The Pakistani artist discusses taxidermy, art schools in Pakistan, and the outside world’s perception of art from her country.
AAA: On several occasions, you have described the state of life in a country like Pakistan through your works, saying, ‘The work avoids easily taking sides, and highlights the embedded irony of living in Pakistan, 300 years in the past and 30 years in the future, at once.’ If you would, provide us with a narrative glimpse of your life. What is it like living in Lahore on a day-to-day basis?
Huma Mulji (HM): How does one objectively describe what it is to live in a place that is home? So much of it is, or needs to be wordlessly lived. Occasionally, I have an objective notion of my own life, mostly when at a distance from it. These paradoxical glimpses do find their way into my work sometimes. I moved to Lahore from Karachi at the end of 2002. I had already lived through the ethnic conflict of the 90s in Karachi. Paradoxically, these were also the years that contemporary artists in the city were looking to popular urban culture, which was a seminal gesture in Pakistan’s short history of contemporary art. I was very influenced by this. Lahore was initially a refuge. Somewhere within the day-to-day of teaching at an art school, there was the magic and curiosity of a new place, and my attentiveness to the city was extremely nuanced as an outsider. Ancient ways, coexisting alongside a desperate aspiration towards the new, amidst stunning mustard fields in flower, and wholesale markets in the walled city, which are piled high with Chinese goods…there are numerous material and fabrication possibilities. There was so much to both celebrate and critique and this was not so long ago. Today, however, I recognise how brutalising the years of political instability have been to all inhabitants of the country.
Last year, on March 12th, I was buying fabric in a bazaar in the old part of town. When I returned to my car, there were 21 missed calls, and numerous messages on my cell phone. I had no idea that 500 ft from where I live, there had been a suicide bomb attack, leaving more than 60 people dead. By the time I returned home, the area had been washed down with fire hoses, looking like an abattoir at the end of a day of slaughter. The irony I speak about is embedded in the multiple lives lived, multiple roles played, so much buried deep inside so as to avoid confronting it, and the co-existence of so much disparity.
AAA: As recurring motifs in your works, what do animals mean to you? Material-wise, how do you handle taxidermied animals – do you order specimens or acquire them from other sources? How do you keep them after exhibitions?
HM: Animals actually only feature in works between 2008 and 2010. And like the dolls, like the toys, and like the suitcases, animals too are metaphors. The animals I have used have individual stories of how they were acquired. The camel, for instance, was bought at the time of Eid-ul-Azha, the festival which commemorates Ibrahim’s sacrifice, and the camel is one of the animals slaughtered at this time, albeit less frequently than goats and cows. The buffalo hide was purchased at the local slaughterhouse. I have had to wait months to acquire some animals through the taxidermist’s network. I work with a taxidermist at the Lahore Zoo, who prepares the hide and works on the pose while it is still soft. It’s all quite low-tech and there are no ready-made forms used; the works are actually stuffed with cotton wool. I have been fortunate to sell several such works to collectors. The rest have been destroyed, as I don’t have the storage capacity they require, and I could not find voluntary homes for them, as they necessitate space and care.
AAA: Did the fame of Arabian Delight bring you to the next level - artistically, professionally? We heard that the work caused some controversy because the camel is such a common and symbolic animal. Were you aware of the criticism? What is your response?
HM: Yes it did. I think it was a combination of the right time, the right place, the right idea, the right form. Arabian Delight was proposed to, and subsequently commissioned by the Pakistani Pavilion, ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’, for Art Dubai 2008. The work was, formally, a new direction in my practice, and it works on many levels. The relationship between the Gulf and Pakistan has many faces. The forced 'Arabisation' of Pakistan, of successive governments manipulating Pakistan’s identity away from a South Asian country to an 'Islamic' (orthodox/Arab/Saudi/Wahabi) one; the migration of construction workers, professionals, and other daily wage earners from the 1970s onwards; the smuggling of electronic goods from the UAE to Pakistan in personal luggage; and the kidnapping and trafficking of children as camel jockeys from Pakistan to the Arab world. The critique and celebration of the bling of Dubai was another reference. Fabricating Arabian Delight, discovering the possibilities of botched taxidermic methods, of working on a large scale, and of taking the work to a point of conceptual and formal absurdity from a fairly earnest and modest start, gave me the artistic courage I required. The controversy was quite unexpected. It revealed the gaps in the glitz of Art Dubai, of its self-censorship despite the outward bravado. I never quite got a sense of what the controversy was about, apart from perhaps, some truth revealed by the uncomfortably twisted camel forced into the suitcase, theatrical and performative.
AAA: In your sculptures and photographs, we often get a scene of surrealism and absurdity. To what extent do you think your works reflect the absurdity of reality? How absurd is the world where you are living?
HM: The conflicting worlds we live in today range from the merely inappropriate, to the ridiculous. I love Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful, as an example. This is a film that successfully and simultaneously makes you laugh out loud and shed tears. Reality is absurd and appalling at once.
