Beau Gomez (BG): Welcome to the opening reception for Dear Nani, Zinnia Naqvi's solo show. We are very pleased to have everyone.
Zinnia Naqvi is a visual artist based in Toronto in Montreal, her work uses a combination of photography, video, writings, archival footage and installation. Zinnia's practice often questions a relationship between authenticity and narrative while dealing with larger things issues of post-colonialism, cultural translation, language and gender. She received the BFA in photography at Ryerson University and is currently an MFA candidate in Studio arts at Concordia University.
Eduardo Shlomo Velázquez is a Dominican American artist and filmmaker working in video, painting, performance and multimedia installations. Velázquez's work has been presented in North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia, including El Museo del Barrio, NYC; ARTICULE, Montreal; The Today Art Museum, Beijing; Black to the Future, Paris; Latino and Iberian Film Festival at Yale University, New Haven; Wotever DYI Film Festival, London. In 2014, Velázquez founded the international indie production company, Verandi Films. His short film, GUAO, was part of the official selections of more than 20 festivals around the globe, winning Best Caribbean Film at the Martinique Film Festival, and the Audience Award at the Artist Forum: The Festival of the Moving Image in NYC.
Velázquez graduated with a BA/BFA in studio art from the Kansas City Art Institute and received his MFA in emerging practices from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He contributes to different queer undocumented activist groups in New York City, and has spoken at Joan Mitchell Foundation, El Museo del Barrio, China Central Academy of Fine Arts, McGill University, CUNY Graduate Center, Ryerson University, and SUNY Buffalo. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
First of all, I'm looking forward to each of our artists who are going to give quick presentations about their works.
Zinnia Naqvi (ZN): First of all, I just wanted to say thank you everyone for coming out. I'm really glad that we have an intimate crowd and to Beau and Eduardo for joining me here. This talk wouldn’t have been possible without them. I'm going to give you a brief insight into my practice, to start. I started working with archival images very early on. Initially I worked with my own family archives, looking at my family's history of migration throughout the subcontinent of India and Pakistan, and later throughout the world.
I started with this more traditional technique of re-depicting and re-performing images from the family archive, as with my project Past and Present. Later on I ended up incorporating other people's family histories. I went into my community here in Toronto and asked friends if I could go into their personal family photo archives. We worked together to re-tell and re-create their stories of migration to Canada. I was really interested in this active re-creation and re-performance that occurs in this project, and that moment of reflection between generations. I'm also very interested in the domestic environments that we create that often mimic the places we grow up.
Later on, I started working with video and incorporating text, fiction, found video, voice over, and using different techniques to try and depict stories of migration that portray some of the complications of this experience.
This project Dear Nani started when I found this set of images in an old album that my aunt gave me. Since I already had a history of working with archives, when I found these images I knew right away that I had to make a project with them. They are so striking and beautiful, but I was also worried about how to present these images without them being over sensationalized. Since the project is about my own family, I am very sensitive as to how they are perceived.
These are images of my maternal grandmother, my mother's mother. Her family is from Karachi, and after partition Karachi became part of Pakistan. These images were taken in 1948, the year after partition, but my mother's family had been living in Karachi for many generations.
Some of the photos were taken in Quetta where my grandparents went on their honeymoon. Quetta is in northern Pakistan near the Afghan border. But most of the images were taken in their family home (in my grandfather's home) in Karachi.
The most apparent thing that is happening in these images is the active gender play. Nani is dressing up in Nana's clothes while holding props and posing like a man. But the more I started looking at these pictures, the more I was really interested in the time that they were created. 1948 was the year after partition and the time it was really, really hopeful --well, it was a really traumatic time because the whole subcontinent had been displaced but it was also a kind of hopeful time, there was hope for the new democracy and new nation free from sovereign rule.
In this project I am really trying to reconcile and understand these images. One thing that I've done is intervened with text. I have written this fictional dialogue that you can see around the room. It's like a conversation that I have written between my grandmother and myself. I'm asking her the questions that I would have wanted to ask about these images. But even though she answers some details, she is also kind of deflecting and not really answering or addressing the questions that I ask, which is what I think she would have done if I was able to ask her.
