Panel Discussion: “Canadian Artists Being HERE”, at the Aga Khan Museum on Saturday, July 22, 2017
Exhibition: “HERE: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists”, July 22, 2017-January 07, 2018.
Participants: Curator Swapnaa Tamhane, Babak Golkar, Sukaina Kubba, Dawit L. Petros, Nep Sidhu, and Jaret Vadera.
Thank you to Swapnaa Tamhane for editorial assistance.
This transcript has been edited for brevity, clarity and readability.
JOVANNA: With HERE: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists, we welcome our first showcase of Canadian art. This exhibit connects perfectly with the museums overall mission which is dedicated to advancing the values of pluralism by connecting cultures through the universally accessible language of art. The 21 artists featured in here come from diverse backgrounds with many places, influences and experiences, adding to their identity as Canadian artist and contributing to our social fabric.
Today's speakers belong to many places themselves including Toronto, Saskatoon, Vancouver, Montreal, Berkeley, Baghdad, Glasgow, Asmara, Brooklyn, Maidenhead and New Delhi. Well, the backgrounds are diverse but connects all these artists and artworks is that they explore and question the complex identities and layered histories of people, places and objects. So this fitting that we open this exhibit in the city as multi–cultural as Toronto and in an institution devoted to the pluralism as – devoted to pluralism as the Aga Khan Museum. Our hope is that here we'll resonate in a city and a country that has achieved 150 years of nationhood to an evolving sense of progressive pluralism.
Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge this land on which the Aga Khan Museum sits known as Tkaronto and honor the stewardship, past, present and future of the Anishinaabe and most recently the Mississaugas of the New Credit. This acknowledgement is as especially important for us here today because here is the Aga Khan Museum's way of marking the 150th year of Canada's formation as a nation. With all our many identities, we acknowledge the people who first welcome newcomers to Turtle Island. This is a good time to remind you to turn your cellphones to silent. There is no photography or video recording during the talk and before we begin, I welcome you here to the museum. Our role is to connect cultures to art and encourage people to think differently about each other and themselves and how we fit into the connective fabric of society.
So we're fortunate to have Swapnaa Tamhane with us as the curative driver behind this exhibit and to guide us to our discussion today. Aside from her work creating this exhibit at the museum and writing our beautiful catalog which I encourage you to take home today when you leave, it's available in our shop. Swapnaa has been studying closely that Indian performance artists Rummana Hussain. Her research developed into a large group exhibition in order to join the political in a historical moment exploring an international generation of women artists born between 1947 and 1957.
This exhibition was held at the museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach in Germany and Gallery MMB and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Astu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, India from 2014 to 2015. Swapnaa has exhibited at Focus Photography Festival, Mumbai, Art Gallery of Mississauga, Gallery 7, Delhi and A Space Gallery, Toronto. Her book Sar: The Essence of Indian Design curated with fashion designer Rashmi Varma explores the history of material, culture and memory. And today we are fortunate to have her here to introduced us to the exhibit and to guide us through discussion with the artists, so please join me in welcoming Swapnaa Tamhane.
Swapnaa: Thank you Jovanna and thank you for acknowledging the land. Good afternoon, thank you for joining us today. I'm very excited and honored to engage in discussion with Babak Golkar, Sukaina Kubba, Nep Sidhu, Jaret Vadera and Dawit L. Petros. They're also many artists included in the exhibition who are joining us today in the audience, Sameer Farooq, Shaan Syed, Nahed Mansour, Sharlene Bamboat.
In a way, we've been having several conversations over the past year in preparation for this exhibition and in some cases, many years for instance with artists like Jaret. I do apologize for the incredible imbalance of having just one woman on her own – Sukaina – with four male artists but I think she will hold her own.
The exhibition "HERE: Locating Contemporary Canadian Art" is a result of an invitation to have an exhibition of Canadian art at the Aga Khan Museum in line with Canada 150. Numbers are funny things, they can set definitives from certain perspectives and are totally irrelevant in relation to what kind of numerical system or calendar one might follow. I have centered this exhibition around an artifact from the permanent collection that has several time periods inscribed onto it. On one side, you can see carving from the Roman period and on the other is Kufic script. This artifact was reused, and while it was initially part of a building it was then repurposed as a tombstone in the 10th century, Common Era or Jumada 377.
I have placed this artifact – this stele – centrally in the exhibition on the second floor as it speaks to each of the works selected for this exhibition and connects to this idea of "here" as an object that has been moving through different geographies since the 3rd Century; "here" continues to shift. When thinking about artists from Canada or those who are connected to Canada, the idea of here is slippery. Some are working in Vancouver but like Babak Golkar for instance exhibits in Brussels or in Dubai. Some like Nep Sidhu and Jaret Vadera are working out of Brooklyn or Toronto but maintain a strong link with Delhi. Their relationship to "here" is ever–shifting. I will briefly introduce each artist and show some past works. We will have a moderated discussion for about an hour and then have that 15 minutes to 30 minutes for the Q and A with you, the audience.
I'll begin with Babak Golkar. While Babak's fox has taken over the marketing for the exhibition because it's so good and so compelling, here are few images of his past works. Babak Golkar was born in Berkeley in California in 1977 and spent most of his formative years in Iran until 1996 when he moved to Canada and then a decade later obtained a Master of Fine Arts at the University of British Columbia. Through a variety of forms including drawing, print, ceramics, sculpture, and installation, Babak's subjects emerge from his interest in spatial analysis in relation to contemporary human conditions. He has generated a practice steeped in the [ ] position of these traditions and by extension, new forms and meanings emerge from re–contextualization. Skewing the asserted certainty of perspective and questioning its formal grounds to reference as well as subsequent ontological viewpoints. Golkar engages a critical inquiry into cultural and socioeconomic systems. Exploring the physical position of the body in relation to form, physical points of reference and spatial relationships, Golkar subsequently echoes social, cultural, and political states of mind in his work. A key investigation is a critique of economic systems as seen in the two works which were selected for this exhibition from his larger series titled Time Capsules, a variety of objects and forms that have artworks imbedded within. This fox is not the artwork but is in fact the container or holder for an artwork which is not to be open for another hundred years; opening it before will make the artwork void and of no value.
