On Format

Zinnia Naqvi, May 2020

Still-life is a genre I never imagined I would dabble in. I came to photography through the genre of documentary, and at first I wanted to be a photojournalist. In university I realized that I don’t have the temperament to work in photojournalism. I don’t like to carry a camera on me at all times or be in the middle of action. I like to work slowly and process my ideas over time.

All of my work has included in some way, performance for the camera, usually with human subjects as the focus. With this project, I wanted to create a similar kind of performance with objects rather than people. The objects are arranged in a precarious and unnatural way, to emphasize the fickleness and spontaneity of the concepts I am merging in the images. These set-ups could not exist in the gallery space—even a light breeze would knock them down. Their positions are preserved for the camera and only that moment.

For this work I drew particular inspiration from the techniques of artist Leslie Hewitt, particularly the “Riffs on Real Time” (2002) and “Still Life” (2013) series.1 Hewitt is an African American artist who works in photography, sculpture, video, text and assemblage. She was born in 1977 in Saint Albans, New York, and earned a BFA from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, and an MFA in sculpture from Yale University.2

When I first came across Hewitt’s photos online, I was not overly impressed but rather saw them as a call to minimalism and sculpture. However, when I started examining them more closely, I started to understand and pick up on the political implications of her work.

Many critics draw comparisons between Hewitt’s work and Dutch vanitas paintings. What I love about this comparison is that visually, the two works are completely different. I have never been a big fan of European Renaissance painting, and I was skeptical of the comparison between the two genres. I thought predominantly white critics must be fabricating comparisons in order to fit Hewitt’s work within the canon of European art history. It surprised me, then, to hear Hewitt’s statement, when asked about this parallel in an interview with Julia Wolkoff from 2017: “I began to reread Dutch still life through a sociopolitical lens. This artistic form emerged at the beginning of global capitalism and the intensification of our relationship to displaced objects, things we don’t make ourselves.”3
She talks about the loaded nature of these paintings as referencing time, globalization, industry and more. Her contemporary counterpoint for this genre is thinking about the immateriality of images, as well as creating a space which flattens and distorts the ways in which we collect objects.

She creates instead “visual puzzles”4 that examine how we construct meaning between images and objects, doing so in a way that suggests “many concurrent histories and experiences.”5 “I select objects and arrange them to suggest different meanings without a directive or a didactic mode of address.”6 Hewitt says that the process for creating her works can start out as impulsive or irrational, but then goes through self-imposed stages of logic or structure.

I have very much borrowed this technique from Hewitt in order to create my still lives. I began with the images as a source document, and then chose corresponding objects to illustrate the ideas I am imposing onto the images. I have had to create certain boundaries or rules for each arrangement, which perhaps are only visible to myself. The sites I am dealing with in these images have been photographed by millions of people and exist in many public archives, but I chose to limit myself to only use my own family’s images, and only from a few particular years, in order for some limit and consistency in aesthetic. Using my own family’s images affords me a certain sense of freedom with regards to how they can be manipulated. Ultimately, my own family’s experiences are illustrative of how millions of other people interact with these spaces. They are just specific examples that pertain to my upbringing.

Hewitt says when asked about her childhood and her parents, “This probably sounds strange to say now, but home was a politicized space.”7 She talks about how her mother attended the March on Washington in 1963. She and her brothers would spend hours studying a documentary series about the March, trying to spot their mother on the screen. They did not succeed, but Hewitt learned to pay attention to less central stories, not only that of Martin Luther King but of all the people in the crowd. She learned to appreciate how individual stories create a support structure for a central experience. Hewitt states, “The snapshots that I choose to include in my works, for example, don’t always depict my personal family, but they do show manicured lawns or other little hints that complicate the conventional notion of the black experience.”8

This work embraces both the domestic and studio spaces as sites of production, something I find deeply resonant—especially since, for many artists today, they are one in the same.9 While Hewitt does maintain a strategic distance between the inclusion of her body and her work, she says that if there is anything intrinsically feminine about the work, it is the use of the domestic space. She likens the home or the domestic to the womb—a space for incubation, tests, nurturing, and safety. By extension, one can say the same about the home studio.