When people look at or ask me about these images, I think they tend to expect a very epic or controversial story behind them. I have had people assume that they are "activists images" and want to know the meaning behind them.
If I was able to ask Nani now about these images, I know she wouldn't say anything like that and she would just sort of deflect my answers. Because I honestly think what is occurring here is just a really beautiful moment between a newly married couple. The mystery behind them is something I wanted to maintain, so I think I'll talk a little bit more about it as we go through.
BG: A quick observation. Your family seem to have kept a wide collection of this archive imagery and I wonder how they reacted, particularly your mom, when they saw these old pictures?
ZN: Well, she always knew that they existed so it wasn't like a shock, and they had even told me about them. But it's funny that now my mom realises, "Yes. I don't know why we never asked them about it before". When my mom first saw the project she definitely got a little emotional and like--, it's crazy to see the lives we live and the parts that we don't get to share with our kids.
BG: l also think it procures a certain curiosity, because it's not something that any given family would be used to seeing, especially a woman of a specific cultural background dressed up in this sort of British, masculine clothing, so for an unknowing viewer, they might say "Why is she dressed up in that way?" But it’s interesting to hear how your mother is not at all taken by them, perhaps also because the images are so candid and appear as normal and standard as every other pictures, but she’s become accustomed to having these in her disposal that she hasn't paid as much attention and inquiry in the way that you do. Moving forward, I would like to pass the thread along to Eduard, in continuing with the theme of candidness and female bodies.
Eduardo Velazquez (EV): Thank you, Zinnia, for inviting me here to be part of your opening night. I'm going to start with this image. I grew up in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. As a queer child, I became familiar with domesticity and matriarchal values of rural and urban spaces. The social representation of femininity, as a queer performance, is explored with my artwork. I come from three generations of female farmers, where women create archetypes of beauty, female roles within postcoloniality, labour. Unconsciously, I was very much an observer of these complicated symbols in the search for beauty.
Well, the visual memories of strong female presences, and their relationship (and many times struggle) with labour and white canons of beauty, that tension predominates my early memories. As a reaction to these memories, I decided a few years ago to explore those female representations and archetypes through my body. I took a trip the north of the island, to a beach town called Cabarete, not far from the small village where my mother and our ancestors are from. My goal was to create a body of work that captured these social performances and identity experiences by participating in the daily lives of women in the community. I would use cross-dressing and purchased female clothes, hair extensions and wigs with the guidance of the women that would participate in the intervention. The women in these communities had the power to build the character or identity that I would perform in their spaces. I didn't have the power or authority in the way the participants decided which garments I would wear, make up or hairstyle. Those decisions were completely theirs. I was a canvas, a black body, a space. The female participants were able to isolate each element that captures and describes their phenotype or cosmetic identity. For a week, I performed the role of a young woman who works in a beauty salon and is also a maid in a hotel in the tourist part of Cabarete. This image is from a video that the participants recorded. It is part of the performance series titled Sea Foam Girls.
I work in several mediums. In addition to photography, film and performance art, I also paint. This painting is title Dominican York Wearing Blue Valentino Dress. Each medium communicates the other. The way my brain operates, an Italian neorealist film scene from could easily inspire a painting, and vice versa. This painting was a direct reaction from my experience during the performance series Yankee Bombers. I just did a painting of a baby and a mother: inspired by Italian early renaissance, a Madonna and child allegorical painting, and influenced by Afro-futurism. The landscape behind is from an image from the landscape of the Bronx, when the Young Lords were active in the Bronx. Some buildings in the original photo didn't have windows and had been set on fire. One of the features that distinguishes this piece is the relationship with Latino history in the Bronx, such a conjunction of elements that materialize the psychic violence in the life of a young mother who, in this representation, chopped the hands of her own kid off with a silver glittered machete.
EV: In the exploration of these postcolonial spaces as I mentioned earlier, I am very interested in how women are laboured and bringing attention to the performance of femininity. In the performance series titled Sweet Plantain Kisses, I explore the depiction of the female Caribbean body inserted in the workforce and the politics surrounding the childcare complex in the Upper East Side. I worked and performed the role of Caribbean Nanny. I operated as a childcare provider for a few weeks, so I was hanging out in Central Park with West Indian nannies all day. These women share the migratory stories, living in the diaspora and their experiences as childcare providers for white upper middle class families in the area. Their daily routines were documented by the participants in a series of photographs and videos.