Babak's solo exhibitions include the Exchange Project, INCA in Seattle, Time to Let Go, Vancouver Art Gallery at the Offsite space, Paragon, Sharjah Contemporary Art Museum, and Mechanisms of Distortion at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Selected group exhibitions include Décor, Fondation Boghossian, Villa Empain, Brussels, Crisis of History, Beyond History, Framer Framed, Amsterdam, Common Grounds, Museum Villa Stuck in Munich, L'avenir, La Biennale de Montréal, Musee d'art Contemporain de Montréal, in 2014. Golkar works and resides in Vancouver and is represented by Third Line Gallery, Dubai and Galeria Sabrina Amrani in Madrid.
Next, we have Sukaina Kubba. Sukaina was born in Baghdad and currently lives in Glasgow, where she received her Master's in Letters in 2012 with a concentration in painting at the Glasgow School of Art. Prior to this, Sukaina studied architecture at McGill University in Montreal. She is currently a visiting lecturer on the Master of Research in Creative Practices and gives curatorial support for the School of Design at GSA. Sukaina works with industrial architectural materials like rubber and latex. Over the last few years, her work has developed by drawing from her backgrounds in architecture and painting through appropriating structure and the parametric from one and formal perceptive intuitive construction from the other. She has been developing a methodology of constructing frameworks for projects as genres. Arising from the weaving of contextual, historical, literary, and her personal narrative, frameworks within which she allows process of free association, intuitive material experimentation and image manipulation to connect and interweave through the space of presentation.
She has started to approach projects as fictional or speculative constructions, similar to non–constructed architectural projects that exist in the realm of the imagined, they however still maintain a visual or physical tactile manifestation. Kubba's latest exhibition titled "Double–Blind" was held with Natalie McGowan at the Intermedia Gallery at the CCA in Glasgow. Past exhibitions also include "As You Were" at Glasgow International; "Workout", a solo exhibition at Hilary Crisp Gallery in London; "Le Swimming" at Glasgow International in 2014; and "Lucy Donna / Underground Car Park" in 2014.
In her work for the Aga Khan Museum, she has installed a large varnished latex sculpture that operates as a carpet and a screen. The large rug is next to a second copy that is considered as a scroll or a plan, or as this non–constructed architectural plan. This idea of the marker as a sort of diagram for the large piece which is replicated in form, image, and material. Kubba's work, titled History of the Defeated, is designed and made specifically for the open space where it is hung. It appears as an abstraction but the painting on the latex is actually replicating the image of latex on a flatbed scanner. Sukaina has painted this image of the light transferring through latex as the scan is made with varnish and ink. This work has connections to a particular carpet and family photograph; this carpet depicts an episode of the history of Yusuf, the biblical prophet Joseph, slave of Al–Aziz and Zulaikha, the wife of Al Aziz chief of Egypt. I might ask you Sukaina to further elucidate on that. Her work also recalls this axonometric drawing that her uncle made of their grandmother's home in Baghdad, originally built in 1761. Her latex screens refer to screens as they were part of this domestic structure.
Next, we have Dawit Petros, who was born in Asmara, Eritrea. He has lived in Saskatoon and Montreal and now lives and works between New York and Chicago. He is a visual artist who investigates boundaries in an artistic, geographical and cultural context. Working with installations, photography, research, his practice centered is around a critical rereading of the relationship between African histories and European modernism. By drawing upon forms rooted in diverse histories, Petros' artistic language enables a metaphorically rich articulation of the fluidity of contemporary transnational experiences and issues of place–making and cultural negotiation.
He completed an MFA in Visual Arts as a Fulbright Fellow at Tufts University, The School at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston following a BFA in Photography at the Concordia University and a BA in History at the University of Saskatchewan. Recent exhibitions include the Kansas City Art Institute; H&R Block Art Space; We Museum, Museum of Photography in Amsterdam, the Kennedy Museum of Art University, Studio Museum in Harlem, The National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., MOCAD in Detroit, the Durban Art Gallery in South Africa and ROM here in Toronto. His works have been recognized with awards including an independent study fellowship at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Art Matters Fellowship Kennedy Council for the Arts Production Grants, and an artist residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
His works are in institutional collections including the Studio Museum, Royal Ontario Museum, Saskatchewan Arts Board, and the Center for Photography at Woodstock. Dawit is represented by Tiwani Contemporary in London and is currently a visiting artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the department of photography. These are just some images of his works – and this is Strategic Withdrawal which is included in the exhibition "HERE". And here is an image of just the Obelisk of Axum that has informed Strategic Withdrawal, which was stolen by Mussolini's Fascist government in the late 1930s and taken to Rome where it was installed until finally being returned almost a century later.
Nep Sidhu's art practice resides along the continuum comprised of conceptual and technical components that originate from antiquity to be made relevant for the present. His practice combines language, sculptural materials and often prayer–like incantations that form a third space. This form of practice is informed by the interplay of script, the poetic form of architecture and an affinity for community.
Sidhu has produced large–scale explorations around ancestor veneration, the divine feminine and an intersection of myth and history. Recent exhibitions include "Shadows in the Major Seventh" at the Surrey Gallery Art in British Columbia, Setouchi Triennale, Japan, Culture Shift, Contemporary Native Art Biennial in Montreal "Kill the Indian, Save the Man", at Anchorage Museum of Alaska and he is part of "Genius" at the Fyre Art Museum in Seattle and that's all just in 2016. In September, Nep will be in a group exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University titled "Migrating the Margins: Uploading the Toronto of Tomorrow" with new work. Lastly, he's just finished a short film for Shabazz Palaces titled "Welcome To Quarzarz".
With the divine feminine in mind and an awareness of bringing change to communities begins with empowering girls, Sidhu and his family formed the Sher–E Punjab Academy in their ancestral home in Chakar, Punjab, which is an institution of boxing and learning for the village youth. In addition to the physical regimen, the students are also engaged in educational programming and life coaching. In line with this, Sidhu explores the intersection of ceremony and sport through his textile and adornment practice under the name of Paradise Sportif, creating these transported costumes for women in the school to his collective Black Constellation which includes Shabazz Palaces. Aesthetic components drawn from textile and ornament traditions lever a dialect between sport and ceremony collapsing different times and places.
There is a celebration of the divine in each of his projects, as seen with Malcolm's Smile which is part of this exhibition.
