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All voices are mine (still), 2017-2018. Video.
Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation


The author intends to tell a story of another. The course of re-narration takes place in someone else’s setting of temporal and physical space. Here, what has been carried through time is to be performed again from early morning till the late evening.

Participants arrive remembering the performed sequences. The camera now observes remembrance of a memory and then the process of forgetting the borrowed narrative. It witnesses a recreation and records it getting subsumed into the narrative that no one keeps except the non-participating initiator. As the narrative plays out, he stays and waits to observe a reconciliation.

While waiting, he recalls a song he grew up listening to which had been written by his father for a film. Both the author and his father were and remain unaware of the settings in which the song was to be placed.

The film was never made.

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Beginning in the closing years of the first decade of the new millennium, a new cinema began to emerge in Pakistan, which has inspired hopes of revival of the local film industry. The present author, however, disputes the “newness” of the reviving industry, arguing instead that the idea of a revival is implicit in a return to once was.

Lahore-based film industry, during its heyday was amongst the largest film industries in the world. However, beginning around 1977, the once vibrant film industry began a dramatic collapse into creative banality, intellectual decadence and popular irrelevance, marking its end.

The new wave has clear differences from what once was. This new cinema wave is led, on the one hand, by a new generation of filmmakers, many of whom have been trained abroad; and on the other, by a generation of actors and technicians, most of whom began their careers on television, or have otherwise remained affiliated with the same. Yet, despite this recent influx of new human capital, the broader industry itself remains beset by obsolete studios, equipment, cinematic techniques and, actors and extras. Even as the new cinema wave continues to blaze trails across Pakistani cinema skies, the old film industry has struggled to maintain its limited, almost peripheral, existence, with those affiliated with the Old Era now rendered redundant and without work.

The author recollected the memories of actors, extras, writers, filmmakers and other associated with Old Era films. Today, many of whom live anonymously, and often carry other professions. With the collected recollections, the author has hoped to construct a narrative which explores ideas of abruptness, imperfection, resemblance, memory, and remembering and forgetting.

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A performed death in a conceived space (still), 2017. Video.

The work was made through a collaboration between the author and a security company in Lahore, Pakistan. The author requested the security company to protect his conceived space.

The company agreed.

It provided seven security guards to participate in the endeavor of preservation. The participants had been trained to protect gated housing communities, the people they comprise and the wealth they hold. They were asked to perform the tasks they normally perform to secure what they normally secure in order for them to protect the author's space.

The participating guards did as instructed.

As the participants guarded, the author waited and observe. He noticed tiredness of his participants grow and begin to resemble a fictional narrative of the work. Soon, the tiredness morphed into stillness; with a camera author held next to him, he record a performed death in a conceived space.

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Monument of arrival and return (still), 2016. Video.
Co-produced by Contour Biennale 8.

A group gathers as the other arrives. One must inform the other, it has been so ordained. Yet, the one who ordained so – the initiator – is not present. And so they wait: unsure, unmoving, still. The initiator is withdrawn from making of his own work to allow his participants to both create and witness creation.

To witness creation, the participants must wait, and they must cover a distance – a distance that equals the distance between them and the initiator. And as they wait, the initiator, too waits. And as they wonder, the initiator hopes – he hopes that participants will create and shall carry creation to him.

The work now begins. Participants gather in a group; lift personal belongings of the initiator to carry towards him; unsure, unmoving, still.

They leave.

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Under the high arches of Lahore’s railway station, trudge about its Kullis. The Kullis were luggage-carriers and porters in England, and came to Lahore when the British brought railways to the Indian subcontinent in the 1800s. Here, the porters shed their skin, became Indian, put on red shirts which sew numbers into their bodies, and became Coolies. In the far old age of 1947’s summer, the British stopped flagging their own trains, and left the subcontinent. The Coolies, now, became Kullis. Soon, the trains stopped breathing smoke, electric wires webbed over the Kullisł and their skins oranged. 

The author worked with the Kullis of Lahore’s railway station, whom he saw and observed while growing up in the same city. He saw the Kullis as persons who move but do not go. To make the work, author only sent the instructions. The work was made in the absence of the author, who was away waiting for the work to be made and delivered.

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Practicing Procedures of Killing, 2016. Two Channel Video Installation.
Supported by Stichting Stokroos Amsterdam, Netherlands and Kunsthalle Darmstadt, Germany.

