Interview with ‘Vox Lacunae’ Artist Sobia AhmadPosted: August 10, 2018
This is the second installment of the Vox Lacunae artist interview series. Vox Lacunae features work by Sobia Ahmad, Sera Boeno, Marta Gutierrez, Nilou Kazemzadeh, Jason Kuo, Kim Llerena, and Yuli Wang.
Sobia Ahmad | Artist | Exhibiting in Vox Lacunae from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Erin Allen
Before we begin talking about the works you have in the exhibition, let’s get to know you. Where are you from, what’s your artistic background, and how did you get into art?
I was born and raised in Pakistan and moved to the US when I was 14, a little over a decade ago. I studied Studio Art and Behavioral and Community Health at University of Maryland, College Park. I wanted to work in a field that served people. I didn’t really think art was a way to serve so didn’t actively consider becoming an artist until after a personal encounter with an illness. I began taking some art classes. I quickly realized how art became a safe space, a sanctuary, that allowed me to explore my multifaceted identity of being an immigrant, a Muslim, and female in the US. I found it not only therapeutic emotionally, but also saw that it allowed me to communicate larger issues beyond my own existence, like socio-political ideologies and how those affect community and personal narratives. I felt a strong pull to dive deeper, so I got two degrees: Behavioral and Community Health and Studio Art. Later, it became more and more clear to me that art IS a way to serve people. I’m also really drawn to how art can allow for collective healing in the face of adversity.
In Mirror, you display “the often under recognized fluidity of the Muslim female in relation to Hijab.” Can you speak a bit more about the way that the intersection of these identities impacts your work?
Mirror is a very vulnerable piece. I made it at a time when several questions about selfhood were arising within me and I was trying to reconcile my various identities – an artist, a woman, an immigrant, an American, a Muslim, an individual caught between vastly contrasting worlds. One night I was in my studio during the Honors Program in my last year at UMD and I was experimenting with putting the hijab on and taking it off, and rearranging it. I was by myself and I didn’t have a mirror. I began to look into the camera, seeing it almost as a placeholder for a mirror. This later became as if I was looking directly at the viewer. The camera becomes the viewer. I was not planning to share the video, but made the decision to. It now feels like I’m inviting the world into my personal space, and I’m inviting you into my personal dilemmas. So, speaking to your question about the fluidity of identity: as a Muslim woman, and as an artist, there is a certain expectation, not only from your own community but also from the art world to uphold your identity as a Muslim woman in very specific ways. There is a certain way a Muslim woman is supposed to look. You’re oppressed or you’re too liberated; you are always labeled. So while making this video, I was thinking about the dualities and dichotomies of existence and identity in that way, but also fluidity of personal beliefs. I’m really interested in the varying symbolism of cultural and religious items and articles and their associations with identity within personal and political contexts. Once considered a symbol of oppression due to Western hegemonic influence, the headscarf now has become a symbol of political resistance. Identities are in constant flux, whether due to internal or external factors. Right around 2016, I made the decision to not wear the headscarf. That was a very personal decision – neither a political statement, nor a religious one. It was a deeply spiritual decision, where I felt like I wanted to embody modesty and my relationship with the Divine in an authentic way and I began shedding layers of expectations that didn’t serve my personal spiritual quest at the time. Yet, I mourned the loss of a part of my identity for quite some time. I’m not sure what the future holds. Again, identities are ever-changing.
Given the political climate surrounding religious headdress, how do you believe showing the intimacy of donning Hijab in Mirror, and reflecting that onto the viewer, helps convey the risk of this everyday action to a Western audience?
I suppose the risk here is not directly about violence in the current political climate. I’m not overtly referencing that. The connection to risk is subtle – I guess it’s the risk of being misunderstood. It’s almost an invitation for the viewer into my deeply intimate struggles of forming and questioning identity, rather than convey the political relevance of the headscarf today. That being said, the work will never be apolitical, no matter what my intentions were while creating. I think social, cultural, political landscapes, as well as people’s personal, inner landscapes, will always play a role in how someone – be they “Western audience,” or a Muslim woman – understands or relates to the work. I’m not just speaking to a Western audience; I’m also speaking to Muslim women. I’m speaking to my mother, my own community as well. Taking a personal practice into the realms of public performance is a way for me to use intimate struggles of identity and belonging to draw connections with larger conversions about womanhood.
So in Mirror, the screen itself acts as a way to reflect back on the audience, thus making them very much a part of the work. Similarly, in Fate, you juxtapose a very permanent material like ink onto transparent plexiglass, adding changing shadows and other impermanent aspects to the work. What role do the mediums you’ve used in these pieces play in their political and cultural significance?
