Pakistan-born artist Seher Shah moved to London and Brussels and attended High School in New York City. In Shah's The Jihad Pop Progression Series (2006/2007), layered motifs derived from architectural references and religious imagery interact within iconic Islamic spaces such as the interior courtyard. These energized realms are at once utopian and nostalgic.
JIHAD POP An interview with Seher Shah
Tom Finkelpearl: Can you talk about the title “Jihad Pop”?
Seher Shah: The work for Jihad Pop had initially begun after a series of dialogues and conversations that were surrounded by the issues of the differences between India and Pakistan, Islam and marriage to someone from another faith, and construction of identity.
Shortly after I had proposed my future plans to settle down with someone from the Sikh faith to my family, a series of debates followed in regards to my own childhood upbringing and identity from having lived in various cities. These debates took place over the course of a few years from New York City to Lahore and New Delhi. Shortly after this meeting, September 11th spiraled the media into a frenzy of images of conflict, terrorism and migration in the years that followed. I was dealing with a very private dialogue of what being a Muslim meant for me, whilst the imagery from the media was constructing narratives on Islam that were for the most part negative, stereotypical and fraught with propaganda for the ongoing war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was in the midst of this that I had started creating a series of works that negotiated between personal photographs, iconic Islamic spaces, geometries and symbols. I wanted to be able to construct works that showed universal connections to certain geometric forms and massing.
The title Jihad Pop came about as a means to construct the idea of struggle of identity alongside images from pop culture and to form a new association with Islamic visual imagery. The meeting of these two words ‘jihad’ and ‘pop’ is the marriage of this exploration of identity and the simultaneous broadcast of imagery of violence, conflict and migration. Using associations and influences from media images, personal travel photographs, animation, graffiti and hand drawings to create the series that unfolds to explore the relationship of Islamic iconography and imagery. I kept the connection open to the meaning of both words, so as to interpret it in a variety of means. Using cultural elements I had grown up with from New York, Brussels, London and Lahore I started constructing and reconstructing images and symbols I was gravitating towards. The Jihad Pop works as of now are mainly constructed through a series of large-scale drawings and several print editions.
TF I know you lived in multiple countries and perhaps multiple cultures growing up. Can you talk about the childhood references in your work?
SS I think that for me it is essentially problematic to separate influences and places I have lived in. Yes, I have segments of time that I have experienced in a particular city and place but it’s hard to refer to separate influences. For example, a friend of mine when looking at one of the Progression drawings of the Interior Courtyard was reminded of the great hall at Versailles. I thought that this was a very interesting point as firstly this is a place where I have spent numerous weekends with my family in my pre-teen years whilst traveling near Belgium, and secondly because it was a way of constructing spaces that had geometric similarities in spatial cultural memory for me. The connection of time, architecture, memory and music all are fused together in a hazy state and sometimes can be distilled through images.
I had gone back and forth from Belgium and Pakistan several times, oscillating between severe gothic architecture and Art Deco, Flemish and French languages and culture to predominantly Moghul architecture, and a fairly liberal Islamic state, although this is a very subjective viewpoint. Some of my fondest memories from childhood are with my grandmother sitting in her Karachi home, making paper boats to float in the streets during the monsoon, and watching Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple during the time of General Zia-ul- Haq. Thinking back at this time with Zia trying to bring the legal and social institutions of Pakistan in conformity with Islamic law, whether for political reasons or otherwise, is still an ongoing debate and cause of severe problems to this day in Pakistan with the struggle for political dominance and control.
The exploratory Progression drawings from the Jihad Pop series are a medium to reconstruct imagery and spaces of iconic spaces like the Islamic interior courtyard and the universal geometry of the Cube or ‘Kaaba’ structure. These two images of the Courtyard and Cube are what I chose to focus on in order to explore the ideas of nostalgia and universal forms. The personal symbols that are depicted play out simultaneously with symbols of Islam within these iconic spaces as layered and organic compositions.
TF What are the architectural references? Are the spaces imagined by you or taken from the real world?
