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The Country of Last Things: Huma Mulji in Conversation with Noorjehan Bilgrami

‘The Country of Last Things: Huma Mulji in Conversation with Noorjehan Bilgrami’ took place at the Karachi Literature Festival Art Section on 6th February, 2016. What follows is a condensed, transcribed version of the talk.
“As artists we get lost in the idea of ambiguity. How could you be clear without being didactic? You can be clear but then you become this journalistic kind of artist. I believe in an artistic approach to things, a poetic approach to things rather than saying this is how the world should be. It’s about exploring things together with the audience.”
As the conversation unfolds the audience becomes privy to Huma Mulji’s delightful persistence into the act of “inquiry” as an artist. She resolutely claims to “seek clarity” while retaining the element of humour and madness. She assumes the role of a practitioner into the realm of seeking visual aid to prompt the very nuances that are held beneath the façade.
Noorjehan Bilgrami and Huma Mulji find themselves seated across from one another twenty-four years later, not as a prospective student and interviewee, but as two individuals that set sail through the course of establishing an institution which then Mulji departed from as she went on to Lahore to teach at the BNU, which also happened to be in its initial formative stages, and then onto Bristol, where she currently resides. The conversation subsequently became a window into the vessel of Mulji’s thoughts, which she charismatically delves into with the audience.
Mulji’s discomfort with the nature of complacency itself allows her to constantly persevere in the act of being a witness. She claims “The more you’re doing, the more sort of happens somehow. And the less you have, the less you do.”
With her resilient nature of constantly critique and gallant venture into the dystopian tendencies of changing political landscapes, she reconciles with the idea of being a native informant of said political views. Her works trespasses into the nature of conflict itself, which she claims to address in a nuanced manner. The idea of conflict is something she felt was bred by the Indus Valley in its teething stages, which she decidedly states felt like a residency rather than an art-school experience. Her thought process was retrospectively shaped as she addressed the burgeoning schools of thought in Karachi and Lahore, the Karachi Pop and the Lahore Neo-Miniature movements, both moulded by the specific constraints and conflicts of the institutions themselves.
She also reflects upon the timeframe of her practise and how we in the present astutely hide behind the glory of truck art as a recurring vernacular in the country’s aesthetic. However she remembers the time when there was an active voice trying to locate truck art into the context of ‘art’.
Mulji muses over the transient nature of her own practise, the relentless act of thinking as a process, and how the process of sculpture then becomes idea-driven. It becomes more demanding to find a medium to successfully convey. “Sometimes I wish I was an oil painter and I would make images of all kinds but always out of oil, ek cheez toh kamaskam mei question na karo na apni zindagi mei.”
Huma Mulji talks about Arabian Delights (2008), unfolding the many layers of thought that went into the creation of the work itself.
“I was thinking of this whole history of smuggling electronics in suitcases from Dubai to Karachi. Hum ney nachpan mey cereal khaye jis key dabbay crushed hotay thay. Deodorant leak kar raha hota tha. Because it had all come in suitcases. So I was thinking of this critical connection. I knew I wanted to work with the camel because we know that the media has shifted our direction from South East Asia to the Middle East. Hum India kay jesay hai, khana hatey hai, baat cheet, kapray..but now we’re suddenly part of the middle east. Because we share a religion. That was a very deliberate act and it happened completely in my lifetime. So you trace this idea of Khudahafiz to Allahhafiz.”
In her quest to seek functionality within the seemingly un-functional. The magic in the incorrectness and the hyperbolic reality of it. The defiance in the nature of the ordinary as it escapes into a fictive realm. Furthermore she reveals the genre of fiction creatively informs her thoughts, as they are reigned into a world where they may not have had the “courage to go to on their own”.
Her thoughts and interests sometimes more than what she can contain have found comfort in teaching. Teaching as medium itself, where she delegates her curiosity into the minds of her students and learns from it. “. They do the work and in some ways I recognize those ideas through other artists and I understand the world through their response to it. Because that’s a whole different generation. I’m still from the generation that grew up without the internet. I was twenty-five years old before I even sort of realized what email was.”
What Mulji has retained in the years since is her contagious manner of being amused by the world around her. With regard to her recent work she speaks about the arc of the bamboo as it sits on the shoulder of sweepers. She finds no monotony in the recurrence of seemingly mundane sights. Rather, she finds these as a deceptive tool into the process of inquiry. Through the process of relishing over the aesthetics, she was able to get to the under-belly of the seemingly naïve act of carrying the bamboo. She found that nineteen of the twenty-one were Christians, a discovery she kept with herself until she found an advert for job vacancies at the Lahore Institute of Cardiology for which only non-muslims could apply. She reasons that the real sensitivity of criticality doesn’t lie in the larger, more politically garnered universal image of art, but rather the fickle nuances, which stifle as much they allow room for informed interjections through the practice of art itself. The study of equilibrium dismantling the state of guised in-equilibrium.
Images courtesy of Huma Mulji.

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