And finally, we have Jaret Vadera who is born in 1976 in here in Toronto. He is an artist and cultural producer working between New York, Toronto, and India. Vadera works across media, primarily in the spaces between painting, photography, video installation, and new media. Jaret graduated from OCAD in 1999 and participated in the Mobility Program in Fine Arts at the Cooper Union School of art in New York. He received his Master's in Fine Arts and Painting and Printmaking from the Yale School of Art in Connecticut in 2009. His mother and father both immigrated to Canada in the 1960s and 70s as part of a large wave of immigration. Vadera's father was born in India and his mother in the Philippines and he is of Indian–Filipino and Spanish descent.
His parents are working–class immigrants who practiced different religions and spoke different languages and he describes how growing up in his family in Toronto at that particular time formed the stage for his ongoing explorations into the ways that beliefs, codes, and processes of translation shape and control how he sees. Through his work, Vadera explores how different social and technological and biological cognitive process shape and control the way the way we see the world around him within us. He often takes things apart and puts them back together in new ways. Rorschach tests, algorithms, maps, info–graphics and logic paradoxes are often redeployed to locate ambivalent in between spaces to reveal malignant meanings and to explore the poetics of our presentation.
Mixing metaphors, shifting historical and cultural references and code switching are some of his key strategies seen in his past work which all relate to the three works included in this exhibition. In parallel to his career as an artist, Vadera has also been active as an organizer, programmer, curator, researcher, writer, editor, educator, and designer on projects that focus on using art as a catalyst for social change and justice. He is currently a visiting instructor at Pratt Institute in the Art and Design department as well as the Social Sciences and Cultural Studies Department and in the Fall will become Assistant Professor in New Media at the Department of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca. He has exhibited at the Smithsonian, Asian Pacific American Center in New York; Filipino American Museum in New York; Electronic Language International Festival, Sao Paulo; A Space Gallery here in Toronto, Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah; BOMA New York; Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai; and Queens Museum in New York. Vadera has received grants from the Kennedy Council of the Arts, Toronto Arts Council and is currently an artist–researcher in residence at Project For Empty Space in New York and in the Fall will be doing a residency at the Alserkal Residency in Dubai. So, without further ado, I'm going to just leave it there. We've all been talking over lunch and having these amazing conversations and I said, "Please save it for the panel." So Sukaina, I think I'm going to start with you.
You've brought in the reference to carpets and scrolls, the carpet is the best or the most prized possession and it's within tribes in Arabia and Persia, and the carpet often hung in the tent, becomes both a floor covering, and in terms of spiritual and religious practice, the carpet is the furniture of paradise as written in the Quran. Sukaina, in your beautiful new work, History of the Defeated, you've made references in a way to carpets, to the idea of Mecca, and to scrolls. Can you speak a little bit about how you planned the work for this exhibition and how it connects to the carpet? In particular, and in terms of our conversation, can you talk about your particular interest in the actions of rolling and unfolding.
Sukaina: Yeah. So, I'm – I think the relationship of the development of the idea of having something like that resembling the carpet or scroll for this exhibition here, partly developed from my working with certain materials like latex as painting surfaces. Over the last couple of years, they started to transform more into walls and or floor surfaces that I would use in installations. For this exhibition, I think that there was – I was so interested in the collection at the museum in terms of carpets but also in the idea of transporting a work – a large feminine work across the Atlantic as well. I think I kind of wanted specifically to reference the idea of carpets as these artifacts that move around with people as they travel along. It's kind of a location marker as well.
I'm also interested in terms of the way latex is rolled as a material and how it arrives. I was looking at rolling versus folding in some ways as I've often folded latex as well and other fabrics as I worked with them and kind of worked with the marks that they've left. In this case, I was really interested in kind of having this floor surface–worked object become a hanging object and reveal that movement as well.
Swapnaa: Why latex? Why did you start working with latex?
Sukaina: I think it started first as I was exploring different surfaces for painting and I was using materials like Georgette and PVC to experiment with kind of breaking the surface of painting in terms of the ability of the material to reflect and to be seen through. I think one of my colleagues actually was doing the Masters (at GSA) and had some latex and I started working with it. The texture that it has…so many properties depending on its opacity and its reflection. So actually I started working with it first, exploring all these physical material aspects of it as a possible painting surface and then as I worked with it more and more, I was sort of interested in its history, its manufacture and sort of relationships it has to fetishism and architectural industry. I was playing hockey puck for instance; I like exploring all its possibilities in material as well. Yeah.
Swapnaa: [ ] this sort of fetishization of latex is also really fascinating here because it while hanging in the space, it's a very seductive material and very confusing as to what it is. And in terms of the relationship between your work and then of course there's Nep's work which is also a series of carpets, which is also hanging and in close proximity to your piece. They are both sort of these screens and panels.
I don't know if these are considered carpets for you Nep, or if they're considered textiles? Maybe you can speak a little about your reasoning for selecting this material to communicate this larger story about this profound and very complex figure of Malcolm X.
Nep: Yeah, I guess personally carpets sort of…in the home I was brought up in as a Sikh, we have the kind of an opportunity to take out any hierarchy when we sit and eat and when we pray, we all sit at the same level. There's no…there's no hierarchy in the seating or in the arrangement from front to back or from side to side. So it always leads to this beautiful space that was always the truth of just…at the end of the day, we eat this way, we wake up and pray this way. It felt natural to explore or honour Malcolm X through this. And then…I mean, just…there has to be…in taking up a subject such as Malcolm X and his spirit, there has to be clearly, a connection to the mud, to the sky, to everything that was in Malcolm, and so the carpets themselves embodied that in how they are made.
If anyone has sat with a loom for more than three minutes, you'll understand that there's a complete breath going inside of each decision of every strand. There's a natural rhythm taking place that goes inside that thread. It would be crazy to think that such thing is a straight–out dead object after that amount of life is put into its production. So it's something that continues, it's something that – it's an object that continues to offer because of how connected it is to the spirit of how it was made. It just really made sense to be able to honor Malcolm through such a thing because there's a lot of individuals – me included – that understand that Malcolm himself is not going anywhere. He continues to offer.