I’m really interested in intersections of art, activism, and womanhood. Most of my work sits at that intersection of how can art become a tool of raising awareness about issues of social justice, as well as communicate about identity as a female, as a woman. Most mediums that I’ve used in my work are very feminine and delicate, and conceptually they speak to the themes I’m exploring. The ink in Fate is permanent, but the plexiglass is transparent; when light is reflected on the piece, it shifts the shadows of my hands – the palm line becomes stretched or they shrink, referencing the ever-changing nature of identity. In Mirror, you don’t see a physical mirror, but you are the mirror that I’m looking into. Here, the viewer’s gaze itself becomes a medium. By choosing to title the work “Mirror”, I’m using what is considered a feminine object for beautification as a medium to challenge notions of womanhood. The delicate chiffon fabric in When Denied Home We Build a Memory Palace is also using this same idea of letting the materials and mediums communicate the concept. The chiffon is not hemmed; it was cut hurriedly. Threads are coming out of it. It references impermanence of home for an immigrant, both physically and metaphorically. I’m referencing injustices on both personal and broader levels. When denied a physical home due to unjust policies – ranging from persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan to US foreign policy of drone attacks in Asia, Middle East and Africa to, most recently, the Muslim Ban and overall structural racism and institutional discrimination in US – you begin searching for a home that’s not tangible. You begin carrying home in images, memory, and language. So speaking to the immigrant experience, I collaged my own memories of my childhood home and wrote repetitively in Urdu on the chiffon to create a home that cannot be taken from me – a memory palace. The medium may be delicate, but it holds a lot of weight due to several layers of strong political and cultural references. So, I’m using the mediums to materialize the connections between deeply intimate struggles of belonging and the larger conversations about the intersection of art, womanhood, and social change.
How does the intersection of fate and self determination culminate in your work?
Concepts of fate, and references to cultural or religious practices serve as starting points for a lot of my work, but I think my work doesn’t end there. It allows me to draw connections for a larger audience and raise questions about how can we talk about complexities of selfhood, hyphenated identities, and trans-nationality, which is all politicized. I’m also really interested in how can we transcend expectations and really explore fluidity. This is almost a spiritual practice for me, which I’m currently trying to explore through art. I’m not sure if I’ve really figured out what it all means. But questioning is the key, both in art practice and my spiritual path: questioning every cultural, religious, or socio-political assumption or expectation that is thrust upon us. Through inner exploration, I’m trying to reimagine concepts like fate, faith, individual agency, and their relevance to larger social, religious and political systems.
A quote from Obaidullah Aleem (“How are they to know the depths of your sorrows/ those who only meet you on the surface.”) reoccurs in your works. What drew you to his writings?
This is going back to intimate struggles and how those sit in the larger context of community narrative and not just personal narrative. My dad used to listen to his [Aleem’s] ghazals. When I was fourteen, I found a book of his Urdu poetry in my dad’s bedroom once. Some of his work references persecution of the religious minority group that my family belongs to, which he was also a part of. He also commented on the political system of Pakistan in his poems. Yet, most of his work is about human passions, of love, attraction, loss. Growing up in a somewhat, I would say, conservative Muslim family, his work inspired me to show up as myself and not as a representative of any community that I belonged to. I began identifying a lot with how he used his art to not only raise awareness about social issues but also unapologetically embraced and shared his human desires of love. Some of his poems, I think, are unapologetically sensual – this was something I was not used to seeing at all in the community. It wasn’t until years later that his work informed a little bit of decision making for me – I decided that I want to liberate myself from the expectation and burden of being a representative. I also realized that my work is can be deeply intimate, vulnerable, and at times sensual, (though it’s different for a woman) and simultaneously political.
Are there any other artists that you take inspiration from?
I’m really inspired by Mona Hatoum’s work, and I’ve also been recently studying works by Ana Mendieta, Walid Raad, and other artists whose work is about displacement, geography, language, and history. Recently, I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about James Baldwin’s writings on the creative process and I’m finding them deeply spiritual. They’re helping me draw connections between my art practice, my personal narrative, social-justice, collective healing, as well as my personal spiritual quest of knowing Divinity and myself.
In relation to the overarching theme of this exhibition, how do you think art can bridge the gaps that are inherent in language?
Language, in this context, can have various connotations, not just another tongue. We all speak various languages – social, cultural, religious, political languages. Art itself is a language and it’s universal. I’m a strong believer in the power of art for social change. I believe that art allows us to question, to rebel, to provoke, to answer our own questions, but also elicit a certain response from others. I think art speaks to the humanity of an individual. I really think that visual art, or art in general, can really help us leave the concept of “the other” behind and understand each other on a deeply human level.
How do you see your art in relation to the other pieces in the gallery?
I think what’s really remarkable about this show is the depth and the variety of cultural backgrounds of artists and how the element of language appears in very different ways – from explicitly written, to very subtle. I really enjoy how I learned about the artists’ cultural backgrounds and connected with them on an intimate level, past the visual aesthetics. It’s interesting to see Mirror as the only video in the show, in which the reference to language is sound, not written.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Upcoming projects or plans?
My practice is increasingly becoming socially engaged. I’m currently working on a project about Muslim immigrants called “Small Identities.” Circling back to what you said about how art can bridge the gap between languages or cultures, I’m thinking about how can we use art as a tool for activism. How can art not be elite, but a community experience? I’m collecting ID photos of Muslim immigrants, transferring these photos onto Islamic-shaped tiles, drawing contemporary interpretations of Islamic architecture and Islamic art to speak about identity and home. I’m responding to the Muslim Ban through this deeply personal and simultaneously political project. It’s an ongoing project and I’m now conducting interviews with people who decline to submit their photos. It’s kind of becoming this time capsule of documenting fears of my immigrant Muslim community.
If you would like to submit an ID photo, or share why you do not feel comfortable doing so, please contact Sobia at MuslimImmigrantsArtProject@gmail.com.
Sobia Ahmad’s work is included in Vox Lacunae at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from July 18th to August 22nd, 2018.
For more information on Sobia Ahmad, visit https://www.sobiaahmad.com/.
For more information on Vox Lacunae and related events, visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.