ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Umber Majeed as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Umber Majeed (b. 1989, New York, NY) is a multidisciplinary visual artist and educator. She received her MFA from Parsons School of Design | The New School in 2016 and graduated from Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, Pakistan in 2013. Her writing, performance, and animation work engage with familial archives to explore Pakistani state, urban, and digital infrastructure through a feminist lens.
Majeed has had two solo exhibitions: In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present, Rubber Factory, New York (2018) and Trans-Pakistan Zindabad (Facts about the Earth), 1708 Gallery, Richmond, Virgina (2021). The artist has also shown in venues across Pakistan, North America, and Europe. Recent group exhibitions include; The Divided Self, The Slought Foundation, Philadelphia (2012); The Museum: Within and Without, The State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, Russia (2015); Promises to Keep, apexart, New York (2017); Witness-Karachi Biennale, Karachi, Pakistan (2017); and Volumes-Queens International, Queens Museum, New York (2018). She is a recipient of numerous fellowships including the HWP Fellowship, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, Lebanon (2017); Refiguring Feminist Futures Web Residency, Akademie Schloss Solitude & ZKM, Germany (2018); the Digital Earth Fellowship, Hivos, the Netherlands (2018-19); and the Technology Residency, Pioneer Works, Brooklyn (2020). Her work has been acquired by several private collections, including the Lekha and Anupam Poddar Collection at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, India.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Umber Majeed: Speculative fiction, collage, and digital interface are consistent formal and conceptual tools within my interdisciplinary art practice. In my current projects, I use architectural design and historical events specific to Pakistan to negate convoluted understandings on nationalism, community, and self. I am interested in temporal disjunctures of South Asia’s urban scape as a catalyst to propose alternative futures. I use animation and the digital interface to collapse familial analog photographic materials, easily disseminated stock imagery, and Urdu literature on poetry and tourism ephemera. Through my current project, “Trans-Pakistan Zindabad”, my practice is becoming more interactive and socially engaged, where the public and the user-body are an active component in the artistic experience.
AE: In recent years, you have participated in various in-person and virtual residencies such as Ashkal Alwan in Beirut (2017), the Refiguring Feminist Futures Web Residency (2018) and the Technology Residency at Pioneer Works (2020). In what ways have these experiences shaped and helped develop your practice as a whole?
UM: My art training in Lahore, Pakistan; Beirut, Lebanon and New York helped cultivate a regional and intersectional understanding of politics and gender specifically of the MENASA Region. I grew up in the United States with Pakistani immigrant parents and spent my formative years in Lahore, Pakistan. I returned to New York to continue my art training in graduate school; this moving back and forth really fortified my concerns about my subject position–diasporic experience as a Pakistani-American femme.
In 2016, I lived in Beirut and participated in the Home Works program in Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. It was interesting to find parallel narratives between different parts of the MENASA region. I could finally explore Pakistani digital and urban histories without the pressure of representing to an American, white audience. Since there are protest movements around the Islamic Republic and feminist discourse, I was able to communicate the larger narratives of state surveillance, monument building, and technology that echoed in Lebanon. The gendering present in the streets of Cairo also was similar to how things were in Erdoğan’s Turkey as well as the Iranian Islamic Republic. All these real life experiences and places that I had been to really helped with cultivating my politics and looking at the makings of nation state and community building.
Another theme that I am invested in within my art practice is technology and piracy in South Asia. In 2018, I had the opportunity to do my first web residency through Akademie Schloss Solitude. This web residency specifically explored themes of technology and speculative fiction and was curated by Morehshin Allahyari, an amazing artist and friend. I was with a cohort of artists that lived across the world and practiced exploring alternative futures in relation to state violence in gentrification, abortion rights, and the internet. Accessibility and dissemination on the web became an interesting medium of my work that I further explored as a technology resident at Pioneer Works in 2020. Since most of my research took place on site in Pakistan, I ended up working on a game engine Unity exploring themes of “digital drawing” through found materials and drawings from sources such as Urdu language atlases. The consideration of the technology industry in the Global South as content also came to the forefront of my practice.
AE: Tell us about Trans-Pakistan which started out as a research project in 2019. You have shown different iterations of this work, how have these new iterations reflected new approaches in your methodology and thinking?
UM: Long Live Trans- Pakistan is an ongoing digital project including a single channel animation, lecture performance, VR installation, and interactive web environment; this project incorporates non western socially engaged use of technology and accessibility. It outlines the intersections of military–state surveillance, global capital networks, and grandeur urban internationalism, of a corrupt housing corporation, Bahria Town, based in Pakistan. Bahria Town is accused and charged with land-grabbing by the state. This global enterprise houses miniature and large scale reproductions of a Sphinx, Eiffel Tower, and Taj Mahal, etc. and is investigated through a revitalized tourism company, Trans-Pakistan, once owned and operated by my maternal uncle. Trans-Pakistan closed down in the early 2000s due to the implications of the War on Terror in Pakistan; in the last 20 years there has been an influx, return migration proving diaspora to be the gentrifiers and an important economy within the homeland. Using Trans-Pakistan as a trojan horse, the digital services offer the laborers and non residents the opportunity to enter the housing community on different terms as “tourists,” which would circumvent the security apparatus. The tourism company and the concept of leisure is an intentional method to subversively analyze surveillance, gentrification, community, and images of world-building.