Swapnaa: I mean this idea of the carpet also being this space that's like a shared space…it's also a claiming of territory. I found that really interesting with Sukaina's work and the idea that when it's hung on the wall or placed on the ground, it is marking territory. I think of your work Babak with this tombstone that is claiming a territorial space around it. You've placed this on the ground – a small tombstone that says "Nothing is worth dying / killing for ". Is it a tombstone for you, or something else because there is an artwork embedded inside?
Babak: Sure. I thought I was going to get the easy question. As going with the idea of the carpet….
Swapnaa: What would be a basic question for you? (Laughs)
Babak: No, no, no. I'm joking. Well, sort of aesthetically, I'm quite – I have been quite invested and interested in Minimalism – Western Minimalism. Partially because it actually connects to the cultural background that I'm coming from, and if you strip the cultural addendums or sort of decorations away from the culture, you actually see the simplicity and the minimal aspects of it. An example that I usually give is the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia – which is a house of God built by Abraham – and how it's one of the most minimalist pieces of architecture on earth. And so I moved from that kind of aesthetic attribution of objects to how bodies related and experience architecture, space and other objects and people themselves.
So the body is something that is always important for me and how it experiences movement. Again, architecture is crucial for me because it dictates movement. So if any of us would like to go through this wall, we can't because there's a piece of wall that's been determining movement and you kind of maneuver around it and negotiate your space around it to get through it. Bring that to this piece it does have a sense of play with architecture because a tombstone is usually laid on the ground but in this case I wanted to lift it. But this idea of lifting is also the sort of notion of elevation and valuation that I was very interested in in terms of marking and sort of…what was the word that you used?
Babak: Yes, territory. In terms of value, I'm interested in those two things and at the same time, sort of, an object that could serve as a poem which again is the abstract architecture of the culture that I come from or that we all come from in that sense. And inside of it, I mean, as kind of finished as this piece looks – inside of it, there's a flat piece of art that has been sealed and embedded. It is going to be kept inside or encapsulated in this material for a hundred years, and as Swapnaa mentioned, if it's broken accidentally or intentionally, the object's value goes to zero as I've sort of declared it both culturally and monetarily. So it's this – sort of delay of a particular position that I'm interested in reflecting the past hundred years as sort of a pool or a ground for picking subjects and projecting them into the next hundred years. I think that's sort of where I stop.
Swapnaa: But in terms of this kind of idea of marking territory, this is actually doesn't sit directly on the ground? It's actually lifted off of the ground?
Swapnaa: So, what was that decision in terms of not having it really marking the earth or the mud, as Nep refers to?
Babak: I really didn't want it to be a tombstone. I mean, tombstone is such a sort of fixed, heavy object and the connotation of it is so fixed that I just didn't want that. I want it to be moveable, portable, but almost like something that you put your foot on as opposed to standing over it. As you position yourself against it you can move it. And I think that the style works really well with this piece because that's something that was supposed to be kind of permanently fixed into space and now, we have it actually in the museum. So this idea of movement, I'm very much invested and interested in.
Swapnaa: I'm a little bit obsessed with these forms that are man–made that rise out of the earth as tombstones and the stele or the obelisk. They are [the] marking of great kings or fictional. In my first conversation with Dawit, which was on Skype, I was describing the stele and how I was thinking to frame this exhibition as a central curatorial theme – and he sort of laughed and told me that he had made a stele! It was sort of a very magical connection! Your approach to the stele or this obelisk, Dawit, is that, it is a story about cartographic demarcations in considerations of colonial pasts. In the exhibition, there is a sightline – even if Babak, you don't want yours to be a tombstone – there's a sightline between your poem on the tombstone to the stele to Dawit's stele: three tombstones that move you through the exhibition. Dawit, can you talk about the Obelisk of Axum and the photos that I've shown you before and how that led to the work Strategic Withdrawal that you made in 2013.
Davit: I think that just before I answer that…I walked straight through from your piece Babak to mine yesterday and it's interesting to hear you articulate the extent to which the form refers to its memorial function. But you're interested in it extending beyond that and I find myself doing almost the exact same thing by insisting that this is a stele which has its funerary boundary, marking territorial demarcation as a function embedded within it. But the extent to which I'm interested in repurposing it as a minimalist form looks back at that history or the narrative that is encoded within it as a historical object, and then want to propose it as such but what does it…what else can it be?
So the original reference to the stele is from 1896 when the Italians lost the Battle of Adwa against the Ethiopians and it was the first time that the Europeans have been defeated by an African military. And so this I think this sits within the context of the Italian psyche, and it isn't until 1936 that Mussolini uses Eritrea as a jump–off point to invade Ethiopia. They are there for six years and this is when the Obelisk of Axum (a stele) is taken, broken up into three pieces [and] moved to Italy so that history of how it formed functions for the colonial mentality is crucial for me. But there's also the other aspect to it which is that I'm interested in contemporary movements of Eritreans, Ethiopians, and East Africans across the Mediterranean into Italy and the extent to which the contemporary movements across this body of water are rooted in the type of events that these stele – that the removal of the stele, mark historically.
What I've done with the stele is rather than making it a fixed form, is instead a sort of simple MDF crowned with the Plexiglas vitrine on the top. What is on the top is a three–dimensional photograph rendered in plastic which is a geometric abstraction of the space between the territorial claims between Ethiopia and Eritrea. A part of my use of this form which marks a place is on the one hand to push against the way in which the narrative of this operates within a colonialist context of an Italian set of histories but by insisting on a different possibility or a different sort of modes or sets of meaning firstly; and secondly, by really locating contemporary events that circle back to these original this points of encounter.
So what I want the form to do…Babak, you placed yours off the ground in such a way that it is destabilized…and what I've done is I placed an object on the top which as you get closer, the object disappears from view. As you get further, the object disappears from view. So it becomes a marker for instability, it becomes a marker for negating against the idea that a territorial marker can locate a fixed form.
Swapnaa: And at the same time, it's a critique of Minimalism and the monument. I would say that with many of your works whether they're smaller or non–tombstone, Babak, with Jaret, your large Rorschach vinyl, or Sukaina's, your work is monumental in scale. And even Shaan Syed's paintings are monumental. In terms of working in this monumental scale of abstraction, what is interesting for me with this exhibition and with working with all of you is [ ] critiques around the sort of larger canons. That is fascinating in terms of how do we can move past a conversation of identity in relation to working with Minimalism or Abstraction, and finding new forms for Conceptual Art Practices amongst this generation. Maybe Jaret, you've been very quiet thus far patiently waiting…we should talk a little about how you translate or retranslate or break apart the image and then reconstruct it and particularly with an interest of the Abstract?