EV: This is also a painting that I did titled Untitled (June 7th, Wedding Scene). I work to find forms and shapes within the history of painting that can inform gender and identity. Many questions emerge throughout the process of creating the scenes in my painting. For example, how are gendered representations filtered through postcoloniality? What rituals are part of our Afro-descendent culture? How to love and relate to our violent past? How to create beauty within the mess of our colonial history? I am constantly questioning the authority of my dissident body in our contemporary culture. I aim to address these questions in my artwork. In this specific painting, I recalled an image of my mother's wedding. I placed myself in the painting, exploring the possibilities self-portrait can give us in performing our past. The scene in the painting happens in a colonial past during the preparations of a bride or woman getting ready to attend a wedding, or ceremony. The central figure in the painting questions the situation that is coming ahead. Am I a hunter? Or am I prey? The racial bridge between two worlds: the colonizer and colonizee, which portray the queer dilemma of the common ritual in a foreign culture.
So that was the experience of making this body of work. Yes. And lastly, this is a video piece that I shot in Ontario a few years ago. I was talking with Zinnia and Beau about this video, and how the Vadim film with Brigitte Bardot titled Et Dieu…créa la femme represented a big moment in my understanding of performance of femininity. When I was 13 years old the image of this woman was engraved into my mind. As a naïve boy, I concluded that femininity should be and must connected to the Eurocentric ideals of femininity just like Caribbean culture did, like Dominican TV and advertising did, like neo-colonialism promote.
Following this premise, I found myself a few years with the reality that I'd never going to be blonde, nor white, that I was never going to be part of the European status quo, and escape the black-phonic environment and social spaces that I grow up in. Hair texturizer, bleaching creams, we all Caraïbes wanted somehow to become Brigitte Bardot. Inspired by this episode of my childhood, I recreated a scene from Vadim's film in this performance piece. I recorded this video during winter, so I almost died in the middle of the road. I did a 20 minutes standing piece with the camera rolling. In postproduction I added .GIF and motion graphics that add or inform the viewer on how messy and violent the construction of femininity could be in Caribbean, specifically the demands of white assimilation towards the black female body.
BG: My first question goes back into a previous observation which involves the notion of seeing and being seen, which highly informs both of your projects. The character that you (Eduardo) portray in your photographs confront the viewer with a stark directness, and in similar ways with Nani, she is at ease with herself. For Nani, there appears a degree of authenticity to her presence despite that she is adorned with foreign clothing. Through these visual cues, I find that your works challenge the way we as viewers look at these images, as they further raise questions on issues of male and/or western sovereignty, breaking the collective 'Western' gaze, and subsequently turning the lens onto your viewers. How do you feel your photographs address this subversion?
ZN: Good point. I was very concerned when I started to present this work, about how it would be read, especially by a Western audience. The way that I was looking at it was also from a western feminist gaze which kind of assumes that in taking on masculine clothing, the woman is feeling more liberated and free.
I wanted to check that assumption just because I realized it was coming from the way that I've been brought up or the education I've had here. I started doing a little bit more reading into post-colonial theory along with feminist theory and I realized that not only is Nani performing the role of a man, she's also performing that of a western man or a British man in particular. What leads me to these assumptions is the dictionaries that she's holding.
So, this is the page of the dictionary and then this is one of the illustrations. Here you see Tom and Sally benefiting from "Gifts of other lands to the English language". Looking at it now was like--I was just like--it's a bit messed up. There are all kinds of racist illustrations and definitions in this book that would not apply now. But the fact that Nani is holding a set of these books and also because I know my Nana loved them so much, I started to think about the place of these books and when I realized the performance was not only gender role play, but the performance of a Western man as well. Which is ultimately a representation of Nana and the kind of man he was educated to be as well.
Performing this role of a British man which was also the role that my grandfather would be performing because that's the system that they were educated under, that's the symbol of paternity, that's kind of the measure of well put together man and I wanted to think about that as well in relation to these images and because they were taken of such a pivotal time, the year after independence.
