the metro for instance, both of which I found very organised. The metro was air-conditioned, and I felt as if I could have been anywhere in the world. I wanted to record the everyday and work with ideas that reflected the sense of space in the city. But filmmaking and photography in public spaces is forbidden in Iran without a special license and so it was a problem for me to be seen taking pictures or videos. After the last election things are quite tough. I decided to do it discreetly.
SW: Meaning, you secretly filmed and photographed?
NK: Yes! I was keen to take video footage, not to expose some secrets, but to record very ordinary, everyday life in the streets of Tehran. The first few photos of the metro, seemed like they had been taken anywhere in the world. So, here was a ‘scene’ from ‘anywhere’. It could have been NY or London, anywhere but Tehran.
I did not take any secret footage or document anything sensitive. But in order to do this project, I needed help. So, I had set a time with another artist, to visit a metro station. It was 4pm in the afternoon. My friend decided to take permission from the station master, which was denied. But eventually, after saying this was an artistic project, he acquiesced, by saying he ‘would turn the other way’. This person acted as a camouflage and we pretended to be talking amongst ourselves casually. I would stand there, headscarf, camera wrapped in fabric, chatting, eating chips and drinking coke, acting as if we were waiting for the metro. Then I would position my camera and start recording.
The recording lasted about 10 minutes, before we moved to another location. Again my friend was camouflaging me whilst I recorded another scene. There was no overt danger, but there was a sense of crossing the red line, which we were obviously doing.
This way I managed to take a lot of footage of which I used a small portion for a piece called “Metro Beheshti” (Beheshti means “Heavenly” so it roughly translates as “Heavenly Metro”. The video piece ‘Behishti Metro’ is not problematic in content, but the filming of this work was definitely problematic.
Before heading out to the metro I consulted my host and asked if it would be possible at all to undertake such a project. He told me it was really dangerous, but I still wanted to do it. I hadn’t realized that it was such a hazardous venture and it was only later that I discovered that I had been really lucky to escape the attention of the authorities and more importantly, that it had been extremely courageous of my hosts to take such a risk.
I edited the piece in Tehran, with a wonderful film editor who works with Iranian film makers, converting the colour resolution to grayscale but left in the eerie blue light emanating from the electric flying insect zapper, falling on objects and people as they walked under it. The sound was a piece called ‘Receive’ by Johan Onvlee.This work was shown as a wall projection at the gallery during my Open Studio.
In addition to this, I displayed a series of photographs of the Tehran skyline where the houses and buildings form a kind of mountain. These were also treated to a blue tone to mirror the blue light from the metro. Another big photograph of a night sky of Tehran is seen within a shape that looks like an infinity loop but comes from some old pictures of Manora island and is actually a view seen from a pair of binocular lens. The image responded to my own experience in Tehran so it was a spontaneous piece. So much of what I did was to respond to the moment, and make critical decisions on the spur of the moment but it made me really happy to make such decisions because this residency, was a chance for me to create something that resulted from an immediate and direct response to what I was experiencing and feeling at the time. The idea goes back to my relationship to my drawing practice, which is an immediate and instantaneous response to an emotion or experience.
SW: …which also coincides with the metro piece in which you had no time to reflect and you made a quick decision to do it and leave.
NK: Absolutely. It even involved making the decision to take the risk. I asked my associates what the worst case scenario would be and they replied that I’d be deported. But more than anything else it would have caused a lot of trouble for my host. The residency programme would probably have to be packed up!
SW: Generally speaking, wouldn’t you say that residencies are about this kind of spontaneity, making something that matters at that moment, not before or after? You have worked with so many artists in residencies, and have organized so many events like the one you attended in Tehran so you would know.
NK: Absolutely. And for the first time I was on the receiving end of it. It was wonderfully gratifying and was so well looked after by my host artists.
SW: How much does the surrounding matter? How different would it have been if you had been in a residency in New York rather than Tehran?
NK: Well, the outcomes would be completely different, because I would be reponding to a different set of situations, a different locale.
In a residency you make art that is in process and not definitive. But this video piece is final. I was at Waterloo station yesterday and I realized that I should also do a piece on the London underground. I would like to build up this portfolio of underground videos in which Tehran is one destination, another is London, then perhaps Shanghai. It would be interesting to see the same structure in different places and the notion of universality would enter the discourse with Tehran as part of the same terrain.
SW: It seems that you are enjoying the experimental character of this work!
NK: Yes, I am. The work in Karachi is more thoughtful and considered. Of course, I have done things that are spontaneous, and that is always the beginning of new things.
I did a lot of filming at the bread shops and ‘tandoors’ in Tehran. On my first day in Tehran, there was a boycott of bread and milk against the rise in prices of bread. This was a collective concern, and it was good to see everyone participate in a collective boycott.