Jaret: Yes. Okay.
Swapnaa: Let's start with Ascent, which is in the tunnel, which is an abstraction but very much based on a film of reality.
Jaret: So, I resonate a lot with what's been said already today. This idea of taking something that is perceived to be fixed and then to unfix it because nothing under the sun is fixed. Something that I feel like it's part of a lot of the work that I see in the show; some of the things that we've talked about through the spaces of translation and in–between a thing and another thing, as it becomes another thing and with that sort of need. With the piece downstairs, Ascent – I don't know if everybody has seen it – it's a two–channel video installation along an 80–foot wall, which was really a pleasure to work on. And although it might have been have logistical nightmare on some levels for the Museum to try to figure out how to do it, we sort of conceptualized around the architecture of the space and tried to think about how to transport the viewer as they were walking from one level to the next. The architecture seemed ideally made for Ascent, which is a work from 2006 – which the title is fitting as well. And I've often been interested in the image of a pharmakon as both the poison and the cure, right? Language as a pharmakon. I did a series of video experiments where I shot some video of light reflecting off of water and then I did some very, very small tweaks.
Swapnaa: Can I just ask, why did you film light reflecting off of water?
Jaret: I looked at different representations of how we think about consciousness. And so, light is one of the main ways that we think about value in terms of knowledge, value in terms of vision, it relates directly to the Enlightenment project, it relates back to me to this idea of innate fear or maybe not innate fear but our socially constructed reinforced fear of the dark with primordial undertones. But this idea of the light, the candle, the knowledge – all of that stuff is a sub–context in a lot of my work – and the idea of light as knowledge. Whereas consciousness is something that's been through many different cultures throughout history. With the idea of light reflecting off of water, you can never focus specifically on fixing it as a thing. You look at water and it's always shimmering – it's something you can never quite grasp fully but you can name it. But the naming in it, in of itself is a paradox because the thing is ever–shifting. I decided to start with that. And then I changed the lens. The way that most digital images are made is that they there are on little dots… they are pixels on an X and Y coordinate. So I just took out the Y coordinates and then it was interesting to see what the image would then do with the original phenomenon, and what it would still communicate when the language or the structure had changed.
Swapnaa: So the video – just to clarify – so the video in the tunnel area that's takes one from the parking lot and ascending into the Museum is essentially a video of light reflecting off of water without the grid?
Swapnaa: Just deconstructed essentially and then what looks like a series of bands. It's a very immersive work and you've also added a sound element. Doing the installation process, you were thinking a lot about portals and being transported?
Jaret: It's the process of perceiving the world…we're often…we are doing violence to what may be, right, so the world around us as we understand it, as we're making sense of it we're actually making it make sense for our brains. We are technology as well; information or data comes in through our eyes, gets processed in our brain somewhere and then we spit it back out as "language" to other people. I'm interested in that process in a lot of different ways and so understanding that process, in understand everything as a series of translations and thinking through what's beneath our translations and our language in the world that we see around us. In some ways, it becomes a form of thinking about what's between and what's below and what's beyond.
Swapnaa: And maybe that's a question for all of you though, why is that relevant – this notion of looking at the spaces in–between? Does culture come into that? Does identity come into that? We're here because this is an exhibition of Canadian art with Canadian artists, but is it an exhibition of "Canadian art"? Is that we just happenstance have this connection and being Canadian but does that play into your positionality? Is that of interest? Jaret you grew up directly across the street from here – Flemingdon Park – which is a sort of landing point for immigrants including my parents when they first arrived here. Then you kind of hope to move out of it. Not to delve so much into biography but to really think about what is informing these sorts of practices.
For instance, Babak, I feel like you're always critiquing photography and you're living and working in Vancouver. You question the sort of tradition of photography there. Sukaina, you're considering latex as a surface for an abstraction, while Dawit, you're creating these sorts of monuments that are minimal and also working with throw–away materials. And Nep, I think that your relationship to abstraction is really interesting in terms of text and creating a sort of architectural abstraction out of text and using something like Kufic script which is very rooted in a certain tradition of writing, an abstraction in itself.
Jaret: I think so much better without the microphone but I don't think it's a coincidence that we're almost all of us are working in one form or another in proximity to the histories of Abstraction and Minimalism. I think about rather than thinking about the spaces within – I think I'm going to speak for myself – perhaps it's a matter of the spaces within but also the spaces at the edge of certain dominant narratives of Minimalism or Abstraction in the way that they were presented to me within the context of a Western education. But then the cultural forms that I saw within the context of my own cultural upbringing, and understanding that there was a different historical trajectory and a different set of possibilities for what constituted abstraction, that it could be rooted in proximity to things in the real world.
That it wasn't about this absolute negation or pursuit of purity for example but it could come back to something to sort of tangible and so finding the space of the edge of the type of narratives that allow these types explorations for me is significant, so that the work isn't just about "I'm so and so, from such and such a place" but that it's the experiences and the questions can be rooted within the forms and the materials that register in a particular way here. Like one may look at the Plexiglas, one may look at the language of industrialization that is rooted in that form, but it's that's one's space. But there are multiple spaces around which these things can be examined.
Babak: May I? I keep thinking about this notion of Minimalism and sort of wanting to say something about it because I think my career actually started from this interest in Minimalism and Abstraction and I was really fascinated by this essay by ironically an architect from Vienna by the name of Adolf Loos. And the – I encourage all of you to read it, it's a short essay called "Ornament and Crime" and this is a time that Europe is going through a sort of shift in terms of style and understanding what ornamenting is actually doing to lifestyle, and the idea of the white cube had not been defined yet. So, Loos proposes it and the example that he uses is a critique of tattoo basically. So he proposes that if you see somebody with a tattoo either in their past they have committed a crime. They're just about to commit a crime or in a very near future, they will definitely commit a crime. And if you don't have it, it's basically that sort of pure essence of sort of modern good man. He also wrote another book called "Why a man should be well dressed.
