Student artist assistant Christina Kutter put some questions to South West Showcase artist Huma Mulji about her solo exhibition 'Your Tongue in my Mouth'
In Conversation with Huma Mulji - Your Tongue in my Mouth
Q. How has the preparation for the South West Showcase (your first solo show in the UK) been different from previous projects / commissions?
All exhibitions are entirely different. They are not always, or not only, the sum of artworks represented. Time, geography, audience, there is so much that an exhibition is contingent on. I have often made new work for solo shows, which means until you install in the gallery, you don’t in fact know what the exhibition will look or feel like. An exhibition is another artwork, has a life and meaning of its own, the works are in conversation with each other in a way that may not occur in the studio or my imagination. So in that way it’s no different from other exhibitions. However, it is the first time, as you say, I’m showing in the UK, and that changes my audience dramatically: and therefore, the language with which I communicate.
Q. In what ways has the final show developed / departed from your original proposal? Can you give some insights into your usual working process / research methodologies, and how these have played out over the past year?
I made a proposal which was somewhat speculative. Conceptually, I knew what I wanted to interrogate, but I could only imagine how these ideas would be communicated visually. For example, in the proposal, I had suggested a conversation between two geographies across time. I had imagined there would be a making and an unmaking, I was really set on the idea of making everything unstable. This could be a conceptual instability, but I also wanted physical discomfort. One of the initial ideas was that something is being made somewhere and something is coming undone elsewhere, perhaps in the gallery. When I began my research, it immediately made holes in my argument, and when I went to Karachi with these new ideas in mind, the city further disintegrated my plan. Despite this, I was reminded how easily I am able to function in a city like Karachi, the urban landscape is something I know best; thinking on my feet, constantly moving, geographically as well as in terms of the ideas taking shape. There were so many doors that closed on me but so many others that opened. Karachi is such a generous city for artists. It is curious, challenging but also collaborative, but it's not just a place, it's an extension of one’s body. I lived in Lahore for many years, and it was really critical to my practice as an artist and as a teacher, and I have not lived in Karachi for 22 years now, but it's still the city that feels most like home.
So, the work constantly morphed and every so often I would stop and remind myself what mattered the most to me when I started the process, and tried to retain the essence of this inquiry. You start with big dreams, and often towards the end it feels like too much detail has been shed, often out of necessity. But like the editorial process in writing, it is also essential. And one day a work takes shape, tentative, spectral, and you recognise it as something you have held in your head for a long time. It feels strangely familiar. By this point, my loyalties have shifted from the idea to the artwork. And I do what the work asks of me, even if it means leaving behind ideas I have held very close for a long time. Just before I left for Karachi, I happened to watch The Great Beauty and The Hand of God, both films by Paolo Sorrentino, completely by accident. Both films are like a love letter to a city, one to Rome and one to Naples, which incidentally is so much like Karachi; a visual, sensual overload, full of conflict which manages to hang together somehow. At this point I decided that the city was the hero of my work, the main protagonist, whatever else the show had to offer.
Q. You are an artist who is clearly interested in the politics of time and place .. What are the temporal dynamics and interplay of locations within this body of work? How successfully do you think the show would 'travel to Pakistan' or would differences in perspectives or cultural institutions oblige changes?
There is an obvious interplay of geographies in the work, one overlaying another, sometimes happily oblivious, and sometimes in conflict. There is also a consistent interrogation of time. The bronze lions, the marble statue, are unmoving, while around them the city is immense in its presence; flowers bloom voluptuously, there is a hum of conversation, bird song, performativity. How it would travel to Pakistan is a really important question that I have asked myself often. I’ve always said that my primary audience is in Pakistan. The city is always in my studio, watching over my shoulder, asking difficult questions. It is somewhat easier to make work for the 'other'. To perform for those who know you a little bit. It’s much harder to perform successfully to a place that knows you too well. As a small example, I am using scent in one of the works, an evocation of a humid Karachi night brought to the gallery, if only a lingering whiff of it. I would never be able to do that in Pakistan without it seeming kitsch. In the same way, in order to rupture the cool whiteness of the gallery, I wanted to use dust, smell, colour and most importantly sound. But how to do this without the potential sentimentality it brings, the stereotype of the exotic other it evokes, has been challenging. The work will of course only be completed once there is an audience in the gallery. That may change all of my imagined interpretation again.