SS Visual memory of the architecture for me is a very intrinsic part of associations and familiarity with forms and cities. Because I was visually absorbing various types of styles from a very young age, I did not feel any type of cultural boundaries, as everything became a point to be experienced. There was definitely an attitude of openness for me from a young age. The architectural spaces that I remember the most clearly span from my childhood, in particular, vary from courtyard spaces such as Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque complex and the Moghul Shalimar Gardens, to the gothic Grand Place in Brussels to seeing the Alhambra in Granada. Based on this background, I found that I very naturally progressed into creating interior constructions in my works that allowed me to form my own narratives and take on the hybrid layers.
But of course the boundaries that I had not felt defined in my childhood because of the amount of travel and movement through various cities, started to define themselves for me through my teenage years. The international schools I was attending with a group of students who also had families that had international postings. But as I was growing up I was getting increasingly frustrated with the idea of the international school model. Groups of students were put together in highly expensive educational systems that centered on the American expatriate communities. The international school was definitely a model for ‘American’ values and culture, whether it was situated in Brussels or elsewhere on the globe. But to me, personally, it felt like a small bubble in the city that it was situated in, kept separate because of the self boundaries it placed on itself.
I think the idea of boundaries became an issue both as a personally defined interiors to be separated in terms of thought and values, and also viewing the cities I had lived in as to how they had socially separated parts and communities. All these various separations and hybrids went into forming the idea of image making in the print series, and also is the basis for the exploratory graphite drawings.
When I was invited to participate in the Generation 1.5 exhibit, I was at first apprehensive as to the definition of what the term meant and its defination in the context of the exhibit. I had lived in various cities and cultures, and was apprehensive that the cultural baggage that one comes with in all its nuances and precise experiences could only be viewed through the lens of a specific term. But based on the conversations with Tom Finkelpearl and Valerie Smith, the curators for the exhibit I was very excited in terms of the context for the show. It was kept open with each of the artists bringing in their own interpretation as well as a working blog to keep the definition in flux and broad based from a variety of sources. I was also very curious as to how the works would be received from a variety of viewers given the title and influences that went into the works from both an investigation and exploratory mode to creating works that stayed clear of miniature and calligraphic Islamic arts, but still at the same time trying to make connections to universal forms and symbols that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. It is an organic way of working, but I feel that similar to the Exquisite Corpse process, that working in this manner brought about connections and relationships that a pre-constructed methodology and image would have failed in.
TF There is no more loaded word than Jihad these days. Do you think that people get the way you’re using it? And, are you trying to push a particular political emphasis on the works?
SS I found that by combining the words I had defined a space for myself where I could explore a number of issues, images and forms. I was not apprehensive of the connotation of the words in terms of a negative reaction to the title, as I felt the works were investigatory in nature and more exploratory in their underlying basis. People would react in their own ways, and that has been one of the really interesting developments, as to see how various people have chosen to react to the imagery. In several of the print series I reconstruct media imagery with personal photography to establish the image. In the drawings geometric forms interact with architectural interiors and various symbols.
The works aside from a personal investigation also came about with the extreme ways the media was portraying events after September 11th. The war in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the corporate journalism that was coming out, still managed to find pockets of reporters, captured images and various collectives that were exploring the true nature of the war and its affects both in the Middle East and in America. The media itself though had by in large, become a corporate tool for electronic warfare, and that by mass reproductions and repetition, the idea of war itself and the reasoning was being enforced on the public domain.
Watching New York City change as well for the Muslim community was also a very difficult experience on a personal level. Communities such as the one in Coney Island that was home to a large group of South Asians, one that I had frequented with my family on various dinners and grocery outings have changed by illegal detentions and deportations.
Being a member of this community by virtue of where I was born, and also having lived in New York since I was a teenager brought about a very disorienting experience. An experience that definitely tries to separate you based on your nationality and religion, which is the worst possible divide in my opinion. The idea that these are the two main issues that would be a boundary for separation seems absurd and surreal, but it was the basis of an entire community fragmenting. The practice of ‘ special registration’, the Patriot act, illegal detention centers and invasion of all forms of privacy are enforced, and reinstates the differences between our collective communities.