But when you look at his spaces that were void of this idea of ornamentation, so he was like, all these Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings that had overt ornamentation to his eyes, they have wasted labour and everything needed to be just minimal and white. But when you look at that, the implication of what he proposes, it's actually quite ornamental, there is not a square footage of his building that doesn't have a Persian carpet covering it and I was really interested in that. Between that sort of idea of examining ornamentation and sort of purification of an object but also in terms of evaluation again…I am…I looked at these Persian carpets with tons of ornamentation and I painted them white over and over and over until you would look at a white painting essentially and then you come closer and this damn dye that they use still seeps through, you could still see it. I kind of gave up and from a distance you see a monochrome but when you go closer, you see all the ornamentation essentially that's been buried and this sort of vulgar activity in a violent act of erasure which is also another kind of method of modern art in terms of [ ] or more recently, with the Chapman brothers, they defaced Goya paintings. I was very interested in that but then the question of evaluation came to play and all of a sudden, I had this valuable Persian carpet. Well, 10 minutes ago, I was just walking on it, and it had no value, and was barely vacuumed…and now all of a sudden it has value when it's re–contextualized and contextualized within the frame of history, all of a sudden it has value.
I'm constantly going back to those two notions of Minimalism and Maximalism essentially. I mean, carpets could be looked at in those notions as well and then this idea of evaluation – how do we determine these things? How do we value a particular culture or by assigning certain things to a culture, then value gets constructed. So for me, the idea of cultural identity that gets sort of labeled on which closes interpretation for me, which I always push against, is directly related to value systems. It's extremely easily marketable and does very well in those senses and the problem with it is that it fixes it again, which is that idea of monumentality that I'm not very interested in – that sort of kills it in a way.
Swapnaa: I know Nep wants to say something and then, depending on what you say where it goes, I want to go back to Jaret… and, no, no, I want you to go first.
Nep: [ ] being Punjabi and being a Minimalist is like oxymoron. It's like…
Swapnaa: Nep has this saying – can I say it? I'm not going to say it. You go.
Nep: What was that?
Nep: Scar–baroque. Yeah. Yeah… there's a joke actually: it goes, if you're going to rob an Indian person's home, like, don't do it on the night of when they're going to a wedding because the wife wears all of the jewelry to the reception hall…she doesn't leave anything at home. So, more is more. I don't personally have this relationship with Minimalism as an aesthetic that I think about in this way. I just don't – that's just me. But I do think about it as I look back more and more into where I came from and what was taught to me at home. There is a Minimalism almost as a device in seeking spirituality. It's used as a through–line to cut through superstition, to cut through false religious recital, it's used as a device to keep us as close as we can to the truth so that no false ritual gets in the way of the truth…and Mother Nature being a ruling, it allows us to continue to have a progressive discussion about it because Minimalism can move beautifully and quickly to the place that grounds us.
Man, it's only getting harder. You have this data that are coming up that are fake gurudwaras that are popping up in our villages where people are taking advantage of how open the practices and pluralist…how plural the practice of Sikhism is. Now, starting to get in the way of that, by setting up their own temples that are in the way of that spirituality. Minimalism as a device of spirituality I think is maybe where I…that's my relationship to it.
Swapnaa: So I think what's so interesting is that there's a reclamation. Maybe that's not even the right word…there's an ownership of how these sorts of asserted art historical canons have been embedded into a larger popular culture and the way that all of you are working is to create your own sort of form in language of what those larger cannons actually mean. I have two things and then you can answer or not answer. In relation to what Babak is saying about value, your work Jaret, titled Diseases of the Eye is a series that addresses this idea of what we consider of value and when we consider it valuable. When I think back to the stele as the touchstone of the exhibition – it was just a piece of marble that was discovered. Then maybe somebody thought it was a nice piece to carve onto to honor their brother buried in the 10th Century. But what is valuable about now is that it's presented as this artifact in this climate–controlled museum and I often think about where it will be in the future. Maybe it will reclaim another sense of value and gain another sense of currency. With Sukaina, I just want to say something crucial before I forget… is what I like with your work is you have mentioned people touching the latex and leaving the fingerprint and the finger mark on the surface. I think that's really interesting also in relationship to value but also the assertion of the bodily presence onto this kind of abstract minimal form. It's very direct – the marking becomes very different and very visceral.
Jaret, do you want to speak a little bit about Diseases of the Eye in relation to this notion of value?
Jaret: Sure. I think value is…value is a function of a lens or a frame, right? So, something can be valued by one culture and devalued by another culture. Something can be projected upon that has incredible value and its projective bond and it has little to no value. So, partly to answer a lot of the other questions as well is that I feel like growing up in this context, moving between Toronto, spending time in the Philippines, and India, the US and in Canada, you often feel, I often feel that my perspective or many other perspectives represented in the show are not curated at the same value. Right? There's that lens or the lens of the horizontality of art histories is not really talking about, right?
I mean me growing up through the education system in Canada and in the US, we are often completely invisible or we're hyper–visible in very corny stereotypical ways, right? I think many of us navigate that on a daily basis and we're not naming it in a certain way here because then to name in some ways points at power but also because I think that for me personally it's not just about one specific narrative. I think in many cultures around the world, there are hegemonic narratives that are perpetuating the power structure that exist in that culture. In India, there is a very particular dynamic between genders and religions, and castes and classes. In the US, everybody is talking about race in a very particular binary. In Canada, we kind of focus on nation states and think about identity and relation to nation–states.
I think that it is true what we are saying is that we often operate in relation to but are taking our own voice and spelling out our own language in another way. So, I think that's partly how I'm seeing a lot of the things that we're talking about as well. But I think in terms of thinking about perception for me, it takes me out of the local binaries to think that human beings process the world we perceive based on our memories and based on our cultural histories and based on language. That for me not only universalizes in a way to homogenize, but takes it out of the very particular binary politics that can keep us in these colonial boxes of identity. Does that make sense?
Swapnaa: Yes. Thank you.
