Between the Sphinx, Eiffel Tower, and Taj Mahal — the artistic practice of Umber Majeed
Umber Majeed in conversation with Misal Adnan Yıldız reflects on her art practice focusing on her recent digital research project entitled Trans-Pakistan Zindabad (Long Live Trans-Pakistan).
The project investigates class structures, wayward modes of developing economies, imaginary spaces for aspiration and resentment including infrastructural questions within the context of the built environment at Bahria Town in Pakistan. As a corporation, Bahria Town might be superficially described as a series of gated housing communities with contentious and controversial issues of large-scale land acquisitions. This unique case of land grabbing accommodates large-scale, proportional and miniature reproductions of the Sphinx, Eiffel Tower, and Taj Mahal among other attractions. Unfolding the relationships between the touristic gaze and politics of location, this ironically departs from a promotional strategy designed as a phone application, ‘Eye-Planet’. Based on a walking tour service the application offers a fertile imagination through whimsical images as augmented projections of Bahria Town by a fictional tourism company, ‘Trans-Pakistan’ which was owned and dissolved by the artist’s maternal uncle in 2005. The company uses the body of the user as a locator or locule to act as a pirated user moving between the networks of capital flow and an urban planning imaginary established by Bahria Town and the enforcing mechanisms of the State. The pirated user is cloaked as tourist to map alternative imaginings of the monuments and landmarks present through software. A software application is designed to run on a mobile device, the mechanisms of mobility and travel: The mobile. Yıldız attempts to dig out how the artist approaches location, its history and future with biographical elements, contextual references and global issues; and also, how methodological questions shape Majeed’s hybrid, multi layered and diverse artistic research and production.
I think, I would like to start our conversation through revisiting an earlier work, The Two Fridas from 2012. There is always some space for poetry in your work. Is this piece based on an intention of self-portraiture?
My earlier works playfully used identity politics and diasporic cultural displacement as content. I am interested in a disjointed multiplicity as a vantage point both present in technological apparatuses and within globalized narratives. The Two Fridas was one of my first attempts at animation and green screen as an artistic medium and technique; the juxtaposition of performative and static temporalities using the historical art canon. My interest is in the body’s role oscillating within the complexities of digital imaginaries and social realities.
Is Pakistan a case study or context in your work?
I am interested in looking at specificities within Pakistan to point to conditions within the larger MENASA region. For the Digital Earth Fellowship, I spent 2 weeks as a Resident Artist at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, UAE. I had the opportunity to look into the perspective of land politics and homeland within housing ventures in Dubai. The capital and market of the Overseas Pakistani encompasses the visions of the Islamic Republic, linkages to the regional histories, and dystopian built visions reproducing binary-modernist imaginaries of the world through monument reproductions and urban layout. The services and urban design of the suburban gated communities in Bahria Town, Pakistan is a trickle-down effect of housing schemes such as Falcon City in the UAE and other parts of the MENA. Although I cannot stress enough that the relationship between state and corporation defers completely. Within the UAE, state and corporation function hand in hand whereas the military-state of Pakistan and Bahria Town are at odds with each other and competing for Overseas Pakistani Capital. This has become more apparent as the current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has prompted “I am Pakistan — A World Wide Movement” to fundraise the building of state infrastructure — the Diamer-Bhasha Dam. In this way, larger capital networks are continuing to create friction between the national and international with the inclusion of free port cities, Belt Road Projects, into City Centers and the Home.
The history of the land acquisition by the military, post-Partition of 1947, gave way to privatization later in the 1980s in major metropolitan cities such as Lahore. Defence Housing Authority founded by General Zia-ul Haq, introduced a legitimized housing model that newer corporate entities such as Bahria Town has now subsumed. This is discussed in detail in Ammara Maqsood’s, The New Pakistani Middle Class. Bahria Town proves itself as an illegal entity using the name of the state (Bahria meaning navy) but functions purely for corporate interests, undermining legal land purchasing practices. Within the design of Bahria Town, ideology of middle-class diasporic politics are sectioned off as ‘Overseas Enclaves’, catered to a vision of a distorted vision of a globalized world. Within my research I discover the term ‘Tawheed’ meaning oneness [of God], the indivisible oneness concept of monotheism in Islam as a cloaked strategy to lure potential investors and residents to this ‘universalism’. Tawheed is also used as Tawheed Square in their replica of Trafalgar Square in Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan. Nelson’s Column, a monument in Trafalgar Square, London is reproduced and the figure of Lord Nelson is replaced with the Name of God, Allah. So as one drives along the roundabout within Bahria Town, the beacon of God’s name surrounds the sky. The facilities provide ‘Western’ amenities, traditions of religion and conservatism, and aspirations of security and safety. Such desires can be traced to the needs of large return migration of Muslim diasporic communities to West and South Asia post 9/11 — a powerful market.