Q. Is there any relationship between your use of the 'Raat Ki Rani' scent and the lost / found broken nose which is a sculptural element in the show?
Amongst the many stories this work was built on, one was that of the Queen’s nose. It is indeed broken, but someone stuck it back on, in a way that the seam is uneven and very visible. To lose one's nose in Urdu is also to lose one's honour, and I was playing with this idea with the lost nose… I still don’t have a title for it. I’m thinking I could call it Rumour. But the work Raat ki Rani, the photographic work, was made after the title. I wanted to call the work Raat ki Rani, which literally translated means queen of the night, and is a plant that blooms at night and fills gardens with a fragrant warmth. I scattered some of these flowers around the statue, in an earlier iteration, so that I could title it so. Then came the bougainvillea, and slowly the queen disappeared behind this foliage. It wasn’t planned at all, the only thing I had was a title.
Q. You currently live and work in Bristol ... Did the toppling of the Colston statue inform your thinking for the treatment of the Queen Victoria statue in any way? Do you think we can learn anything from one scenario to apply to a reading of the other?
I think it was instrumental in drawing my attention to my memory of the Victoria memorial. Last year I made a couple of works for an exhibition Centre of Gravity in Bristol. One of these works was a collaboration with five artists from Spike Island, and dealt specifically with the Colston plinth. We recorded our conversations around all aspects of the collaboration, and edited it in such a way that we talked about everything but the elephant in the room, so to speak. I was more interested in the power of the empty plinth to create so much discomfort, than the public discourse to decolonize this or that. Not that it isn’t important, but the colonial machinery has of course, insidiously morphed many times in order to survive. From globalisation to neoliberalism, it has reproduced itself each time with a similar agenda and outcomes. We have been ostensibly “given permission” to talk about twentieth century colonialism while simultaneously silencing conversation around present day settler colonialism. So many in the world don’t have the luxury to memorialise, remember, recall. They have been erased many times over on some pretext or other.
Q. This show evokes, indeed is built around, notions of fragmentation, displacement, instability, which are often viewed as functions both of memory and history. Can you explain a bit about your choices and use of materials, colours and motifs in order to carry these themes? How present is the legacy of your own migration from Pakistan in this work?
I wouldn’t say the work is autobiographical but it excavates my own experience of remembering. Like grief, memory is not a linear process of knowing and narrating. I wanted to attempt to activate some of these unexpected moments when you are transported to an entirely different geography and time. But the instability is more than that, beyond my own experience it is a collective anxiety of our time, and I was particularly thinking of water. Karachi has an extreme shortage of clean water, some of it is real and some is created by corrupt distribution systems. Every year during the monsoon, it floods, again some of it is the rain and a lot of it is the inadequate drainage system. Then, there is the ocean, which is being eroded by development. In Your Tongue in My Mouth, one of the stories is based on an Urdu story by Asif Aslam Farrukhi, which is called Samandar ki Chori (The Theft of the Ocean). For our times, the sea is also a symbol of the (forced) movement of people, of glacial melt, of loss and grief. I wanted to capture an unstable horizon, and the footage I shot initially was on a boat. I had hoped that this shaky footage would communicate all this to the viewer, but it did not work. I am not a filmmaker, and I had not anticipated basic problems like the harsh sunshine, which meant I was unable to look at any footage while on site. I only realised the problems in retrospect, when it was too late. Or that I had very little time, and in some cases, I had to sit with the material longer, to know what it was about. The fragmentation in the work plays out in other ways: all the components of the memorial take different forms; there is a film, a photograph, a backdrop. There is fragrance, there is a sculpture, there is debris. While I was in Karachi, I did find the missing plinth for the Victoria statue, but it was a wreck. I wanted to bring this rubble into the gallery, in keeping with an ‘unmaking’. But I eventually decided to work with Victorian mosaic tiles, which are found across the world, particularly port cities, from Venice and Granada, to Lisbon, Marrakesh and Karachi.