Sukaina: I want – I want to go back of it to what you're talking about with Adolf Loos and sort of Minimalism versus ornamentation. Studying architecture, there is an attraction and the love you have for materials, and the sense of purity. I mean even as I keep working through painting as well and installation, eventually there's always sort of this idea and I…I've always found…I found the sort of love/hate thing I have. There's this idea of – I also always wonder whether with a lot of work that I do and maybe if you consider this similar sense to this particular attraction to Minimalism that it can in some way avoid that particular stance and have a blank where you can throw in many ideas. So anyway, this is the same kind of question I have…and the idea of architecture becoming the sort of framing device that opens up other sorts of other possibilities like throwing in rugs or pieces and also removing meaning.
I was thinking in terms of when I used to work with latex as well, one of the things that attracts me to the material is the fact that if it's varnished in a certain way or treated in a way, it almost disappears in some ways. But it just holds the paint that kind of hovers above it and at the same time it can capture the fingerprints that come from the manufacturing process or from my manipulation of it, and from other people who may take a role in the piece. So, it kind of becomes this surface that can both disappear in a sense and disintegrate eventually which it will and something that remains in the end is the paint and the patina and the oils from fingerprints. It's kind of conversely always a very, very blank thing that it will eventually go away and kind of leave nothing but kind of a trace or a perception or something.
Dawit: If I could just speak to that. I'm curious of what you mean when you say a blank because it's the way in which sort of Kobena Mercer talks about "discrepant abstraction", so that a surface is never ever entirely reducible to a singular sort of element and so he wants to utilize that as a framework for talking about history and I think part of my…when I started graduate school in Boston…part of my insistence on working with a certain language which was incredibly removed – it was quite white in terms of the materials that I was using, was my reflection on the Canadian landscape. But that part of the narrative could not operate relative to the specificity of my body and so I then begin to think about it. That okay, so if Minimalism is really asking me to think about the encounter – the encounter between the object and the person who is fond of it but then I have to really think about this specific dimensions of what this body is formed of and what kind of trajectory that then allows me to insert into the narrative that the objects that allows.
And so, when I begin to think about Stanley Brouwn or Rashid Araeen, or Nasreen Mohamedi, and seeing these forms that are being made at the same time as a lot of these other minimalists – giants – and thinking about the space in–between how the narrative around those works operate and this – and what is – in my immediate environment. So at that point it becomes for me a real political sort of gesture to say, "I take it on but part of what I'm taking on is the history". But also as you've said, the art histories and this insistence that it cannot be reducible to certain narratives, not just because I'm using it but because the object itself insists on a different set of historical possibilities. So that blankness in there is always as a dirty blankness if you will.
Sukaina: [ ] I sort of agree. I mean there is this idea of my discomfort with it somehow just that I mean there's this…it's always problematic my attraction to Minimalism. It's always – it's always also I think for me also has this sort of connotation especially in terms of architecture that the day of architecture at least when I left this kind of enlightened modernity and this cleanliness and removal of ornament is a removal of a narrative in some way and so I always have this…yeah, this issue with it in that sense as well. But I still remain attracted to Minimalism.
Swapnaa: To Minimalism or ornamentation?
Sukaina: No, no, to Minimalism and I mean even within there is, I don't know if that happens with many, with anyone else but there's always within – there's this need for me to see, kind of this spiritual essence or something in a blank wall. [ ] I think the problematic of symbolism maybe being is about, or ornamentation is about, taking a certain cultural stance and so Minimalism stands in a position to that in some way.
Swapnaa: But I mean this is – because Nep, who is the complete opposite in terms of being a maximalist – in this kind of sense in a way that you sort of use ornamentation and colour and form is – it can be – it's ceremonial. It's excessive and at the same time it's very interesting when we installed and finally lifted these three carpets to hang, the robes that are in the permanent collection sprang to life because of their sudden new relationship with each other. So maybe Nep, you can answer in this kind of way of the opposite of…let's move away from Minimalism…
Jaret: [ ] I understand the history of Minimalism, the beauty, or the poetics of it. But I just don't make work that way where I think of it as excessive or reductive and I just don't. [ ] I'm not saying that by any means as bias or dismissing Minimalism. I am just being…I'm being honest in my practice. I just don't…what comes out is something I got to figure out like maybe later, but I just try not to get in the way of it. That's what I try to do. I just try not to get in the way of what's happening and how it was sent, and how it was given, so, yeah. That doesn't answer your question at all.
Swapnaa: That's okay.
Babak: So I don't know when you talked about Minimalism. I know you want to get away from it but in the same way I think…
Swapnaa: I do. I think actually, I think it's really interesting that we're speaking about this kind of one form because of course we're attracted of course to look back to someone like Nasreen Mohamedi. There's other…there's so many other languages and we see it here in this museum in the permanent collection as well.
Babak: Sure. Because for me, I think that we've been talking about Minimalism with a big M like western Minimalism. We've also been talking about clarity and efficiency of communicating through minimal means. We're also talking about abstract systems that talk about deeper and parallel philosophies as well. But I also believe, we're also talking about minimal or cleanliness or sterility as part of our everyday visual culture which relates to capitalism and production as well. So, this aesthetic of lessons more, this – that – the sort of ripe relationships between different ideologies that are hidden in these models of efficiency and impurity are very interesting and for me. I'm very interested in the aspiration towards a white box and the constant refusal of time and the constant insistence of entropy and humanity to disrupt this idea; this juxtaposition between something that wants to be a monument and will be forever be breaking down. And so, I think that shifting nature of value and in relationship to something that is aspiring to be fixed also relates in many ways to these different frames that we operate within and that are Canadian frames or our historical frame, or gender, or this, and that and I think it's important. I think that's kind of what we're getting back to this in different ways and…
Swapnaa: But I think in a sense, I mean my interest with working with all of you is that each of you have very layered processes in thinking and your references are so wide and so fascinating in that way. So when we're looking at this idea of Canadian artists and in terms of this kind of title of the show and locating…you all are working across different geographies and we're having Skype conversations at like different time periods – and I'm – I think my larger thing is that we're here to speak about the Canadian artist and the Canadian identity and at the same time I think really we have larger practices that maybe have more in common than maybe nationhood. I think that's really fascinating and I hope that comes out of this exhibition in a sense, and in a way.
I also wonder how do we move beyond this calls for representation even if is so necessary and needed across institutions? How do we move across or move away from being part of the South Asian community and or South Asian practice or looking at African–Canadian diaspora exhibitions? How do we move away from that and how do we kind of just be a sort of global artist which you seem to all already be?
