This week, SAI welcomed Basir Mahmood, an artist based in Lahore, Pakistan, to Harvard as the second Visiting Artist, as part of SAI’s Arts Program. Mahmood spent the week meeting students and faculty and visiting courses, and had the opportunity to display his work and give a public seminar. His work is currently on display at the SAI office, CGIS South 4th Floor, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA.
Using video, film and photographs, Mahmood’s work weaves together various threads of thoughts, findings and insights into poetic sequences, building various forms of narratives. In order to engage with situations around him, he ponders upon embedded social and historical terrains of the ordinary, as well as his personal milieu. Prior to coming to Harvard, Mahmood has shown his work in places like Germany, Tokyo, and Paris.
During his week at Harvard, Mahmood visited Doris Sommer’s course on Cultural Agents, ‘Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding, as well as ‘The Art of Noticing’ taught by Gordon Teskey, Professor of English, and ‘Video, Performance, Narrative, Text, Actions,’ taught by Jennifer Bornstein, Visiting Lecturer in Environmental Studies. He participated in an interactive workshop with students from the Harvard Pakistan Student Association.
On Wednesday, Dec. 2, Mahmood gave a public seminar about his work, ‘A memory, a monument, a material’ which was chaired by Jennifer Leaning, Professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. Mahmood offered insights about his works, and showed that much of his work is very personal. “I’m a storyteller,” he explained, which is evident in his interest in art that portrays activities, stories, people, and real events in his life.
Below are examples of his works with descriptions written by Mahmood (visit his website for more):
My Father (Video)
I was born to a father who was forty-five years older than me, and as I grew up and grew stronger, I saw him grow older and weaker. “My Father” is an expression of a very personalized impression of my relationship with my father.
The video shows an old man trying to thread a needle: a simple task per se, but not for an old man, as the video would show. Through the course of the video, the old man continues to attempt to thread the needle but cannot succeed. I chose a small display size deliberately by filming the act of a needle being threaded: the small size of the needle is intended to underscore the intensity of an action that would appear as every day, and therefore insignificant, and its repetition as driven merely by the vanity of hope. The former signifies struggles of everyday life, which we usually view as trivial, but which are struggles of importance and worth, nevertheless, when viewed within the context of time and mortality. The latter signifies the gradual crumble down of human abilities with age, and how even the faculties of hope and determination dissolve into the mists of life’s twilight.
“Manmade” revolves around a man putting on a three-piece formal suit for the first time. Seemingly simple to most, the task of putting on the suit turns out to be a strenuous, time-consuming and complicated task for the man who is having to perform it. The suit in question does not belong to the man, and he must become someone he is not to fit into clothes that are not his. Throughout the video, the man continues to talk to someone behind the scene, appearing to seek reassurance in not only that, what he is doing is being done right, but reassurance that he must continue to do what he is doing. However, you cannot hear what he says. The screen remains divided into two frames: one showing the process of metamorphosis into something alien to the being of the man, and the other showing its final outcome. “Manmade” explores identity and perceptions of the self by bringing the perception of self and identity of the man in the video into conflict with himself by having him perform an action that requires him to internalize something that is external to him, and reconcile with it.
A Message to the Sea (Video)
In a fishermen’s settlement I stayed awhile, and I saw the horizon turned crimson red by daybreak, and sheet of the sea dyed in purple hues by evening; and I saw the fishermen haul out their boats when the sand glowed gold, and I saw the fishermen haul their boats in, as the horizon broke into a thousand glimmering mirrors reflecting sunlight. By the babble of the waves, and amidst the odd song of the seagulls, I realized how dependent the fishermen were on the sea for their livelihood, and I resolved to create a dialogue between men and the sea.
It was thus that I developed the idea for “A Message to the Sea”: I strove to create the intended dialogue by sending a message back to the sea. I believe in approaching subjects directly, albeit using indirect metaphors, making my work easily accessible, and yet open to interpretation by the viewers. “A Message to the Sea”, then, has a fisherman send out a message to sea: a boat which is set off to sail into the distant horizon, until it disappears, signifying the receipt and assimilation of the message: understanding. A boat is the channel through which a fisherman interacts with the sea, which is a source of livelihood for him, which, in turn, sustains his life. I pose questions of belonging and dependence upon the surroundings to explore the connection between Man and his surroundings, between life and that which sustains it, and the interaction that makes both a singular whole.
Thank You For Coming (Video)
I worked in collaboration with a person from a different background to set-up a situation that treads the thin line between fiction and reality. He brought in his relatives, friends and acquaintances, none of whom I knew and all of whom were alien to me, for a celebration, the name or title, occasion and purpose of which is never revealed to the participants. I accorded my contact, who had gathered these people together, the role of an architect, who directed much of what was being done by the gathered people and how it was being done.
By bringing these people together I wanted to build a basic structure which is filled up and extended by the little gestures of the people, and which, in turn, creates for the viewer a social situation – which, in this case, is the narrative of a celebration – from within which to understand the structure of human interaction.
The end result of this project was quite unexpected. Initially, I wanted to put together a social gathering so as to study the interaction between individuals. However, I feel, I probably I broke the structure I wanted to build, by positioning myself with a camera. The camera put the participants ill at ease. Thus, what appears in the video is a group of aliens who are even unknown to each other.
The Arts at SAI Visiting Artist Program engages artists whose work draws attention to issues critical to South Asia. This opportunity is meant to recognize and showcase the artwork of up-and-coming artists who would greatly benefit from facilitated connections with Harvard faculty and students and the opportunity to show their work at Harvard to strengthen their continued work in their country of origin.