The author at the present time is contemplating the story of murder which goes back to a conflict between the two sons of Adam and Eve: Abel and Cain. Cain killed Abel and thus committed the first murder in the history of humankind. When Cain killed Abel, God was both the only witness and the prosecution; and was, at once, the judge and the jury. And at the time, the witness gave testimony; the prosecution prosecuted; the jury deliberated; the judge ruled; and Cain was condemned. The condemnation has reverberated through time – as has the act itself and its implications. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, once remarked: "No soul is wrongfully killed except that some of the burden falls upon the son of Adam, for he was the first to establish the practice of murder." Whereas Muhammad, in this quote, constructs attribution and, perhaps by some stretch of imagination, a chain of blame, there is need to return to the original act of murder itself, and reinterpret it to construct new meanings.

“Practicing Procedures of Killing” looks at the first murder in the history to establish the possible last murder on earth and all the others in-between.

For the two channel installation, the author invited young actors to reenact the story of the first murder. Participants were given instructions in a Waiting Room, where they were videotaped as they spoke, waited, ate, rehearsed and left. In the Recording Room, the participants (two at a time) narrated the story in an improvised manner and in so doing, become a part of the story itself in reenacting it.

Here, the camera only recorded the end of their performances wherein the participants, unmoving, try to hold their breath so that their death may be established. However, the author continued to observe natural behavior of the participants’ bodies with the help of the camera.

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Spectators (still), 2016. Video.

A group of people arrives at an unknown place that is walled by moments anticipant of incipiency, and is roofed with belief and expectation. As a mark of reverence before the anonymity of the place, the group takes off its shoes and leaves them at the threshold. Thereupon – having performed its rite of passage – the group enters.

Inside is a lone pregnant goat. The group expects the goat to give birth, and hopes that it may witness creation. The pregnant goat maintains an unreflecting idleness. No birth occurs. The group stands in expectant wonder, staring at the pregnant goat. Together, it drinks of the water it has. Together, it eats bananas and throws the peals onto the floor. Eyes continue to beseech the pregnant goat. It responds merely by eating a cast away peal of a banana. No birth occurs. Performances of the group are fruitless. Yet, the group continues to hold firm its belief that it will witness.

It stands still, unmoving, and unmoved. Tiredness grows. Hope is increasingly fragile; anticipation of occurrence is stubborn. Slowly, expectation and patience transcend into fatigue and drowsiness, and slumber takes over. As the group drifts into unconscious sleep, it continues to hope that realization may soon find hope and expectation, and that it may no longer be a group of spectators.

The work was created with the artist collaborating with a group of people who committed themselves to long working hours which revolve around repetition of gestures to perform tasks. The artist intended to achieve absolute reality by introducing actual physical tiredness of his participants, which could correspond to the factual tiredness of the work.


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Missing Letters. Installation View Variable Size. 2016.  Paper Ashes.
 
 





Ashes were collected from RLO (Returned Letter Office) at Pakistan Post Office, Lahore. During the British era it was known as “Dead Letters Office”. They keep undelivered letters for thirty days before eventually burning them. Mostly stay undelivered, for having an incomplete or ineligible address and also sometime the reason is just an inefficient system.

I reduce these ashes to the point, where they cannot be burned further.

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Holy water from Mecca, 2015. Acrylic Face Mounted Photo Rag.

Holy water from Mecca, know as Abe Zam Zam, was taken to Pakistan by a friend, to a poet. It was then divided equally within the family; poet's youngest son photographed his portion just before drinking. April 06, 2015.

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Two Eyes, Not to Blink (stills). 2014. Two Channel Video Installation.
Project Supported by Videobrasil and Sacatar.


On July 25, 2014, I received an email telling me that Bakary Diallo was on the plane that crashed in Mali. It was just two days before my flight. I was traveling to begin my artist’s residency with Bakary at the Sacatar Institute on Itaparica Island in Bahia, Brazil. After that news, it was very tough for me to take the flight.

Traveling from Lahore to Itaparica had the strongest impact on me. I was not at all thinking about the work I would be doing during my residency. I think that, for a time, art wasn’t important to me. I had questions for myself, with no answers to any of them.

I work with the situations I am in – this has been one of my strategies for sustaining freshness in my work – and that situation was too strong for me to ignore. I realized that perhaps I had already begun making the work; from the time I left home.

I was the first fellow to arrive at the residency house. I had three days to stay in the house alone, absorbing everything I had experienced while the staff was getting ready for the other fellows to arrive. 