Departing from a feminist perspective, In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present project creates such insightful content and evolves around nationalism and other -isms. Nevertheless, one needs to talk about the radical technologies and the digital revolution in order to connect the nuclear tests and authoritarian male dominant society. What is the artistic idea for this project?
I was looking at the implications of the radical technologies (nuclear power, etc.) of the 1990s in Pakistan, through familial archives and internet images disseminated online. I have been heavily involved with my grandfather, Pirzada Abdul Waheed’s photographic archive materials of the 1980s to early 2000s and his perspective as an amateur photographer in the heavily male-centric state funded arts in Islamabad at that time. I came by documentation of my grandfather’s exhibition, ‘Beautyfull Pakistan’ (1994) in Lok Virsa, Islamabad and saw a photograph of my grandfather gifting his print to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Father of the Nuclear Project. The analog photograph was of an exploding flower bush (using an analog filter) and it was said through family accounts that my grandfather was inspired by nuclear nationalism as a Pakistani nationalist. The context of this photography exhibition brought together the ideals of the propaganda of the nuclear project to the forefront; an amalgamation of violence, science, nature, and religious-national ideology in the namesakes of beauty and God.
This coincided with my interest in looking at state monuments, specifically Chaghi Monument Hill and the resurgence of Pakistani State nuclear paraphernalia available online. On May 28th, there is a holiday commemorating the successful nuclear tests done in 1998 called Youm e Takbeer (The Day of God’s Greatness). The body of the citizen would perform nuclear nationalism by gathering at the site of Chaghi Monument Hill (previously located in major metropolitan cities in Pakistan). Chaghi Monument Hill was a fiberglass reproduction of the mountain where the successful nuclear tests took place. Since 2016, the last of the state monuments were destroyed for urban expansion and the site to gather resides on military- nationalist Facebook groups and dissemination of nationalistic memes. In this project, destroyed sites and landmarks have given way to imagining other forms of a national community through the ephemeral and digital sphere.
You can find out more information about this project here.
Trans-Pakistan Zindabad (Long Live Trans-Pakistan) contains biographical elements; but there are also other forms of micro/macro levels of analysis telling us things like how economy, architecture, and tourism are interrelated … How could one read the social structures of urban planning through tourism?
Trans-Pakistan was a tourism company that my maternal uncle, Haroon Waheed Pirzada, owned and operated in Pakistan during the early 1990s. He primarily organized adventure tours, such as hiking and trekking through the mountainous areas of the North and deserts of the South. In 2005, it was dissolved due to the lack of business as most of the clientele were foreign tourists. The instability and security measures brought on by the War on Terror in Pakistan left the tourism industry and economic viability in ruins. Within the dusty, discarded pamphlets of Trans-Pakistan, empty promises and resentment of a nation were evident. The many uncharted sites of natural beauty, goods, and services that helped to develop villages outside of metropolitan cities had come to an end. Due to the threat of the Taliban and bomb threats in major metropolitan cities, the urban fabric transformed as military checkpoints became motifs of many cities.
Within Trans-Pakistan Zindabad, the struggle to own place and time is reanimated through a national project such as tourism; tourism is used as a fictional tool to blur the lines between a citizen, a foreigner, and a tourist. In the context of my research, throughout the last 20 years there has been an influx of a return-migration proving diaspora to be the gentrifiers and an important economy within Pakistan. I am interested in the ways a digitized Trans-Pakistan can function as a pseudo tourism company to offer an illegitimate, pirated, walking tour service cloaked through the mobile phone; the only device allowed to enter most spaces within Bahria Town, an entity itself treading through the thresholds of legitimacy.
During our interactions and conversations within the framework of fellow and mentor roles set up by Digital Earth, you generously shared some of your work in progress. I have witnessed how your research has been going through different stages. If we focus on Trans-Pakistan Zindabad (Long Live Trans-Pakistan), how would you elaborate on your position in relation to some big topics like animism, Anthropocene, and digital cultures, which would be relevant within your practice?
Within the application’s narrative I am interested to develop augmented characters — subjects based on fiberglass sculptures of animals on the outskirts of Bahria Town. Local artisans and/or garden sculptors are commissioned by Bahria Town to create animal forms in the namesake of the corporation. Because of their location (just outside the gates of Bahria Town, Lahore), looming above a small scale, polluted body of water, the sculptures contain another kind of affect due to the scaling to the user-body and its materiality. Essentially, the sculptures are made, in the name of décor, with cheap plastic materials and enamel paint for the viewer by the roadside.
Trans-Pakistan is advocating to exit your vehicle and to loiter amongst the debris of Bahria Town, as they are also inhabitants of the space. Through augmented reality these subjectivities can also inhabit Bahria Town’s concept of home. My research is also taking into consideration the ecological footprint of such land development.
How would you define the user — not the viewer — and the designed spaces or environments? Is an exhibition space a designed form, an experience design or close to isolated reality for you?
