February issue 2010

By | Art | Arts & Culture | People | Q & A | Published 14 years ago

“Maybe a venue like the Olympics compliments my work,
where the obvious rosy picture of perfection exists superficially”
– Tazeen Qayyum

Creating Inside the Box

There was more than one Pakistani participating at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. While alpine skier Muhammad Abbas attacked the icy slopes of Whistler, Tazeen Qayyum participated in a much more subtle way. And she didn’t require ice or snow, skates or skis. She didn’t even require any athleticism. She was there because of her artistry: Qayyum was part of the official Cultural Olympiad.

The well-respected and unique contemporary miniaturist was asked to participate in a cutting-edge street exhibition project called PaCuBox. The project created an unobtrusive outdoor gallery by placing small art display boxes around the city that could be enjoyed by anyone wandering the streets. With a small window on the front of the metal box, the artwork was on display 24 hours a day for 18 days: a solar panel helped power the interior LEDs to keep the display lit up at night.

The PaCuBox is a daring concept — it is an ongoing project that originated in Toronto — that allows more delicate forms of fine art to withstand the elements and become a surprising part of the urban landscape. The small size of the box — it is just eight inches high by seven inches wide by five inches deep (8”x7”x5”) — catches passers-by off guard, forcing them to react and get close to the art. It’s what the creators of the idea call participatory culture, or PaCu.

It’s not surprising Qayyum accepted the offer to participate. Now living just outside Toronto in Canada, Qayyum is an artist constantly experimenting and pushing the boundaries of her craft. Her miniatures involve a mix of materials and went three-dimensional long before she was approached by Anthea Foyer, the curator of the It’s a Disaster exhibit at Vancouver 2010, to create something for display in a box rather than a frame. Qayyum used the opportunity to create something in her usual vein: a mix of bizarre aesthetic appeal and political weightiness.

The PaCuBox exhibit in Vancouver was small and included only four display boxes strapped to poles and posts on the streets of Vancouver, but Qayyum was excited about the exposure. Until now, she had never done a show in the west-coast city and believes “it will lead to recognition of my work within the mainstream arts of Canada and also provide a wonderful opportunity for the dissemination of my work.” Her piece, “Dispose with Care,” was smack downtown in a great location: outside the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Here Tazeen Qayyum speaks to Newsline about the street exhibit, cockroaches and getting political at the Olympics.

How did you get involved with PaCuBox at the Olympics?

Artist Anthea Foyer curated the four PaCuBox installations with the idea to talk about natural disasters that are a part of our daily lives today. She titled the exhibit It’s a Disaster and selected the artists to work with; each artist was to read and interpret the idea in their own ways. Anthea was familiar with my previous work and was intrigued by the imagery of my cockroaches. For this project she did a studio visit with me, introduced the project and asked if I would be willing to participate. It was completely at the discretion of the artist on how and what to create inside the box.

What is it about the PaCu Box as a medium that complements your work? And please talk a bit about this idea of participatory culture and street galleries and why they are important.

When asked, I immediately agreed to participate as I could see how the dynamics of the PaCuBox compliments the work I was already doing.

My recent works borrow the language of entomology displays. I draw parallels between aggressive global politics and insect displays where insects are removed from their natural environments, classified based on colour, type, size, breed, etc., and then presented in artificial settings created for investigation and the benefit of the viewer. In “Dispose with Care,” the cockroach images appear preserved and presented in a steel, armour-like, display box and are open to investigation at a public site throughout the day and night. The depth of the box allowed me work on all three sides and create multiple levels within the work.

I had already created some box-like, three-dimensional works before, but they had always been displayed in a gallery setting. In this case, taking the work out of a gallery and into an interactive public setting renders the work more accessible to the public, increasing the viewership. Being part of the public like this is also relevant to my work as conceptually I am talking about how war and the political propaganda of our time has affected each and everyone of us one way or the other and impacted our contemporary environment. My work also questions our insensitivity to death and destruction that exists simultaneously around us yet we ignore to take notice.

These are very strong political messages. Do you think they are appropriate for the Olympics where the International Olympic Committee tries hard to make everything a rosy picture of the celebration of international brotherhood and unity?

