Artist Hajra Waheed On “Sea Change”, her India Debut Solo

A work by Hajra Waheed
(Hajra Waheed/Experimenter)

This evening, Montreal-based artist of Indian origin, Hajra Waheed, will open her India debut solo “Sea Change”, an extensive new body of work, exquisitely executed through a variety of media including Polaroid, collage, objects, notes, and declarations at Kolkata’s Experimenter Gallery. This new show is predominantly concerned with memory and its relationship to photography, much in the same vein as her past series such as “The Anouchian Passport” and “Swimming Pool Studies”.

ARTINFO India caught up with the immensely gifted 32-year-old whose works have found a permanent place in the collections of MoMA, New York, and The British Museum, besides other private and public collections. Over the course of an email exchange, Waheed divulged her intriguing artistic process, her fascination with found material, and her overriding concern with the use of a narrative device, despite the fragmentary nature of her work.

You spent 22 years growing up in Saudi Arabia, in the gated corporate headquarters of Saudi ARAMCO in Dhahran, where strict security regulations prohibited the use of photography, and yet, the intensity of the medium informs your work. Tell us more about your engagement with photography, and particularly your penchant for Polaroid.

I studied in the Painting Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between 1998 to 2002, yet spent the majority of my time there doing what I do in my practice today: drawing and making collages, staring at photo books and reading.

Much of my intense visual research around photography over the last 14 years or so has bled into the very college courses I teach, Critical Issues in Contemporary Photography, being one of them. I have never received any formal training in the medium, and as much as I’ve handled cameras, still don’t honestly feel I know the mechanics of one. So when I was handed a Polaroid Square Shooter for the first time in 2006 by dear photographer friend Guillame Simoneau, I instantly fell in love with the wonder machine. It is, after all, such an extraordinary thing really, being able to watch an image take its first breaths into the world the way it does. Polaroid film is an immediate imprint of reality, yet an incredibly powerful medium for nostalgia. Expired film adds a layer of unpredictability, a surrendering of control, and with that, an element of magic. The intimate size, the square shop, the fact that the image itself more often than not evokes such a strong painterly quality — all of this and more draws me to the rather living, breathing, and now dying nature of the medium.

Your concern with fractured narratives, with things and people missing or disappearing, where does that stem from? Do you find you can rummage through your past and pick a moment when you first found yourself drawn to this rather post-modern form of storytelling that is also intimately linked with the theme of migration?

As children, most of us spent a large amount of time getting acquainted with our imagined realities. We developed grand vocabularies around these alternate places and people and narratives, and at times, even invited our friends in to explore these intimate spaces with us. I suppose in some ways I never stopped developing stories from that very place. Of course, my narratives have matured (at least I would hope so!) and are deeply influenced by my many lived experiences traversing borders, or rather, living among them. So many of us who live along these lines (either by choice or force) do go missing or disappear at times, just to re-emerge later. I am fascinated by those who — yes, dare to journey across the borders they once built for themselves. It takes courage to do so, to leave what you know in order to better understand what you don’t. “Sea Change” begins to explore the narratives around this very migration — one that is as much physical as it is psychological and/or emotional.

Experimenter gallerists Prateek and Priyanka Raja have described “Sea Change” as an archive of sorts. Would you agree with that analogy? If yes, then why?

I do find the term “archive” to be rather hyper saturated and overused within the art world today, making it a hard word to pin down, understand, or grasp. That said, I generally work in on-going narrative threads, which means that over time, bodies of work continue to unfold as much as they take shape. Stories flush out, characters become more familiar and motivations less vague. In time, viewers/readers will continue to receive more evidential material within which to grasp these individual bodies of work — which in many ways act as a collection of short stories. Perhaps in this way I am building my own personal archives.

Why do I work like this in the first place? We often take for granted the ability to use multiple means (whether cell phones or cameras or video cameras) to document our lived/built environments. Having spent over 22 years in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where it was prohibited to photograph/document the area due to strict security regulations, I would say this possibly remains the primary reason for making the work I do today.

This series as well as previous ones, are all held together tightly by narrative, as if there are these invisible threads that are knitting each individual piece together with the other work in a specific series. The device of narrative seems embedded within your artistic process. Tell us more about your process. Where and how do you begin? How much does the concept influence your choice of material, or is it the other way around?

It is important to note that the “materials” I find or come across (and the number of them in a given sequence) plays an equally important role in the construction and formation of my narratives. By “materials” I am referring to old and aged paper, expired film, objects, files, folders, books and notebooks, any medium or surface for that matter that supposes a previous history. It’s true that I have been working on found materials for as long as I can remember. So much so that my oldest friends know to look out for them on their own travels. “Sea Change”, for example, emerged from one such gift by a friend who handed me a large deck of postcards that his grandfather had collected on his own travels during the 1930s-40s.

This is your debut solo in India. Are you nervous? Do you have any expectations?

Without doing so intentionally, India felt like a home I had padlocked 10 years ago and pushed off from after spending almost every summer here growing up. I don’t feel nervous about my show, nor about throwing open the doors of a place that at once feels as familiar as it does unfamiliar. If anything, after this decade-long absence, I’m terribly excited to have returned to begin exploring the country as an adult and on my own terms. It is, of course, also really wonderful being able to work with Prateek and Priyanka at Experimenter. Kolkata is an extraordinary city — a jungle city, the city of cities. It’s incredibly inspiring to be able to start to develop a relationship with it, and I’ve already found a wonderful place to make work.

As for expectations, the only expectation I have of myself with regards to my practice is to always make work from a sincere place. That’s all. I am otherwise only humbled and honestly quite surprised whenever people find themselves resonating with the little offerings I make.

Tell us a bit about what you’re working on currently?

My first public solo exhibition in Canada will be held at the Art Gallery of Windsor this upcoming Spring (April 19 to June 9), and it’s here where I’ll be showing a number of recent bodies of work, including the debut of a rather extensive video installation that began in Spring, 2011. A sister project to the “Scrapbook Project”, these are my first video works. They too exist as a running narrative — a series of short vignettes, each video work acting as one page of a larger narrative thread. Viewers will be asked to peer into a series of 10 intimate handcrafted wooden mechanisms where a number of “uncanny” moments will unfold before them.

Hajra Waheed’s “Sea Change” will on view at Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata, until March 2, 2013. Her work will also be shown at the Experimenter Gallery Booth at the upcoming India Art Fair.