Dawit: For me, there's a simple…it really is a simple answer and I realized that these things aren't mutually exclusive. So I stopped thinking that I could not be an African–Canadian. I could not be… so that it's contextually driven, so that there are instances in which I, or you had a different part of what you wanted to highlight. But that it really becomes a whole bunch of conversations between these different adjectives and…
Swapnaa: The layering?
Dawit: Absolutely. The layering that moves as you said horizontally, and I'm proud of all of these different affiliations like I truly, truly am. But I'm simply getting smarter at recognizing which one do I use and when, and why.
Swapnaa: That's great.
Nep: Yeah. For sure, the – no, that was great.
Swapnaa: The end.
Nep: Swapnaa, you were talking about [ ] the bag of identity that comes with, how do we break out of that, like [ ] the identity crisis artist.
Swapnaa: Would you consider yourself a Canadian artist?
Nep: I don't know because, and I'm not trying to be cute but even then, like the break it down like even "artist". There's a…I'm not. I don't come from a place [that] [h]as a name for that and the people I run with also come from a place where there's no kind of name for it…
Swapnaa: What about "artisan"?
Nep: Yeah…no, no. It's like there's a deep engraver, a fast embroider. There're these things but "artist"? So, I don't really get anything for that. But the identity thing is a – is a – is sometimes a funny one and I would – I would – I wouldn't even take on the responsibility of how we break away from that because it's not on us. I think the lens that's looking at us like that, they got to go figure that out. I know they have a…
Jaret: For the most part they have it figured it out but it's…I think sometimes it…the fascination with identity sometimes comes from an assembly of people that perhaps maybe lack fuel. They lack their own so when they see it's fascinating and it needs to be spoken of, and sometimes people write a script in a certain way where they are the all great connector of these people's identities and to bring them together and I'm not – I don't – I don't bear any responsibility. I just could do – I know the work I'm making, and we are making comes from a place but what they want to call it that's on them. I didn't come up with that name or those names. The only responsibility I have in that is trying not to let it get in the way…be it the didactic or the programming around it. I…that's the only thing I…that's my responsibility is when the artwork is there. I just don't want anything to get in the way of it because [ ] when I look at like the works that move me or movies or music, I didn't have someone saying, oh, this is at all futurism meets Punjabi– passivism–meets…it limits the actual magic, yeah.
Swapnaa: Punjabi passivism? That's the next title of what? So, I don't know if we want to open it up for questions or if you have more that you want to add to this conversation.
Jaret: I mean it's just variations of what has been said. It's – for me, in terms of our professional life in terms of art. I've never been clear about a relationship than I am in terms of the relationship between this label whatever it is the African–American artist or Middle Eastern artist or South Asian artist to the market. This is extremely clear to me and unfortunately, I haven't been smart enough yet to go with the flow, and maybe make my money out of it because it's very easy at this point for me to do that but I have.
Babak: I have a sickness of resisting that kind of attention. But also in terms of being "Canadian", as soon as you have a nation attach itself to a body then it becomes dehumanized. I feel like, okay, well, me as a human goes after me as a person that's attached to a piece of land or attached to a passport. I hold three passports. I hold an Iranian, American, and Canadian passports, and in that sense, I've been smart enough. So, when I cross the border from here to the States, I always show them my American passport, so I don't have to be subject to a cavity search and when I'm coming back, I do the Canadian one and when I'm going to Istanbul for example, I use my Iranian one because for Canadian and Americans, you have to pay a hundred bucks of visa – for a visa, so it's free for Iranians. So I just used that. But at the same time, this sort of notion of, what happens to us as humans and individual experiences that we go through, does that have no value?
Does the idea of history of a piece of border or a piece of land that's being fought over and over –that's my label? That's what I get after 21 centuries or 20 centuries, and the other thing which if I were to agree to a label of Canadian and the commonality of experience is two things. One is that, one way or another, we kind of are all linked historically to some sort of trauma which I really like because it's a common ground, and the other thing is our sort of openness to therapy. I really like that. Canada…I think we're ahead of the game in that sense. That we're open to this notion of getting therapy that means that we actually are open to talking and, in those terms, I think we're ahead of the game in the 21st century over some other nations like our friends in the south. That's what it is.
Sukaina: Just quickly I wanted to say, in terms of the way Dawit…just talking about of the smartness of which position, which identities you talked about. I think I kind of see it in a way. What I thought he might mean or point to this ability to take on different hats and different positions according to the scenario. I could see it as sort of an artist as conjugal to the Canadian experience. I could see it as someone who has always had difficulty with identity but it's been forced upon me and I kind of – I can see this ability to navigate it. I think more of the advantages you can gain from taking all these different hats.
Jaret: I agree. I just want to say one thing really quick. So, a few months ago, I was doing a talk on the Filipino diaspora identity. Two weeks ago, I was doing one on South Asian–American identity and today we're talking about Canadian identity and I do respect the space that are…allow me to occupy, which is this quasi–free space of whatever that means for me. But I do feel a safety in my studio and when I'm making work and I think that's a kind of de–colonial process. It's something that disconnects me in many ways from all the other uses that I need to perform in the world.
But I do also take on that challenge as well and so I feel like many of us in different ways we work as educators or I have tried to curate some exhibitions, and what I'm often trying to do is not try to change the system or convince those other people that are not invested at all in this…in this experience but just to write more and maybe create a platform for other people like you're doing with the show. Or like we're doing right now to talk about this transcultural, transnational not fitting into a box multi–positional shape–shifting reality that many of us in Canada or that affiliate at least part of the time with Canada feel, and that may be one of the things that I identify with the Canada that I grew up with…this shape shifting sort of simultaneity, indifference, and multivalence. But not in a – not in a – in a corny multicultural, it's a "small world after all" but actually it's a series of real negotiations that are constantly happening in this network of relations that we have.
Nep: I got a quote my man, Maikoiyo Alley–Barnes, on this one. He said a beautiful thing when we were showing at the Frye Museum in Seattle because everything around our bios and the work was identity issues or identity–based, the artist…the artist with identity issues who tackles issues of identity. And Maikoiyo was like, "look, if we had any issues of identity, our work wouldn't looked like this. We don't got no issues with our identity…like it smells and looks like this because there are no issues that we have".