That's why I wanted to add in some of the different material and then also the text. The questions in the text are questions that I would initially get about these images. By including the text I would like people to hopefully re-question their own questions, re-question why that those are their questions and whether they are important. I think the images are shocking because today Pakistan is a conservative Muslim nation, but it was not always necessarily that way, and women still had and do have certain freedoms.
BG: This particular image is so striking in that it is eerily similar to Raphael's painting, The School of Athens.
EV: Yes, I totally agree with that. I feel like one of the things that we spoke a lot about a few days ago was about the western gaze and how even though we come from these transnational experiences through immigration and family, we, as artists and individuals are asking to decode the signifiers of the western gaze placed upon us on a regular basis.
But as a person originally from the Caribbean, northern African, half European, half something else, the western gaze as a constant is always present in my work. I work actively on how we are trying to decode this western gaze, and by trying there is a reinforcement of this binary. We are seeking a visual language that takes the artwork away from this gaze, and to conceptualize the work outside the common notions and premises of western history. New art movements like Afro-Futurism are looking to address these questions of the western gaze, and its intersectionality with the African diaspora in the Americas.
BG: What's compelling with your imagery is in embodying this persona, threaded in your own cultural background AND your cross-cultural experiences, you did not lose your sense of self in the process and I think it's very important because while you presented these women coming from various classes and status, you are ultimately an active participant through it all - you are constantly observing and you asserting your inclusion to bring out the intrinsic agency that these women already have.
EV: And in many ways I think that I am working in collaboration with my community to create this work. People questioned my reasons for documenting these performances. Comments like: "Oh, why does this form of documentation make any difference from other people who have documented these spaces?" I have to explain that I am from the Caribbean and not a random German or French documenting those social spaces. And I believe in many ways that I give the participants the tools to explore their stories and spaces with their own agency with the medium. I think it wouldn't be fair for me to just insert myself and take control of the way that they will document their spaces. I feel it was a holistic exchange by encouraging them to tell the visual story as they pleased. I was the less important piece of the puzzle.
BG: And I find that the experience between domestic and diasporic work comes into play because from a western point of view, exoticism is glorified, but from the non-western perspective, beauty is often associated, and often aspire to, the physical ideals of a Western woman, and this 'aspiration' transcends into many different cultures.
ZN: And then both of us don't really like that word. Well, actually I don't mind the word, I think it's--I think that I worry about using beauty in my work or to have it seen as beautiful just because then it can be easily exoticized. I don't want people to just be surfaced-attracted to something and I'm a bit paranoid about my work being taken seriously. Most of my work has been not overly aestheticized I guess or I try to keep it as simple as possible because I want people to really read into it.
EV: I think there is more than beauty represented in the work. The idea of beauty, perhaps exotic, could be embedded in the way the people and space are represented. However, these quotidian spaces where people live and work. My goal is to make this space more accessible and try to create a dialogue around it. I tried to mimic a ‘real’ woman through elements such as hair, and clothes while the participants had full control of the documentation. Beauty could become a misconception in spaces where beauty is analyzed and constructed under the oppressors’ canons.
BG: Thank you for elaborating on that, Eduardo. I would like to go further with exploring the notion of performance in both of your works. You employ performance by way of 'putting on' or wearing a gendered identity. There is certainly an interesting contrast between each approach; Nani dresses up in articles of clothing rendered as masculine, which in this context signifies putting on a sort of armour or badge that could be a source of freedom.
For Eduardo's work, conversely, you 'strip' your masculine identity and embody a feminized persona from the hair, to the clothing, to the attitude and you excessively accessorize by including various traditional or cinematic iconographies, as you previously mentioned, that pertain to female beauty. How do your processes explore the idea of playing with power through the act of dressing up or disrobing?
ZN: That's a good point. Okay. Well, again, I think with Nani's is active performance. I think she is definitely the star in the images, but this sort of silent character is my grandfather, it's Nana who is the photographer and it is his clothing that she is wearing and in my mind, I feel like he's also the artistic director behind them. I know that he was also very fascinated with western films of that time and I feel like this was something that he would have wanted to do and found it like very attractive also.