One can appreciate the efforts made by such events and their committees and understand the mandate of similar international celebrations of unity, but that does not erase the reality we live in everyday. I believe that most of my contemporaries, irrespective of where they belong to, are continuously dealing and working with strong political subjects. An important aspect of my work is that the message is never overtly political or obvious: it is only upon close inspection that the message is revealed. The more time a viewer spends with my work, the more likely it is that the many layers of meanings start revealing themselves. In this context, maybe a venue like the Olympics compliments my work, where the obvious rosy picture of perfection exists superficially.

I was also fascinated by how the Vancouver Olympics from its very inception has been constantly surrounded by local criticism, conflicts and anti-Olympic rallies that run simultaneously with the main event and both stances survive parallel to each other.


Tazeen Qayyum’s “Dispose with Care” in a PaCuBox in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Source: PaCuBox.org

Was “Dispose with Care” a new work created just for Vancouver?

The work was created specifically for the box, but the subject and the imagery is similar to some of my previous works. The project did come with its own set of challenges and limitations, e.g. the boxes are to be reused for other artworks, and therefore they could not be altered in any way. Also the artwork could not be installed until the box itself had been mounted on its display pole, sealed and waterproofed, which meant I had to create the work keeping in mind that it should be able to withstand the shipping and travel to Vancouver and that I would not be installing it myself.

[Editor’s note: Qayyum never had the chance to travel from Toronto to Vancouver to see her work installed].

Talk a bit about the imagery of the cockroach. You have been using it for a while now. When did you first adopt the dead cockroach as a symbol of devalued human life? And why the cockroach, why not another insect, or something else altogether?

The very first time I used a dead cockroach as my metaphor was after the first US attacks on Afghanistan. The idea was to use an insect that is universally considered to be a household pest and to repeat it continuously like a motif in my work. Selecting a cockroach in particular plays with the notion of stereotyping the unknown, as it is not the most harmful pest yet it is rendered gross and considered unanimously unacceptable. It all began with this simple idea, but later, as I researched the cockroach itself, I came across several scientific facts and myths about it that complimented my work conceptually. In fact, it was finding these parallels with the cockroach that led to the idea of mimicking entomology displays, which gives me room to play with the scientific facts and the political message by bringing them together in a seamless way.

Are there multiple meanings behind the title “Dispose with Care”?

I often select my titles from warning labels on pesticides and other household products. I believe it compliments my concept and work on many levels: in my work these warning labels create a dehumanising idea, yet they are recognisable and standardised all over the globe. I feel that even on pesticides and other household products such labels appear to fulfil an obligation after which the spread of the poisonous and harmful content is justified. Also, it’s simply sarcastic to use text from the label of a pesticide along with the imagery of a cockroach in the work.

Describe the dimensions, materials and style of your piece.

“Dispose with Care” is done in the technique of a miniature painting, but with a more contemporary and experimental style. The dimension of the work is 17 x 15 x 10cms and is painted using opaque watercolour and entomology steel pins on wasli (special paper prepared for miniature painting).

Why is being showcased in Vancouver during the Olympics important to you?

To be selected and showcased at the Olympics is important for my career development. I believe it will lead to recognition of my work within the mainstream arts of Canada and also provide a wonderful opportunity for the dissemination of my work. Most of all, what motivated me to participate in the project was the PaCuBox project itself, as it is the first time I showcased my work as an intervention in a public space.

Have you received any feedback from viewers about your PaCuBox gallery piece, “Dispose With Care,” from Vancouver?

Unfortunately not yet, although I have been informed by the organizers that it was a very successful piece and people were spotted many times standing in front of it, commenting and interacting with it.

How will you measure success of your Vancouver exhibit?

Success is always a relative term whether its art, work or life in general, and the measure differs from person to person. Over the years, I’ve realized, that for me, success in work is when I resolve a piece and the work is eventually created. Every time I set out to work, I create a set of challenges for myself both within the medium and the content of my work, and therefore the process to create a piece becomes very interesting and challenging, and thus satisfying when completed.

For this particular piece, the ideal situation would have been to somehow document the spontaneous interaction and response of the viewer. I also plan to further explore the idea of creating installation-based boxes in my future work, and this project has proved to be a stimulus and a starting point, thus already successful.

Click on any picture to begin a slide show showcasing a variety of Tazeen Qayyum’s cockroach-themed miniatures.

The PaCuBox exhibit was co-presented by the CFC Media Lab and CodeLive.

A previous version of this article attributed a quote to art critic Salwat Ali. This was wrongly attributed and has been removed.