Being an artist in this exhibit and the context for the works is one of having the luxury of both education and having a safe creative space of being able to express one’s thoughts. The extension of the phrase Generation 1.5 also for particular communities is a very difficult and divided space of existence. One can naturally fall into a no-man’s zone of neither belonging to your current country of residence, nor of any past links to your parent’s country of origin. It can be a very isolating experience and one that is fraught with issues of separation on multiple levels. I think that one of the positive ways this exhibit works for me is that it does provide a forum and platform to explore and create works that is exhibited in an open progressive space. The artist is the one to chose and decide the context for their works and are ultimately responsible for the outcome.
TF Who are you? By this I am asking how you self-identify. I know that for many people -- 1.5 or not -- this is a very complex question. For me I know that it is a question that has a fairly fluid answer. In some contexts I am a dad, in others a white man. In some contexts I am a museum director, in others an American. But I am asking in one particular context -- who are you when you are making art or representing yourself as an artist?
SS That is a very difficult question to answer. I think that identity negotiation when I represent myself as an artist is made up of fragments and pieces from an array of sources. I think the visceral quality of the fragments is the most important to me though. In fact for this particular series of works, it was about deconstructing images, relationships and forms of both personal and collective identity for myself, and reconstructing it in the works based on personal values and systems based on where I had lived and what I had experienced, as opposed to those that were given by a particular cultural or family parameter. But I do feel that it is from a viewpoint of an outsider looking in. That’s why I also feel that the works are all explorations, and it is as much about the process of working through the images and symbols and finding connections, as it is about the finished work.
In terms of who I am when creating works and representing myself as an artist, I work with all the fragments of the pieces that make up my identity. That maybe a simplified answer but it’s the only space I feel I can create for myself where I can define myself in a manner of my choice, and one that encapsulates how I want to explore the works. The idea that the fragments are not in opposition, but make up a whole is the most important part of representing myself as an artist.
Yes, I may be looked at as artist, architect, Pakistani, Pakistani-American, American, South Asian, Muslim etc. and be defined by the outside as these particular broad based categories. People will always identify you with how they feel best, and it’s really not something one can guide with a whole explanation to a simple question such as ‘where are you from’? I always felt that growing up, when I was asked that question I had to re-trace where I had lived in order to answer the question, as a simple place would not suffice and be accurate, and I never felt fully comfortable in answering the question without the explanation. I feel that these definitions can be opposites and set in their own boundaries, and I feel that when I work it’s the space I can create where they don’t have to be defined, in opposition and can meld into each other fluidly. In terms of the idea as an outsider, I don’t mean that in a negative sense where certain boundaries are necessarily created and cannot be entered, but as one that can absorb and pull out of several perspectives and places.
TF I know that for some people including my wife, the question "where are you from?" makes them angry because it is in some ways disingenuous -- i.e. it's not really the question. In the case of Eugenie the person asking usually wants to know "what sort of Asian" she might be. Her answer is generally that she is from Minneapolis, which is the truth. I know personally that I have come to say that I am from New York because the majority of my life has now been spent here, though I certainly hold onto certain loyalties like sports teams (I strongly favor Boston teams). So, the next question, which you already alluded to, is: Where are you from? ...and does this question annoy you?
SS I think this question would be dependent on who is asking me and why. I have never been bothered by that question, but have been very frustrated by people who ask the question with the answer already determined, by my having lived in New York or Brussels for the majority of my life. I think that for the most part if I have been asked that question, whether in the context of the works or otherwise, I have been comfortable in re-tracing where I was born and have lived since. But the question itself is frustrating when one’s identity is assumed by virtue of geography and movement. The issue of questioning how ‘real’ of a Pakistani I am has also been an ongoing frustration by virtue of this questioning. I just feel that this is no longer an issue to prove with anyone, but that question is the start of several assumptions. Choices of lifestyle, language and the accent and also mannerism have so much to do with people’s assumptions that it really is not something that I feel I want to prove. I think one finds the fluidity and ease with how one deals with assumptions, and it just becomes about what is important to you individually and that for me has very little to do with where I am from.