Basir Mahmood is the second Visiting Artist as part of SAI’s Arts Program. He will spend four days at Harvard next week, where he will give a public seminar, tour museums, meet with students and faculty, and attend classes.
Using video, film and photographs, Mahmood’s work weaves together various threads of thoughts, findings and insights into poetic sequences, building various forms of narratives. In order to engage with situations around him, he ponders upon embedded social and historical terrains of the ordinary, as well as his personal milieu.
SAI recently spoke to Mahmood about his work, and what he hope to learn during his time at Harvard.
SAI: What are your main influences and what are you inspired by when you’re creating your work?
Basir: For me it has been a process. I decided to be an artist quite late. My brother and sister actually wanted to be artists and were pursuing it but couldn’t live through it. So for art, my motivation was drawing. That’s how I got into it and I’ve fallen in love with it over time.
Drawing gave me the opportunity to put my skills on display, to see what I could do. Then I started to do sculptures. I went to the Beconhouse National University, which opened the doors of contemporary art, modern art and it made me realize that though I am working here, I am part of a bigger structure, and I realized the scale of it and tried to understand what was going on in the world.
I have been influenced by a lot of different things. My background is with sculptures and I started doing theatre performances and I started writing dramas for theatre, and then I started to film as well.
SAI: How did you explore these different mediums? I saw a lot of photography and videos on your website. How do you approach each one?
Basir: I feel my ideas are more important than the medium of expression. Moving image has some excitement attached to it – and understanding this idea that you could make video as an artwork was difficult for me to grasp in the beginning. My ability to write for theatre performances and scripts added narration into my work and I started to depend more on ideas and text.
The way the camera works is very close to the way I think. I like to believe that the work already exists, and I like to become the first layer of the work and then share what I see to people. That way, the camera becomes a kind of a medium. I love visuals and images but I would at some point like to go completely visual-less. Just talk about ideas, and that’s it.
SAI: What would your work look like if it was visual-less?
Basir: I once based one of my works on oranges and everybody talked about it. And I started to dislike the work. It is visually pleasing but it stops the viewer right on the visual and doesn’t take you anywhere. I personally believe visuals take you away from one place to the other – but in that case the vehicle becomes more important. My initial works were technical but they were much more powerful because of their ideas.
SAI: I know you’ve mentioned that narrative is very important in your work, can you talk a little bit more about that – is that where you want the ideas to come from, versus the visual?
Basir: I always say that I like to believe that I’m working for the last show, probably the last show of my life. And I want to put all those works into one place and I want to work around and see where I have been because I see my practice as a journey, as a narrative. These works are sets of events which happen, one after the other. Every work on a personal level speaks about certain situations and certain moments where I have been.
There is always a narration. Subject becomes secondary and that’s why the events in my life have a very direct influence on my work. Like the work ‘Manmade’ where the person is changing clothes, that work has a lot to do with my personal life.
We encounter similar issues, similar things. I was in Japan and this woman saw my work, ‘My Father’ and came back the next day with a gift for my father and she started to cry, thinking of her grandmother. We couldn’t really talk because of the language but at the same time I realized how powerful a work of art could be and how amazing I could still communicate on another level. My personal becomes public through the work. You always put your life on a display. The artist is always there, wherever the work is.
SAI: It seems like you’ve travelled a lot with your work. So do you get new ideas when you travel? Do you change the way you think about things?
Basir: The first time I traveled out of Pakistan I was really not aware of where I was going. I was 26 when I traveled to Germany and it was also the first time for me staying away from family and staying abroad. And when I went there it was a cultural shock even though I was watching all these films and I was aware of all this western culture.
I started to travel with my friends in Europe, but when I came back to Pakistan I felt more like a foreigner in Pakistan, in my country. I started observing my family and I started thinking how they behave in a certain way.
I think the best gift traveling gives to you is the sense of comparison. And I was missing this center when I was in Germany. Where do I belong? I was always talking to people in reference to Pakistan even though I was located in Germany.
One of my teachers was interviewing me, and she said ‘Wherever you travel, there is a lens which you use to work. This lens is made in Pakistan.’
SAI: The title of your talk on Dec. 2 at Harvard is ‘A memory, a monument, a material’. How do those three things relate and what do you hope to share?
Basir: In my work there has always been a struggle between an image or the idea. I was thinking about what a medium does and how it carries over ideas. How does a material for an image become a vehicle to carry your ideas? With monuments I was thinking about how the personal becomes the public. How the small work of art becomes so public.
SAI: What are you hoping to learn and take away from your time at Harvard?
Basir: I would like to see how I respond to the situation. The wonderful thing about an artist talk is the week before, when I spend time thinking about presenting my work and myself to the people who don’t know me. I am thinking about what I will be talking to those people who might not know my work, what sort of an image I want to leave on them. I like to sometimes completely forget what I know and really start from the very first drawing which I did and slowly understand my process. This process is helping me predict what I could do in the future, where I could lead my practice. This is probably my core intention.
I want to open my mind, my process and how do I proceed. How do I make ideas? How do I arrive at images? This is something I want to talk about.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.