The Intimate and the Infinite: An Interview with Hajra Waheed
Based in Montreal, the Calgary-born artist Hajra Waheed explores themes of power, privilege, security and surveillance in her art. She crafts intricate pieces that explore news accounts, research and the complex experiences of her youth. Whether confronting colonial violence and cold war geopolitics, or challenging paradigms of control, Waheed invites viewers to circumnavigate and dive deep into her works. In this interview, which also includes excerpts from her presentation at the Contemporary Art Symposium at the National Gallery of Canada in 2018, Waheed divulges her creative process, reflects on her work and comments on current projects.
NGC Magazine: Can you elaborate on your practice, the kind of art you create (and why)?
Hajra Waheed: I approach my work and process experiences from a particular position that encompasses being a woman – a woman of colour with complex ties and relationships to North America, the Middle East and South Asia – and having been born to Muslim-Indian immigrant parents. In today's world, formed on the bedrock of systemic sexism and racism, it has been hugely important for me to use my practice as a way of re-engaging with some of the global issues that infused my childhood.
I tend to work in a very fluid way. My works don't have a fixed beginning, middle and end. Instead, projects tend to prolong over many years and hundreds of works, unravelling over long periods of time. While some of my projects take on video, sound, immersive installation, performance or sculptural form, I really consider works on paper to be the backbone of my practice. Over the years, these works have developed a language of their own. They are deeply influenced by the intersections of poetry, photography and drawing, and often act as studies for larger works – not in terms of scale or size, but in terms of depth of exploration.
NGCM: You experienced a very interesting upbringing and have expressed that your lived experiences are folded into each and every one of your projects. How has your past played into your work?
HW: I spent my formative years in Dhahran within the gated headquarters of Saudi ARAMCO, where my father worked. It remains the world’s largest energy producer and is considered the most profitable company in the world. I grew up in this microcosm of the colonial order, at the centrefold of what remains a contentious geopolitical hotspot. Dhahran was, and continues to be, protected by U.S. and Saudi air bases, an in-compound security force, the CIA and Saudi Secret Service.
While those early years were imprinted with strict regulations and the prohibition of civilian photography and video documentation, they were also preoccupied with my relationship to and issues surrounding power, privilege, difference, visibility and invisibility. This kind of secrecy and isolation became the very undercurrents that as a child continued to influence my play, the interests I gravitated towards and the questions I asked. I developed an obsession early on with identifying aircraft, tracking flight routes and keeping a log of my observations in a sort of cryptic visual language.
In many ways, that very language continues to inform my practice: the ways in which I collect fragments and create running documents; cut, splice and reconstruct existing documents; and build new stories that destabilize official histories. The re-use and re-purposing of found materials is a practice that continuously reoccurs throughout my work, as do the themes of being or feeling watched, and my obsession with the activities of the skies above me.
NGCM: You have three works in the NGC's collection: Study for a Falling Object (2014), The Cyphers 1-18 (2016) and Still Against the Sky 1–3 (2015). What can you tell me about them?
HW: Study for a Falling Object (2014) is a film that uses found NASA footage to disorient viewers. It provides them with this untethered feeling through its orbiting movements, placing them in positions that they are not necessarily familiar with and making them feel as though they have become the falling object themselves. They become omnipresent – sometimes spinning, always roving and always looking from above down below. I have always been interested in the civilian role in this paradigm of control that tends to preside over our very understanding and imagining of the world.
There is a synergy between Study for a Falling Object and The Cyphers 1-18 (2016), which is a large platform that viewers also look at from above and cull information from. There are 18 technical drawings and a number of metal objects and shrapnel that appear to have either been collected as debris from an explosion or to have fallen from the sky. Between both of these works, you are able to piece together, register and recount a story that hints at an underworld where everything may hold importance and nothing can ever be discarded. Where even the tiniest and unexpected detail can reveal hidden truths or vital strategic information.
Still Against the Sky 1–3 (2015) is a pleated map of the galaxy, a series of folds that can be opened out and explored, with each star carefully etched onto transfer paper to create an embossed relief. The work reflects a signature investigation of mine – this exploration between cosmologies and geologies, between the intimate and the infinite. I’m honoured and thrilled that these works have found their home at the National Gallery of Canada.
NGCM: Can you comment on some of your current projects?
HW: Hold Everything Dear is set to debut at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto this fall. The title of the exhibition makes reference to the collection of essays on survival and resistance by art critic and novelist John Berger; and just as in the book, my project hopes to act as a meditation on the divisive ethos of power and the analysis of perpetual cycles of colonial violence. It is my most ambitious project to date. The exhibition brings together over 100 works on paper, diagrams, scientific renderings, news clippings, collages, a video installation, kinetic sculpture and a series of ceramic objects, forming a complex visual study that charts and reflects spiralling processes of upheaval and human experience.
NGCM: What do you hope people will take away from your work?
HW: One always hopes that one's practice can reach people and provide an emotional or affective response, even if it simply prompts more questions or elicits lyricism and poetry into one’s day. In the end, allowing objects to speak for themselves, allowing histories to infuse one another and viewers to steep in the mystery of interconnected clues, creating just enough tenuousness or uncertainty in order to leave space for viewers to come to the work from their own perspectives and histories – these all remain urgent bottom lines for me, allowing for possibility, imagining and reimagining.
For works by Hajra Waheed at the National Gallery of Canada, see the online collection. Her exhibition Hold Everything Dear opens at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto this fall. Share this article and also subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.