Q. While audiences are largely accustomed to the screen as a mediator of experiences, moving image / screen-based works are a somewhat new medium for your practice. What do you feel moving image brings to our relationships with e.g. art / the other, and why did moving image need to be a key element of this show?
For me the film came much later, out of necessity. If it had been possible, I may have made large scale sculpture. The limitations on travel, and the prohibitive costs of shipping, meant that I had to find another way to occupy the gallery with an 'elsewhere'. A film allows sound and image. And digital material is portable. Sculpture is labour intensive, and costly, and to change the work midway is often prohibitive. When editing film, you can alter the narrative quickly and evoke an entirely different sentiment with how you use sound. Perhaps it gives you too much choice, but also an unexpected freedom. Having said that, I was really lucky to work with Oliver Sutherland on editing the film and it was because Oliver edits with such skill and elegance that difficult tasks seemed easy. With so many of us living in more than one place, both physically and mentally, film opens up an incredible space to explore this multiplicity.
Q. Ordinary citizens of contemporary Karachi feature in the dual channel video work 'Gandhi Garden' with the two "tamed" lions presumably symbolic of defenestrated colonial power. In contrast, another video reveals how some of the customs of colonial administration still endure through people like the typist and his use of anachronistic English words and terms. This partial erasure of the past is also echoed in 'Red Carpet' with its disrupted surface, and the absence / presence duality embodied in the tile piece 'The Star of Karachi.' What kinds of conversations do you hope these ideas will rouse in your audiences?
Something that has been really critical to my decisions is the space of ambiguity. How can I transport some quality of a place without narrating it as the truth? So there is no loss, only deliberate gaps created through an abstraction of ideas. We have opinions, and it is difficult to not take sides. That is not to say that my moral or political position is not visible, but that in looking at small details of everyday life, I try to open up other ways of thinking and looking at what we think we already know. For example, permission to photograph the marble statue of Victoria was revoked at the last minute. Transgression and pushing borders has always been a part of my work, it's the way I test edges such as that of bureaucracy. When I went to Bilal Sahab to get a permission letter typed, I was only going to use the letter as a placeholder for the Queen’s presence. When he wrote and read the letter out aloud, several things happened. He wrote Elizabeth rather than Victoria, a sign that he knew that there was a Queen called Elizabeth. There was an awkwardness to his speech, along with a fluency in the language, and there was immense pride in being considered the top typist to go to for getting English letters typed. There is extraordinary power in the possession of a language. Any language. All these truths existed together. The letters in this film are drawn from Letters to the Editor columns in English newspapers, citizens’ complaints about the sea, the sky, the ground, and one notices that the language used is very canonical/ceremonial. Language is something that both divides and brings us together, it is not only about communicating meaning through words, but also a way of seeing and understanding the world, a way of thinking. Words evoke place, time and temperature but can also be entirely somatic. I went back to film him for several days, and slowly got to know the everyday activity around him. The second channel narrates the story of a man who arrives every morning, sets up a legless plastic stool on a pile of rocks, lays down a nice looking sheet of fabric and sits down to direct traffic to the typist, appointing himself as an agent. I found these little stories of how people make their everyday lives meaningful very moving to watch. You grow to love the characters you have inadvertently filmed, and you have a relationship with them.
Q. Given the current geopolitical landscape, the climate crisis, the recent general election result in Pakistan etc, how do you respond to the suggestion that the time is now for all eyes to be fully forward focused rather than backwards glancing?
Pakistan has always had to be forward facing. Perhaps it couldn’t look back without losing the clear edges of its map.
Christina (Tina) Kutter is a multi-disciplinary artist whose practice engages materially and conceptually with critical dialogues concerning time, place, matter transformation and tensions between opposing forces. Tina was one of two AUP postgraduate students selected to work as MIRROR Artist Assistants for the duration of the South West Showcase 2021/22.