So, it was a very kind of childlike piece of clothing or like memory of a childhood in this clothing for me. So, in taking on the kid's roles I am just letting the images read, but also inhabiting that space of curiosity, I think.
EV: They were really surprised about the cross-dressing part the performance. Here is this guy who dressed as a woman, but it is not a drag performer but one of us. Complicated thoughts. People expected me to feel vulnerable and self-conscious at the beginning of the performance. However, things normalize really quickly. I feel it is really hard to recreate an ideal of gender, when the whole concept is just based on power dynamics of each individual space. In the Caribbean, when I was dressed as feminine, I entered a vulnerable space where I was expected to be passive and invisible. While in the States, it felt cool and somewhat safer because of the greater visibility of transgender politics in NYC. Don't get me wrong, in both locations the community was very aware of your presence as 'the other.'
We're talking about trans people getting killed. We're talking about like gay people getting killed. I was very, very cautious about the space, and not trying to be invisible but letting the women participants dictate how much space the character they created will take in their daily life - or throughout the performance.
BG: Yes, there certainly is a struggle in the dichotomy of masculinity as liberty vs. femininity as fragility and it is interesting to see how you challenge the binary in your images. You exert your presence in these moments NOT as Eduardo, but as a fitting female participant within the scene. The immediacy of the settings, and the characters within them, render these issues accordingly.
I want to talk about bodies and the utilization of self-portraiture in your works. You both are very present in your series and I was curious to know how the types of media you work with reinforce issues of gender performativity through self-portraiture?
Eduardo, in your case you use your body as an active participant. Through the use of the mixed media collages and digital photography, from point-and-shoot 'selfie' aesthetic to webcam imagery, and the subsequent dissemination and distribution of them, how does it impact your role as a (female) performer and person of colour in creating a spectacle?
EV: That's a million dollar question. Using your body feels as you know the body contains its history, contains traces of traumatic experiences recorded in its DNA. We're coming from this colonization history, so I feel it's in my body, almost instinctively in diasporic spaces. You have a natural sense of belonging in the situation, especially when you are using self-portrait or your body to connect and hopefully bring justice to all these remarkable women in previous generations in my family.
I wanted to participate in these spaces where labour and domesticity were very important to the trace of their geographical journey through the Antilles and North America. It seems very ironic now because when I see the photographs I feel like we invented the idea of straight hair to survive discrimination. We have a vast color scheme to describe our skin tone, again to find space to survive discrimination. We have the same clothes, looking to bend the western gaze and blend with the colonial stereotype. We have all this evidence in the islands and outside, built in the microcosm that could be living in the diaspora. We now begin to explicitly define feminine genders as culture not biology. I feel like in many ways that's the purpose of these performances. I doubt the women in these communities that I came from will think twice about questioning the postcolonial system, but will find a new way to adapt themselves to it, as a mode of resistance.
BG: How was it like for you working in the salon? Were you fully dressed up the entire time?
EV: The salon is in a very touristic coastal area. It was a lot of fun to be able to do this project. Even though, I had to run from many possible outbursts of violence because I was a queer man playing with gender. I feel like I belong to this secret society of women, a community as far I can remember now-from a part-woman perspective. There was something very powerful about working in all-women spaces. I feel like we looked after each other. Many of them were exposed to violence and micro-aggressions on a daily basis. I mentioned this earlier today, I feel like they didn't know their power and agency. I wish they knew how powerful they are and how much resources they have within their own women run communities. It is hard in an area where a new wave of neo-colonialism is in a place, specifically with Europeans owning all the commerce in the area. Part of me wishes these women would get together and set the town on fire, decolonize the area and start from scratch. Maybe after the fire, the community can start a new world, where they can access the tools to develop the area and have an equal exchange with the people who come from Europe or North America. However, I am speaking about a fairy tale. I don't believe in violence. I believe in activism and organizing.
BG: Zinnia - portraits from vernacular photography and found imagery were historically used to document events, family affairs, and personal memories; they become evidently indicative of a person's likeness and identity within a particular space and time. How does including your own self-portraits re-imagine this tradition?
