January Issue 2015
Interview: Samina Mansuri
“I like to exhibit in Karachi because I have a continuity here,” says Karachi-born artist Samina Mansuri, who recently held a show at the Koel Gallery, Karachi. Mansuri began her art education at The Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, a pioneering art institution of Pakistan. Samina also has a BFA from Pratt Institute (USA) and an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University (USA). Currently based in Toronto, she feels her art belongs in alternative spaces and has exhibited at premier public spaces such as the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art (MOCCA), the Doris McCarthy Gallery and A Space Gallery in Canada, the National Art Gallery Pakistan (Islamabad), the National Gallery of Modern Art (Mumbai) and the Brunei Gallery (London). While in Karachi, the artist met art critic Niilofur Farrukh to talk about her art and the challenges of establishing an art practice in Canada.
You spent a very active decade in Karachi in the 1990s, as an artist and member of the art academia and co-founder of Vasl, before moving to Canada. How has this change of location impacted your art and how has your work been received there?
The last work I showed here were the drawings I made at the Gasworks Residency. I moved to Toronto in May 2001, and a few months later 9/11 happened. In a way this politicised my work because I experienced repressed forms of racism; I also faced many questions from people as they were ignorant about this part of the world. The disconnect I felt opened up a space to see things in a new way. Before I realised it, a dramatic change had taken place – the context had changed as had the audience and there was also a shift in me.
It took me two years to reconnect with my work. When I did, it was with the Gasworks drawings as a starting point which I began to scan and rework, and this led to the Oration series. I was doing this because I wanted to explore what digital technology can do to painting. At that time I was working on a small scale because I was travelling often between the US and Canada. In 2004, at a residency at Banff Centre for the Arts, I did a video titled Darr: 37 Conversations. It was my way of engaging with the artists about forms of resistance and how everybody experiences the ideas of borders and fear. It was an interesting way to understand who felt the fear.
This piece propelled the Oration series, which was about the malleable body. There was one figure in the series titled, ‘The Warrior,’ with a gun in one hand and flowers in the other. It showed how perceptions can differ; how a terrorist to some can be a freedom fighter to others. The work spoke of the complicated scenario we have created. However, the way you position yourself today can become very complicated.
I have been exhibiting in public galleries, but since the conversations are different and the opportunity for dialogue is not always there, some of my work has been well received but I can’t say I have been warmly embraced or understood. This may have to do with the context of my work.
I also feel that despite the fact that Canada has a large migrant population, Canadian galleries and audiences are largely still not open to the Diaspora working there and the immigrants are ghettoised away from the gallery system.
At your show held at Koel this December, there appear to be two distinct trajectories. One is concerned with the human body and how it is becoming an extension of technology. This looks to the future, while the small slabs of what appears to be like a sedimentation of debris, point to excavations and seem to reference the past. Can you dilate on this body of work?
The pieces with the steel scrap are connected to a body of work I did in Hamilton, when we were asked by the curator to respond to the steel industry there. I created a video and a large sculptural work with steel machine-cut parts, which were layered in a relief which is presently in New York. The steel shavings you see in the work is from there, and the work is related to the way I was thinking of an X-ray vision of the landscape under the earth with remains of civilisations that we did not know about and are discovering now.
The other work is related to my research on new technology. There is a lot of discourse on trans-humanism and how technology is developing faster than our ability to understand and cope with it. This may not give us the time to decide where we want the future of the human race to go. The same is happening in terms of the human body; 3-D machines can now create body parts and we are already cyborgs because we are constantly connected to machines. This was the thought process which led to around 450 drawings since 2012. They were done on illustrator, which means they were digital drawings and a few them are on display in the show.
All this work is also about what it means to be human which is going to come into question in the future.
I was looking at your work from the last 20 years on your website and I noticed there hasn’t been much of it, despite the fact that you have been very engaged as an artist. Why is that so?
I am not interested in getting a lot of work out there. The actual process interests me, so I like to spend time thinking about the work and I also like to experiment. For this body of work, I had to learn a whole new way of working from the drawings, as each part had to be laser-cut from wood before the layers could recreate the figure. All this took a long time. For the reliefs with steel scrap, I worked in several materials before I decided on wood. While creating the multi-media installations of the fictional cities, it took several months to put each one of them together; each time they were installed at a new venue, I added new pieces. All my processes are labour intensive, as I also like to work with new materials.
There is a perception that Pakistani artists are presently in the global limelight because of the heightened interest in this region and its politics. If there is no real discourse around the work and an audience that has little understanding of the context, how do you think it can be sustained?
This is a question all artists living here or abroad are asking, because Pakistan has come into the limelight on account of a warped way of looking at the region and the art market. When art is driven by the art market, there is no space for discourse. This way of co-opting a particular dialogue of a place can completely distort the work coming out of a place, its quality and content. Our Masters, who went abroad earlier, were not working in this warped context and were appreciated in terms of their own work. Now it’s hard to tell. This is a bubble that will burst one day so one should not rush to get recognition. If you are in it for the long haul and have made a commitment to your process and work, then you should not short-change the process because it can give you a false sense of arrival.
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.
The writer is an art critic and curator. Her work covers art criticism, art history, curatorial projects, art education and art activism. She has been regularly contributing to national and international journals since 80’s.