I’ve always had this curiosity about the day I die. What would the next day look like? I try to imagine how people I know would receive the news. How would they react? Would everything else be the same? Perhaps yes. The sorrow that exists in this idea interests me - and the grief in the day, the day I will never see. This situation was a chance for me to put myself into such a state of nonbeing, to make a sort of afterlife for myself.  

In the process, soon the staff in the house became my actors, standing still and trying not to blink.

This work is in memory of Bakary and me.

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Power Between Weak (still), 2014. Video.

A lone man stares, and beyond the curtain of a moment, a group of people stare back, creating a dialogue between the single man and the group. The instant of sustained gazing and unbroken vision continues to become still, and to become true. The narrative asks whether it is the lone subject or the group of people which holds the tension in the moment. As the staring eyes, only sometimes covered in blinks, continue to stare, the moment loses itself. The people in the group take off their clothes, and dissolve into the stymied flow of the moment they are in, merging into the color of clothes that they were wearing. They, then, put their clothes back on again. What has fused, separates: the individual subject continues to stand still and listen to the birdsong that sustains its silent resonance in the background.

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Thank You For Coming (still), 2013. Video.

I worked in collaboration with a person from a different background to set-up a situation that treads the thin line between fiction and reality. He brought in his relatives, friends and acquaintances, none of whom I knew and all of whom were alien to me, for a celebration, the name or title, occasion and purpose of which is never revealed to the participants. I accorded my contact, who had gathered these people together, the role of an architect, who directed much of what was being done by the gathered people and how it was being done.

By bringing these people together I wanted to build a basic structure which is filled up and extended by the little gestures of the people, and which, in turn, creates for the viewer a social situation – which, in this case, is the narrative of a celebration – from within which to understand the structure of human interaction.

The end result of this project was quite unexpected. Initially, I wanted to put together a social gathering so as to study the interaction between individuals. However, I feel, I probably I broke the structure I wanted to build, by positioning myself with a camera. The camera put the participants ill at ease. Thus, what appears in the video is a group of aliens who are even unknown to each other.

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One For Each, Two For All, 2013. Acrylic Face Mounted Photo Rag.

“One for Each, Two for All” is a triptych which deals with human interaction which forms the framework for any social structure. When individuals gather together, they form groups. The little gestures, which they may enact in the context of a social gathering, work as joints, assembling a structure of a group, and holding it together. This structure, as human gestures have constructed, is an organic structure, which is based on basic human understanding.

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In a Move, to the Better Side (Installation View). 2012. Video Installation.
Project Supported by ARCUS Project (Ibaraki Prefectural Government, Moriya City, Ibaraki.
 International Association, Asian Cultural Council). Japan.


‘In a Move, to the Better Side’, is inspired by a true incident. This took place in 2011, in Pakistan. A group of people wanted to immigrate to Europe in search of a better life. They were hidden in a container, and somewhere on the journey, a long way from home, their bodies were discovered. All had died of suffocation.

I interpreted this incident using three basic elements: weight, movement and repetition. Weight as ideology, movement as hope to reach a better side and repetition as belief or ritual. These three elements hold the work together.

What made them move? Did the object move them or did their ideology make it move? The repetition represents their stubborn belief in the possibility of change and the efficacy of movement. This becomes an end in itself.

My arrival and first experience of Europe triggered my interest in this incident. Perhaps my own brief ‘move to a better side’ made me more than an observer? This question helped me to position myself to formalize the work. From here I started to look at the incident not from out side but from inside. I replaced suffocation with openness and movement with stillness.

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A Message to the Sea (still), 2012. Video.

In a fishermen’s settlement I stayed awhile, and I saw the horizon turned crimson red by daybreak, and sheet of the sea dyed in purple hues by evening; and I saw the fishermen haul out their boats when the sand glowed gold, and I saw the fishermen haul their boats in, as the horizon broke into a thousand glimmering mirrors reflecting sunlight. By the babble of the waves, and amidst the odd song of the seagulls, I realized how dependent the fishermen were on the sea for their livelihood, and I resolved to create a dialogue between men and the sea.