ZN: I was very hesitant about a lot of things in this show, including the inclusion of myself in the work, not because I didn't want to have it but because I felt the act of re-performing this traditional notion of masculinity today has a very different meaning. I'm really used to wearing pants or choosing to dress effeminately or not on a daily basis. This would not be considered a radical act today. Of course, there's still ways in which one can perform masculinity. Like, in other instances, I have decided to perform drag and performed in spaces in which I felt uncomfortable.
For example, I live in Montreal and go to a lot of punk shows because a lot of my friends are in bands. And that's not necessarily a space that I feel comfortable in, but I also do love the music and have a certain relationship with that music, even though it seems like it is unintended for me as a woman of colour. So, I decided to take on this role of a White male rock star, particular a parody of Kurt Cobain, named Burt Cobain. I dressed up as him and performed a Nirvana song. So, I've put myself in those kinds of spaces to try to understand notions of masculinity and particularly White masculinity. But in this particular project, I didn't feel like that was necessary because there is a long tradition of artists who have taken images of people blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity.
But it was important to put myself in the project. And I guess the more feedback I kept getting about the work is people wanted to see me in there. And my touch and my hand in the project is very obvious, regardless. So, putting myself in there was I guess more of an indication to that gesture. I am trying to reconcile and understand what is happening in the images.
BG: Tell us more about why you chose not to show your face in these images.
ZN: I just didn't want it to become about me-it is about me but I don-t think-I'm in a very different position in this project, I was in total control. I have the privilege of being the artist and most of the time I was directing the shoots that I was in. So, I felt like it was a very different power dynamic and I felt like you would have been able to see that in my face. I was more interested in the gesture, in the body language, so, that's why I chose not to have my face in them.
BG: You said earlier, you were very wary of repetition but keen on reinforcing this sense of curiosity. When you mentioned that you wanted to embody and mimic the children's gestures...
ZN: There's a few, yeah.
BG: This becomes a direct metaphor to curiosity and in a way, it bridges the viewers' intrigue, more so that you present yourself as an equally curious participant right onto the scene; it reinforces a visual interplay between your grandfather's perspective and perhaps how Nani wishes to be seen. It's only raising more queries, but ultimately you, yourself, are floating within this circle of curiosity.
ZN: You said it.
BG: Eduardo, in your imagery I see an array of eye-catching iconographies that serve as signifiers of female beauty. Can you talk more specifically about the symbols and icons you used?
EV: Well, basically I was thinking about curvy and big booties, which are part of the language of my culture. You can see two big booties walking in a .GIF in the video Et Dieu…créa la femme. I think it's all about the profuseness of Caribbean culture. This video needed to have a lot of information. It needed to be busy. It couldn't be just like: "I'm Scandinavian, thank you." No, it has to be this very busy environment where technology meets magic realism. And when I shot the video, actually, it was not a tropical experience because it was during winter in Ontario. The video art was a study of a scene in a film that I mentioned earlier titled And God Created Woman by Roger Vadim. I played the role of Brigitte Bardot.
I wanted to use electronic motifs because I felt those were very much used in Facebook, and other social media outlets by people living in the diaspora. People wanted to integrate luxurious elements in to give importance to a selfie or portrait. And sometimes they can be sad in many ways.
In Sea Foam Girls "How-la-Fleur" video, I wanted to place the flags of Haiti and the Dominican Republic in this video piece. It was intentional to bring these cultural symbols, where these two cultures exist and influenced each other. Selena Quintanilla is part of the music that populates these spaces, especially beauty salons or domestic spaces back home and here in North America.
BG: I'd like to end with saying that it has been incredibly rewarding and insightful to have both of you here. We have come to discover how your works compare and contrast with each other, with the goal to decontextualize and recontextualize images that are both simultaneously foreign and familiar, and using yourselves as participants as bridges that probe questions about the importance of looking through and past these "fixed" identities. While the lens is turned the other way for the viewer to wander and observe, you both remain as active dwellers in the worlds you have created or are revisiting. And through your participation you allow us to be more curious and reflective of the different nuances that take place. Thank you again for sharing your ideas.