One such example in the current political scenario of Pakistan is the very recent case of Raymond Davis, an American operative who arrived in Pakistan under a false identity, got arrested for shooting two men and the killing of a third by a vehicle that accompanied him. The US embassy asks for diplomatic immunity for him. They refuse to admit he is employed by the embassy, let alone holding diplomatic status. The Pakistani population revolts in the streets through the very imaginative act of burning tyres and all else that comes in the way. Eventually, the detained man is ‘pardoned’ through the payment of ‘blood money’, an aspect of Islamic sharia law, and exactly the form of law that the US offensive in Pakistan claims to prevent being implemented in the region. Raymond Davis leaves the country. There are protests brewing everywhere, but a cricket match scheduled between India and Pakistan postpones all protests. All information in Pakistan is distorted, and the truth is never revealed.
Or the truth is incredulous. The collisions of languages, tastes, ideas, dreams. I do not mean to trivialise tragedy and pain – global media does that already – but I do attempt to speak through whimsical and surreal images. I favour the poetic over the dogmatic, complexity over simplicity.
AAA: In your photographs, we see unclothed dolls in very unusual settings. Why did you choose dolls, especially nude ones? Is it also partly because you try to avoid touching the sensitive issue of nudity?
HM: The dolls were chosen for two reasons. They obviously serve as metaphors for humans. I am not very interested in using the human body in my work otherwise, and this is not to avoid the use of the figurative. It is to avoid the literal. The other reason is the long-standing presence of the vocabulary of toys in my work. This comes from toy manufacture being the family business until it closed down about a decade ago. The first studio I had in Karachi was in a warehouse for toys, and these have featured in my work on and off since 1994. The unclothed dolls in the Sirf Tum series, for example, signify vulnerability, which is more nuanced. The scale variation also enforces the vulnerability of the protagonist in the face of its environment.
AAA: In Shabbir, 1001 Storeys, and Arabian Delight, you use a suitcase. Can you tell us about this motif? Are you always on the run? If so, why’s that? Can you tell us more about Shabbir and 1001 Storeys?
HM: A number of my works, in one way or another, address the idea of a ‘border’, something that is invisible until you hit it. The line between understanding and incomprehension, the border between reality and fiction, the idea of the flâneur, not in the physical sense, but the movement of ideas across cultures, the line between here and there, between you and I. The earlier suitcase works spoke of travel as a South Asian, for example, But what is your country Madam? (2006) and Can you Take off your shoes please (2005). Shabbir and 1001 Storeys (each 2008) were both made for the exhibition in Dubai. I was interested in tapping into the unspoken lives of migrant workers in Dubai, a large number of whom come from Pakistan. For 1001 Storeys, I interviewed people in Pakistan, wanting to go to Dubai for ‘a better life’, and in Dubai, I interviewed people who wanted desperately to go back home. The Muslim showers (a hand-held bidet) were plated in gold, and the heads contained speakers, crossing like palm trees, each telling the story of the other side. Shabbir was upholstered like a plush armchair, and contained brass casts of shoes worn by construction workers, and the bread they travel to earn. This too was plated in gold. Both works speak of the ‘promised land’, the unattainable dream.
AAA: You are now teaching art at a university. How would you compare the new generation of artists to those of your generation?
HM: The times are so radically different. There are many more international opportunities for artists now. Two or three decades ago, there wasn’t much money in the arts. Academic degrees beyond a Bachelor’s were rare. There weren’t many collectors of art from Pakistan, locally or internationally. To be a good artist, you had to be a certain age, and have substantial experience.
There is now a strong youth-centred culture, so the younger generation that we graduate have a very limited picture of what it means to be an artist, the history of artistic practice in Pakistan, or the idea of artistic responsibility. However, this is their reality. This value placed in, and support of ‘young/emerging’ artists, or ‘geographically’ selected art, has encouraged more graduates to continue making art, and more young people to enroll in art schools, but it has also made them complacent and production-oriented, and turned art-making into a market driven, stardom-focused career. This would not be such a bad thing if there were a plurality of positions within the Pakistani contemporary art community. Unfortunately, there is still no dialogue and critique of this type of mainstream production.
Having said that, the art world today is a competitive and critical space. It is much more difficult to break into than ever before. Despite everything, there is some very good art coming out of art schools in Pakistan and some truly visceral responses to the times we live in.
AAA: As you begin to show your work in countries outside the South Asian region, do you think audiences there respond differently?
HM: Yes, frequently that is the case. The readings of work are often driven by expectation. Pakistan is always shown in a particular light in the global media, for instance, and work from here is often (curatorially) sought out for its political content, and is looked at (viewed and interpreted) quite patronisingly as something coming out ‘of a developing country’ or an ‘Islamic state’, or via presumptions about the treatment of women in Pakistan, the fanaticism, the violence, the poverty, etc.
In Pakistan, where the work is generated, I have found its interpretation to be relatively more nuanced, the irony immediately comprehended, but I’m largely talking about artists as viewers. It is mostly other artists or cultural practitioners who will get to see the work here, as there is very limited interest in contemporary art.