 It was thus that I developed the idea for “A Message to the Sea”: I strove to create the intended dialogue by sending a message back to the sea. I believe in approaching subjects directly, albeit using indirect metaphors, making my work easily accessible, and yet open to interpretation by the viewers. “A Message to the Sea”, then, has a fisherman send out a message to sea: a boat which is set off to sail into the distant horizon, until it disappears, signifying the receipt and assimilation of the message: understanding. A boat is the channel through which a fisherman interacts with the sea, which is a source of livelihood for him, which, in turn, sustains his life.  I pose questions of belonging and dependence upon the surroundings to explore the connection between Man and his surroundings, between life and that which sustains it, and the interaction that makes both a singular whole.

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No Land For a Fisherman, 2012. Acrylic Face Mounted Photo Rag.

‘No Land For a Fisherman’ is collection of six photographs, which were taken during my stay in an old fishermen’s settlement.

While living there, I realized that fishing was a profession that did not exist anymore as it once used to. However, I felt that it still continues to survive on another plane of existence: you can still feel the people who partook in it, and lived as parts of the profession itself. The work, then, is intended to be a response to the memory of the profession.

I resolved to create not only a very personal landscape of the fishermen for my work, but also to develop a counter dialogue. For this purpose, I decided to stay in an old fisherman’s home for a few days while he was away. During my stay I ventured to open some of his most personal things, and photograph them. I did not tinker with anything I opened: I photographed everything just as I had found them.

My work is intended to show that while there might be no land for fishermen, they do not really need a land of their own, as fishermen.

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Lunda Bazaar (Secondhand Clothing Market) (still), 2010. Video.

Video work ‘Lunda Bazaar’ is a study of the secondhand clothing market in Lahore, that gave me the opportunity to study the transformation that occurs when an object of clothing moves from one body to the other, from one culture to another implying both memory and change.

Lunda Bazaar captures, in slow motion, a succession of men and one woman trying on clothing. Shot from afar with long lens-to ensure the subjects were unaware of the filmmaker-the image is cropped to present each person’s torso, their heads often just out of frame as they shrug themselves into jumpers and jackets, straightening lapels and collars and fitting the garments to their body. The ambient sound of the market is slowed to form a soundscape, an indistinct muted roar, increasing the sense of time and space distilled.

The clothing sold in Lunda Bazaar is typically from the United Kingdom, United States and other countries within the region, such as Korea, Japan, and India. Originally made of different climate and cultures, the garments are transformed through the act of wearing-retaining the memory of the past at the same time they are made new.

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My Father (Still), 2010. Video.

I was born to a father who was forty-five years older than me, and as I grew up and grew stronger, I saw him grow older and weaker. “My Father” is an expression of a very personalized impression of my relationship with my father.

The video shows an old man trying to thread a needle: a simple task per se, but not for an old man, as the video would show. Through the course of the video, the old man continues to attempt to thread the needle but cannot succeed. I chose a small display size deliberately by filming the act of a needle being threaded: the small size of the needle is intended to underscore the intensity of an action that would appear as every day, and therefore insignificant, and its repetition as driven merely by the vanity of hope.  The former signifies struggles of everyday life, which we usually view as trivial, but which are struggles of importance and worth, nevertheless, when viewed within the context of time and mortality. The latter signifies the gradual crumble down of human abilities with age, and how even the faculties of hope and determination dissolve into the mists of life’s twilight.

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Manmade (Still), 2010. Video.

“Manmade” revolves around a man putting on a three-piece formal suit for the first time. Seemingly simple to most, the task of putting on the suit turns out to be a strenuous, time-consuming and complicated task for the man who is having to perform it. The suit in question does not belong to the man, and he must become someone he is not to fit into clothes that are not his. Throughout the video, the man continues to talk to someone behind the scene, appearing to seek reassurance in not only that, what he is doing is being done right, but reassurance that he must continue to do what he is doing.  However, you cannot hear what he says. The screen remains divided into two frames: one showing the process of metamorphosis into something alien to the being of the man, and the other showing its final outcome. “Manmade” explores identity and perceptions of the self by bringing the perception of self and identity of the man in the video into conflict with himself by having him perform an action that requires him to internalize something that is external to him, and reconcile with it.

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I’m on the “Us” Side and You Are on the Other, 2010. Two Channel Video Installation.

The Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan is the site of a daily military custom known as the “lowering of the flags” ceremony. It takes place every evening before sunset just before security forces on either side close the gates. Thousands of spectators gather every day to watch the ceremony.

I’m on the “us” side and you are on the other looks at what this ceremony says about the groups that watch it and what unites them. The installation is composed in such a way that the viewer is subsumed into the crowd.   



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© Basir Mahmood