Within my current research project, I am interested in addressing the viewer as the user in order to expand the audience outside of the gallery to a larger technological network of users. The project is not only aimed for viewers to see research material in an exhibition space but to instigate the user to enter and ultimately alter designated spaces within Bahria Town. The designated spaces I am referring to are semi-public spaces that non-residents of Bahria Town can enter and occupy. They are parks and/or roundabouts that have aspirational simulated replicas such as the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. These replicas are scaled to be performed monumentally within the jurisdiction of Bahria’s police enforcement. How visitors experience the monuments is in congruence with surveillance cameras, guards, metal detectors, etc. The monuments trail the eye towards the sky. These are frustrating efforts by the Bahria Town security team to spatially ‘fixate’ a copy culture, enforcing a limited experience. These spaces are also limited to family-only spaces and men without families are constantly questioned by the authorities.
The user’s mobile device can potentially project, insert, and extract back onto this hegemonic secured planned city. The application can function as a non-planned pirate network; a literal alternative route and temporality from the site; unearthing greater access to an ‘urban technological infrastructure’ through augmentation.
Let’s go back to your solo show at Rubber factory from last year and talk about the media diversity in your work such as kinetic sculptures, animations, and drawings. How do you decide what to produce and in which form?
I have training within video and performance art; however, I have expanded my approach to include archival research, drawings, and collages. All parts of archival research and digital found images inform certain motifs which are replicated in the form of animation, digital collage, and installation. It is a generative process. For my solo exhibition last year, I created a kinetic sculpture made of found objects, mannequin, vinyl, paint, and wood that was also recreated as a 3d model within my three chapter animation; such a decision was considering the scale to the body. Within the animation the figure was emerging out of a constructed green lush landscape and took the body in monumental form, whereas the sculpture reorients the motif to the scale of the viewer within the gallery space.
Within the project, Trans-Pakistan Zindabad (Long Live Trans-Pakistan), it has been presented as a lecture performance, video, and now currently developing as a virtual reality installation for an upcoming show at Trinity Square Video in Toronto, Canada. Under the guise of Trans-Pakistan, the virtual reality installation component proposes, conceptualizes, and designs an urban roundabout contesting the occupation within the semi-public parks and monuments currently present at Bahria Town. It asks the viewer, or more precisely the user to walk counter clockwise against the urban layout to include a suspension of time and site within the virtual. In this way, this is a pirated sociality of occupation through the technological apparatus.
In your presentation for Art Jameel, you talk about Pirate Modernity and also Pirate Sociality… Please let me quote from the beautifully written text on your work by Saira Ansairi: “Majeed dabbles with the idea that this also marks the pivoting of the East-West axis to a new alignment by breaking the hold over visa hegemony and enabling the rejected to enjoy the sights of the world at a fraction of the cost.” In my view, Pirate Modernity operates well within this discussion. What do you think?
Pirate Modernity is a publication and concept by Ravi Sundaram, an Indian media theorist. He describes it as,
A practice, pirate modernity is an illicit form of urban globalization. Poorer urban populations increasingly inhabit non-legal spheres: unauthorized neighborhoods, squatter camps and bypass legal technological infrastructures (media, electricity). This pirate culture produces a significant enabling resource for subaltern populations unable to enter the legal city. Equally, this is an unstable world, bringing subaltern populations into the harsh glare of permanent technological visibility, and attacks by urban elites, courts and visceral media industries.
Pirate culture is the culture of the copy. Sundaram specifically investigates this within Delhi which echoes to other cities throughout South Asia. The history of the piracy of media and lo-tech networks circumvent state and legal intervention. He contextualizes that commodities of the copy are multi-use, recombined, recycled and in constant circulation in technological networks. I am proposing that such piracy within those technological networks can function as alternative spaces, objects, senses, and sociality. The displaced citizen is now tourist and can re-enter through the channels of pirated telecommunication networks to enter the gated community and inhabit the sights of the world on other terms.
About the authors
Misal Adnan Yıldız is a curator, writer, and educator. Yıldız is the former director of Artspace NZ in Auckland in New Zealand (November 2014- June 2017). Previous to that he held the position of artistic director at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart in Germany (2011–2014). Together with Hito Steyerl and Şener Özmen, he is one of the initiators of ASA; a collaborative structure inspired by the works of Takiyuddin Efendi, El Cez- eri, Fahru’l-Nisa and Şêx Evdirehmanê Axtepî among others.
Umber Majeed is a multidisciplinary visual artist, working in New York and Pakistan. She received her MFA from Parsons School of Design in New York (2016) and graduated from Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, Pakistan (2013). She is currently part of the Harem.Haram.Hamam Collective in New York and recently had her debut solo exhibition ‘In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present’ at the Rubber Factory, New York in October 2018. She has taken part in group exhibitions, including The Museum: Within and Without, The State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, Russia (2015), Witness- Karachi Biennale, Karachi, Pakistan (2017), and Volumes — Queens International, Queens Museum, New York (2018).