Each morning, as I made my way to Aria studio, I spent time in the different bread bakeries on Sheykh Hadi Street. Again, I started to record film footage in these public spaces, with everyday activity. I was not only interested in the way bread is made, its taste and origins, but how people carry it in the street, and how each is made differently. It was strange to see how they carried the bread around in their hands like it were a bag or an object of use rather than an edible item.Standing in the queue to buy Sangyak, as it is ceremoniously flung from the tandoor onto the metal rack as people waited in the line, was an experience.
The work on the wall, is a personal and visual exploration of the different types of bread, but it is also a way to travel through a new space and make an attempt to find a point of contact between myself and my new locale, Tehran. In the studio I made watercolours of those breads. At the same time, I thought about the magnificent Golestan Palace which I had seen and its beautiful tile works, one of which depicts the Garden of Eden. I tried to find a way to reconstruct the thin bread on a wall like the tiles. Together with the actual bread, the photographs, and the film footage, the bread project took shape. There were many ideas rushing through my head every day while I was in Tehran until I realized that I couldn’t achieve it all and needed to hone in to one particular idea and go with it and not become distracted.
SW: You mentioned a performance you did in the open studio. Tell us about this?
NK: Again, that was a very spontaneous production. I had wanted to do this performance in the streets of Karachi but never got the chance. I asked my hosts in Tehran if I could do it out on the street, in a little cul de sac. I just wanted to take my chair outside and sit and brush my hair which obviously meant that I would have to take off my hijab. But I was told it was completely out of the question. I asked if I could do it in the gallery space but that seemed problematic as well. They finally agreed to let me do it in the gallery when everyone had left. I was baffled by all the negotiations.
Then I learned about a performance that had taken place earlier that month in a gallery space in Tehran where only specific invitees had been allowed and when the performance started the gallery was locked for security reasons. An hour later the authorities came and arrested the artist.This meant that my performance would also be deemed subversive and once I had started, they locked the doors and only the 30 odd people that were present got the opportunity to watch my performance. It was a simple act in which I simulated sitting in my boudoir applying eye-liner and lipstick and then I took off my hijab and proceeded to brush my hair.
SW: This reminds me of Susanna in the bath!
NK: Yes. (Laughs). Yes. Absolutely!
SW: I am just imagining you sitting there like Susanna, depicted by Tintoretto or Guido Reni, being spied on by the Elders!
But summing up your experience, I wonder how you feel about art coming out of Tehran in general. Would you say that the strict censorship ensuing for so many decades suppresses people’s creativity?
NK: I think that censorship just becomes part of the way you work. I am saying this from my own understanding of our situation in Pakistan specially during Zia’s time. Looking at it from the outside you can claim it makes people more resilient and stronger and provides more punch to the critical comments on the regime. But honestly, it makes you very tired as well.
SW: Exactly, this is how I feel about art coming from Tehran lately.
NK: You have to constantly find ways of expressing yourself! Of course in 50 years art historians will comment on this and explain that it was the climate of this era. But spending time with all the creative people, the writers, film makers, photographers and artists, I felt that they are fed up. Not everybody wants to make work under such compromising situations. And it’s not just about work, it’s about the way you dress and the head scarf, it filters into everything. I met this young art historian who teaches at a university. He told me that he likes to wear bright shirts but he doesn’t. Before going to work he looks into the mirror and checks if he looks understated because he doesn’t want to attract attention. But in reality you don’t want to worry about such things. They are not important. They are not even important to the government.
SW: So in that way the government, the regime, has succeeded? By numbing a whole society?
NK: It has succeeded in the sense that people are complying to it obviously. There isn’t a fearlessness to do something. It’s not happening collectively. For a lot of people the only form of resistance is boycotting or non-participation.
Yet I experienced so many wonderful things. I heard so much world music and alternate music, things I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. I wish I could do this more often!
SW: Naiza, tell us about your participation at this year’s Shanghai Biennale!
NK: Yes! I have been invited to participate in the Shanghai Biennale which starts October 1st. I am currently working on the project, which will partly be produced in Shanghai and Karachi. It is called The Observatory: Archives from Manora Island, which in a sense attempts to record an in-between space.
The archive offers a way to re-assemble and recount the array of found objects, photographs and video works I have taken over a period of time from my work on Manora Island. The visual research is multi-sourced. It suggests the building of a new terrain. The accumulative process of mapping the Island has evolved in an intuitive, embodied manner: There are unscripted and unresolved links between different aspects of the Island space and its ruptured history. The watercolors relate to subjective memory; the linear drawings are a grid that map the psychological terrain, the performative piece ‘Homage’ becomes a way to directly mark the land, albeit temporarily. The small houses and boats made of shells become symbols of a desired, public participation in the face of a landscape that is increasingly militarized. Out of these non-monumental objects emerge narratives of different scales.
I am quite excited about the prospect of participating at such an important event!

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