From Gwangju Biennale to the Frieze Art Fair and Aicon Gallery, New York, Huma Mulji is a lecturer on our BA (Hons) Fine Art programme, and like many of our staff, she is also a practising artist with a portfolio full of international exhibitions.
Ahead of her upcoming exhibition in Canada and artist residency at a cement factory in Pakistan, we caught up with Huma to find out more about her practice, her influences and how she maintains a balance between teaching and making...
Tell us about your practice and your influences...
I am very interested in fiction writing; in the ability that writers have of challenging a readers’ certainty through storytelling. I am also quite envious of the fact that readers stay with books longer than viewers do with artworks, in order to experience them.
That aside, in my work I use some of these influences to stage paradoxes and ambiguities. I think it is because I believe that one truth can exist next to an entirely opposing idea, which is equally true.
"Artists have to invent and reinvent themselves, and their working methods all the time"
This seemingly contradictory coexistence, this lack of black and white is important to me. I am far more fascinated by the edges of science, the shadows underlying ‘fact’, in the just out of reach than the well known. For example in quantum physics, as in everyday life, I find the somewhat incomprehensible very compelling.
The urban space, that of a city, is where I often find the subject for my work; in the every day, out of sync, in the landscape, in the interactions of people, in human ambition, grief, celebration, and in absurdity and humour.
You mention using the urban space for your subject matter, can you talk a bit more about how you use the city as a source of inspiration or any particular methods when you're looking to come up with ideas for your work?
Walking through markets has always been one of the ways I’ve explored material possibilities and the visual culture of urban space. Having said that, cities that have been the subject of my work are immensely challenging spaces. As an artist, stopping to take photos in the streets, for example, is a highly performative act, a complex power dynamic of gender and class. It is never a neutral space. There is no real possibility of wandering invisibly, anonymously.
I speak about parallels with the experience of the flaneur; the equivalent of that for me has been the years of driving, very slowly through these spaces that make themselves visible. Parts of the city perform on the pavements, and segments of it behind closed gates and high walls.
The city also lends itself to an interrogation of time, its contemporary compression, circularity, or cancellation, where future, past and present coexist and overlap in this simultaneous present. Making sculpture is labour intensive and photography allows me somewhat of a solution to scrutinize the details of my experience.
Sometimes the photographs become the final work, and sometimes they develop into sculptures. Another method I use is to make mixed media collages; the disparate images and text, digital, analogue, handwritten, cut and pasted, all come together, along with the crucially ambiguous gaps in between, that help me understand the conceptual underpinnings as well as the aesthetics and form of initial ideas.
Your taxidermy pieces are very striking, can you tell us about the challenges involved with the logistics of working with such large creatures?
The first work I made which involved taxidermy was a work called ‘Arabian Delight’ in 2008. This happened entirely by accident. I was commissioned a new work for the Pakistani pavilion ‘Desperately seeking paradise’ for Art Dubai.
I was interested in the notion of the ‘Arabisation’ of Pakistan; the phenomenon of the country re-identifying itself, placing an emphasis on religion as a Muslim nation, rather than a broader South Asian identity. The independence that came with the end of empire never made up for the trauma of partition from India, creating a new country grappling with its identity.
Subsequent governments, dictatorships, and a grieving, vulnerable population were perfect conditions to manipulate this and move affiliations away from South Asia to the oil-rich Arab world, as a way to deal with conflict with India and a perceived ‘Hindu’ identity despite centuries of prior coexistence.
Reflecting on this, and the migration of South Asian workers to build the now bejewelled cities of the gulf, the symbol of a suitcase as a vessel for dreams, economic, and metaphorical, crossing borders of the desert, I encountered a taxidermist at the zoo in Lahore, holding a stuffed peacock.
After some conversations, and visits to his office which itself was like a wunderkammer, I convinced him that we had to work collaboratively on a taxidermy camel. The whole process and timing was very serendipitous. I have worked with the same taxidermist now for almost ten years.
The logistics of making sculpture are challenging enough, if you include taxidermy in the mix the obstacles are epic in scale and drama. For example, my work is represented by Project 88 Gallery in Bombay, India, where the import of animal skin is banned. So to begin with, I can’t show these works in the gallery that represents me.
Limitations of funding and museum budgets mean if your work cannot be rolled up in a tube or fit in cabin luggage, you end up on the negotiating end. The costs of shipping, handling and storage can put galleries off. In some ways making sculpture and making ‘difficult to show’ work, for me, has been somewhat of a mutinous stance in order to remain on the periphery of the art world.
How do you keep yourself motivated as an artist?
The only times I have been successful in resolving ideas is to rise above my indiscipline, to make my way to the studio day after day after day, until I break through the obstacles. If you have a place to go to, for example, a studio, even if the studio is the city, and you make the initial effort to commit to making your way there, motivation follows.
You've exhibited all over the world, how has that influenced your practice?
I have been extremely fortunate to have had these opportunities. When you exhibit on a wider platform, the work has the chance to challenge and be challenged by an extended frame of reference.
It also gives a direction to your ambition as an artist, as it gives you the space to explore and develop ideas and the space to assess them. Artists have to invent and reinvent themselves, and their working methods all the time, to self-motivate to keep going.
I have always felt that my primary audience are those closest to me; friends, audiences in Pakistan who perceive the tiniest nuances of the work, the layers and the underlying irony. Sometimes wordy explanations of a visual image, in order for it to be understood by all, can take away the critical ambiguities and silences important to the work.
How do you find out about residency and exhibition opportunities, is it all about networking and building connections?
Being curious about the world helps; slowly getting to know places, eavesdropping on conversations to reflect on new ways of thinking, getting excited about other people’s ideas and learning to participate in the dialogue that creates a sense of awareness of what is important to you as an artist, its critical relevance.
Through all this you don’t only build networks, you become a part of the network. In my own case, I got involved in working with groups of artists to create the first residency opportunities in Karachi and later developed these residencies for international artists as well as art students in Lahore with other groups of artists. I was interested in getting people together to create an incidental dialogue between people who may otherwise not meet and work together.
What has been the biggest highlight of your career?
I hope it hasn’t happened yet! For me, highlights are the infrequent private encounters with my own work when on the rarest of occasions, after struggling for weeks or months, the work suddenly arrives, gains resolution, and you look at it with a kind of recognition, knowing with joy and also somehow a sorrow that it is this thing that you have been struggling to reveal. At best, it is familiar and unfamiliar at once.
What's next for you?
I have some work in an exhibition at the Critical Distance Centre for Curators in Toronto, Canada, at the end of January, an artists’ residency at a cement factory in Khushaab, Pakistan in February, and a work in the Lahore Biennale in March. Later in the year, I will have work in an exhibition at the Museo Diocesano in Milan.
Photos By Taylor Harford, BA (Hons) Commercial Photography for Fashion, Advertising & Editorial student. See more of his work on Instagram at @TaylorHarfordPhoto.