I am interested in using artistic tools and the art community in Pakistan and abroad research this controversial content. As a Pakistani- American femme I work as an outsider on the inside, I am able to understand the intricacies within the context. Hence I am exploring the work of local artisans that are commissioned by Bahria Town to create animal statutes in the housing community; a representation of social class and taste. Trans-Pakistan wants to access and emphasize that urban and digital kitsch as a cultural movement.
AE: How have you incorporated the use of immersive technologies, such as AR and VR, within Trans-Pakistan?
UM: The main entry point for using technology as content and a medium is to look at the formations of technology culture in the Global South–what many would consider flawed infrastructure. There is a huge correlation between the urban infrastructure, technological networks, and the user-body. I’m interested in the dissemination and accessibility of media consumption of low income city dwellers through the pirated; there is a re-creation of the urbanscape in the glitch, pixelation, and subaltern aesthetics. For example, pirated Bollywood music cassettes used to be available to lower income communities and rippled into immigrant communities into the United States. The graphic designers in Jackson Heights today use pirated Photoshop programs to draw out Urdu, Bangla, or Hindi typography that they used back at home and recreated them in newspapers and posters plastered across Queens. Trans-Pakistan is trying to access that economy and aesthetic re-insert it into what many may consider sleek art installations.
The digital services (VR and AR) of Trans-Pakistan also merge physical (social justice) and digital realities through the participation of the user body (viewer). In my VR installation, Zameen.com (2019), I was interested in asking the participant to walk counter clockwise in a 3d modeled roundabout. The roundabout is an important architectural facet in former colonized nations. The loitering and essentially promoting the counter-use of a digitized roundabout- does not implicate the body of state violence as it was not accessible “online” but rather in the gallery space. The accessibility of these immersive technologies became an important question in my process after that experience. In Fotocopy.net (2020), I created an interactive web environment using drawn elements that were embedded as objects into a 3d virtual space. This environment had the sole purpose to explore the concept of “digital drawing” as well as establishing the aesthetics of Trans-Pakistan through South Asian Digital Kitsch, a term that Nora Khan and I discussed briefly in a recent interview in a book published by Pioneer Works. Lastly, in my current iteration of this digital and research project, Made in Trans-Pakistan, I used Augmented Reality. I collaborated with Pariah Interactive on the site-specific augmented reality installation that activates ceramic sculptures and wood pieces. There were interesting glitches that were arising during opening night, in which the application was scanning the space and it was glitching as the coded animation was following the amount of people that were present. My main question is how failed technological devices or mediums can give way to alternative imaginaries.
AE: Who is Trans-Pakistan for? Tell us about the audience in mind when you made this work.
UM: Trans- Pakistan Adventure Services is a research project about marginalized peoples through gentrification and corporate-state violence. It isn’t necessarily about the representation of Pakistan, a nation-state, but rather a case study looking at the consequences for the region. This can be shown when you look at the usage of language and a lot of my works. There is an amalgamation of a translation from Urdu to English, transliteration, and slippage of language such as mistranslations; which means those who can read Urdu may not necessarily understand the queering and contrasts that are present in, for example, the vinyl text within the installation, Made in Trans-Pakistan. Read that text here.
Also, as I mentioned before, there are parallel migration patterns, histories and political movements that bind the region together, though with specific ethnic and historical differences. This project is trying to access transnational struggles across MENASA, like we are currently seeing in Iran with the protests against state imposed hijab and the killing of Mahsa Amini.
There is power from femmes and those who identify as women and the state is fighting back.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
UM: This project is inspired by South Asian informal networks, low-cost media, and pirate practices as defined by Indian media theorist, Ravi Sundaram in Pirate Modernity. The piracy of audio and video Bollywood cassettes, an illegitimate means of consumption, became a culture within and onto itself. In this increasingly personalized media experience of the individual user-body, there can be a reclamation of public space and protest culture from the state-corporation sector. The glitched, pirated image represents the networks of media culture through the copy as a representation of subaltern populations in the city. I am also drawing from Eyal Weizman’s Roundabout Revolutions to rethink how digital tools in architectural features like roundabouts can be reclaimed by the working class and those that have been gentrified out.
Recent research questions include: Is there a way we can articulate our various experiences of scaling within bodily immediacy, digital alienation simulation, generational-migration patterns, timescapes of community building? Are technological projections of spatial distance and articulations of recent past, a sufficient means to re-historicize in the wake of restorative hegemonic national histories of monuments and tourism? How do digital applications for the tourism industry relate to how we experience urban spaces in real time?
I closely align my practice with researchers and artists such as Morehshin Allahyari, Shehzad Dawood, and Walid Raad. My research takes from readings by Indian media theorist Ravi Sundaram, writer and curator Nora N. Khan, Forensic Architecture founder, Eyal Weizman, Ammara Maqsood, and Heather Davis.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
UM: Currently, my show Made in Trans- Pakistan is on view at Pioneer Works until December 11, 2022. Please reach out to the Visitor Service to book a group viewing. There is also educational programming that comes along with the show, which includes a lenticular workshop coming up on October 3rd and 5th. I am collaborating with media educator, Ramsey Marion, and each participant will create a unique Trans-Pakistan lenticular postcard by inserting their own stock image to an already formatted design. Lastly, I am also participating in an experimental performance residency called Progressive Diasporas. I will be presenting a lecture performance at Elizabeth Foundation of the Arts on Friday, October 28 7-9pm.
For more information on the Education Programs, here.
For more information on the Upcoming Performance: here.
UMBER MAJEED ONLINE: