Basir Mahmood speaks to Sophie Breitsameter about his latest exhibition Eyes Recently Seen and how he explores social inequalities as a reflection of the fact that we are what we eat, in the second installment of our series, The Politics of Food
Long before he started his formal education in the arts, Pakistani-born artist Basir Mahmood taught himself how to sculpt. This skill went on to earn him a scholarship at the School of Visual Arts at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, and it was there that he was exposed to the international art world. Learning about what mediums and techniques other artists were using, it was during this time that an understanding of the power ideas took hold.
One moment in particular, Mahmood recalls, was seminal, as he turned his back on the more traditional media of sculpture and drawing. “At one point, I decided that I wouldn’t sculpt and draw anymore,” he says. “Instead, I started spending time writing and generating ideas. It took me quite a while to accept that I could make art with a camera, and now I can’t think of anything else. I was hesitant to accept it as my primary medium but, after my fellowship at the Rijksakademie (2016-17), I declared myself a video artist. A video who could make other things.”
With his focus on the social and historical terrain of ordinary and everyday encounters, Mahmood uses video and photography to recreate sequences that are acted out by closely observed individuals, accompanied by objects and rituals.
Mahmood’s latest show, Eyes Recently Seen, at the Letitia Gallery in Beirut (running until 3 November), consists of a selection of photographs and video works made over the last five years. “The one common thread among them is my long-lasting interest in the present-day human condition, and understanding it through the work we do to make a living and the food we eat to sustain ourselves,” says Mahmood.
The exhibition is a result of a collection of observations from the everyday that have then been recreated or re-narrated. Everything in the video and images are made up of what is present in the world and life around us but are what Mahmood describes as objects that “might stay unnoticed because of [their] ordinary existence.”
Your piece All Divided Equally (2018) explores communal human consumption and the societal division of resources by depicting an abundance of food, with each item cut exactly in half to create a mélange of still lives. Tell us about this piece and your thinking behind it…
All Divided Equally (main image) deals with the aesthetics of balance and equality in the decisions humans make when dividing food between themselves. I’ve been interested in this idea of food for quite a long time, the idea that we are what we eat. It fascinates me that if I eat a piece of fruit, it becomes me. Through that curiosity, I started to look into the rules we use to share things amongst ourselves. Those structures which appear through sharing are not mechanical, they are organic. With All Divided Equally the title of the work came first – it is about the idea of hope: would it be possible to equally divide everything? What is the aesthetic outcome of that?
In pieces such as My Father (2010), you draw upon your memories and past experiences. Where else do you look to for inspiration?
I was born to a father who was 45. While I was growing stronger, I saw him getting older and weaker. I still stay with my parents when in Pakistan, and help them with things they can’t do anymore and share this close relationship with them. I wanted to make a work on this very personal association that I have with both of my parents: the video is of my father trying to thread a needle. However, I haven’t made anything this personal since then. Instead, my work is more based on the personal experiences that I have in the world that I inhabit.
This is also informed by the four years I spent as a theatre actor in my past. There, I learned to be someone else. I used to actually believe that I was the character I was playing, to the point that I ‘became’ them. This is something I still do when making a work. For instance, the photo series ‘No Land for a Fisherman’ (2012) (below) was made while I lived in a fisherman’s house. He had just left his profession because he was not able to make ends meet – due to a new development in the area of the sea that he used to fish in. While he was away I gathered his personal things, put them on the floor, photographed them and put them back. This created a very personal landscape. I wanted to make a counter argument: that, as a fisherman, you don’t need the land to exist.
Your works are at times spontaneous. How do you know when the moment is right?
My answer to this keeps changing with every work. Sometimes it is hard to ignore something, or I feel the need to share it, or it just bothers me. There are times an idea might take five years to percolate, as was the case with All Voices are Mine (2018). Other times, I make it the next day; like Holy Water from Mecca (2015). There are many things that inspire me; yet first I try to ignore them. If they keep coming back, then I give them a fair chance. I firmly believe that the things I make already exist; they are from the vocabulary of daily life. I’m simply transposing them into an image.
In a number of your works, including Manmade (2010), A Message to the Sea (2012) and Power Between Weak (2014) an individual person is the subject. What, in your opinion, is the power of the individual in these pieces in contrast to a group?
Manmade was the very first video work I made, and the human element in my work has long been a part of my practice. Most of the time the individuals in the work narrate the situation they are in, which creates a very intimate relationship, by way of me making them do something for the camera.
When I started inviting various groups to participate, I initially wanted to gather my observations by inviting individuals within these groups to record their interaction with each other through the narrative I designed for them, and nothing else. Soon however, I realized that the more people I had, the more the end product, as it were, was out of my control. In this case, I am the one who loses power, so I try to negotiate between the narrative of the work and their narration of it. There are always chances of a work becoming something else to what I intended – which is all right.
I think I am now interested in expanding my practice in such a way that I could perform only as an observer of something that I had initiated and, in doing so, see it being made in the process. Having said that, I keep changing my position in relation to the work I make, which is how I develop as an artist. I am certainly not interested in reducing my role as an artist, by simply becoming a ‘maker’.
What challenges have you faced when collaborating with other people to create your pieces? How do you give them direction in a narrative yet also provide the freedom to create their own reality?
I have learned to draw a larger parameter for the work to be performed in. I create enough space for things to get out of my control, yet remain inside the limitations of the work itself. This is something you learn over time; I often position myself as an organizer of the work, more than an artist or a filmmaker. Most of the people I work with I actually meet for the first time just before filming: I like to keep a sense of discomfort, which naturally then finds itself adopted into the work.
You create pieces that allow viewers to access concepts as well as form their own personal interpretations. How important is to you that art is accessible to others?
The work has to be important first of all to me, then it has other responsibilities. As I am maturing as an artist I increasingly respect the importance of the viewer: their presence brings new dynamics to the structure of the work. However, while the viewer is there in my mind, this is not necessarily the case when I am in the process of making a work.
I believe every work of art is accessible, but it only communicates to those who want to listen.
What are you working on next?
This is probably the busiest time I have experienced as an artist. I am currently working on a new commission for the Bradford National Museum and the University of Leeds, both in the UK. I am also preparing for two solo exhibitions, Eyes Recently Seen, curated by Lauren Wetmore at Letitia Gallery in Beirut and All Divided Equally, curated by Samila Hashmi at Canvas Gallery in Karachi. I am also busy on my first curatorial venture, curating a programme for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which I will be presenting on 16 November at the museum. I have also been invited by Philippe-Alain Michaud, chief curator of Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou to speak and present my films at the French Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Finally, this year I am presenting my work in various group exhibitions including Freedom of Movement at the Stedelijk Museum; the 10th Anniversary Exhibition of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Production Programme Grants, and Screenings & Settings at Sign in Groningen.
Basir Mahmood: Eyes Recently Seen is on show at Letitia Gallery, Beirut until 3 November, 2018. For more information visit their website
Images courtesy of the artist