One thing that drew me to her work as an inspiration is the perceived quietness of its politics. I mean “quiet” in the sense that the political is not the first thing one would notice about the work. At first glance, these works are sculptural, and draw parallels to minimalism. Closer readings of the work reveal deliberate political and historical allegories. Only those who dare to spend time with her work will be able to read those connections.

Hewitt strategically fills her photographs with political undercurrents that aren’t apparent to the untrained eye, giving her work a marketable edge. She says “I select objects and arrange them to suggest different meanings without a directive or a didactic mode of address.”10 The work could be collected by a private buyer, a gallery or museum. It could just as easily hang in a home or in an educational institution. To me, this is a clever way to draw in a broad public while in a sense, tricking them into buying into your politics.

In comparison to this project, my work centers my political views and ongoing critique of the structures that form my experience of identity. I use a similar strategy, to try to make works that are visually appealing, yet also centre my political beliefs. For the viewer who does not want to engage in that level of the work, they may focus purely on aesthetics, but they would be missing my central position on to the way the images have been arranged. Through closely looking at Hewitt’s work I began to understand how to use beauty as a strategy, to engage the viewer in the first glance, and tempt them to engage in my politics if they have the will.

Notes:

1. Julia Wolkoff, “Leslie Hewitt: In The Studio,” Art in America, September 2017, pp. 108-115)
2. “Leslie Hewitt,” Guggenheim Collection Online (2020 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation), accessed January 2, 2020, https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/leslie-hewitt)
3. Julia Wolkoff, pp. 108
4. Ibid, 109
5. Ibid, 109
6. Ibid, 115
7. Ibid, 111
8. Ibid, 114
9. Ibid, 115
10. Ibid, 114

The Album

Zinnia Naqvi, April 2020

The family album could be considered the spine of my practice. I have worked with family images from the very beginning of my career. I often say that I don’t remember whether I was drawn to this subject matter on my own, or whether I was encouraged by my peers and professors. Although I grew up in a very culturally diverse suburb of Toronto, the environment of art school was relatively homogenous. In fact, before I came to university, I don’t think I had truly experienced what it meant to be a minority. Suddenly, in a very different environment, one in which I was encouraged to express myself, I felt the need to speak about this in my work.

Despite my accomplishments, there has always been a lingering feeling of resentment towards the idea that I was making the kind of work that an artist of colour is expected to make. I am reluctant to speak about “the immigrant experience” as a two-sided coin—to sort experiences binarily as here and there, then and now. In the beginning of my practice, I did make work that does just this. As I move forward, I aim to make work that complicates these concepts of belonging, community, and familial history. At a certain point, looking back to a time that I myself was not a part of begins to feel contrived and redundant. Nonetheless, looking back is also an essential part of understanding how to move forward. How can we find a way to look critically at evidence from the past and produce new means to help us understand our current reality?

With this new project I wanted to find a way to return to my family album but also to speak about my own experience. The archival photos included in this series were taken before I was born; however, the sites where they were taken resonate with me, as I visited them many times as a child. The games and props featured in the photos are from my childhood. References to books and research offer a glimpse into my thought process as I asked what these vernacular images were trying to tell me. I look to the past in order to better understand the present.

In “Porous Sounds: Frequencies of Refusal in Diasporic Family Photographs,” Gabrielle Moser speaks about Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn’s project The Making of an Archive, in which Nguyễn includes vernacular images of immigrant families across Canada.11 Moser writes: “Family photography is a productive and forceful genre through which racialized subjects picture themselves as citizens in Canada.”12 It is a moment in which we preserve our experiences of interacting with the landscape that houses our new reality.

Moser quotes Dallas Hunt in speaking about these felt archives, “which communicate a shared experience of migration and a common context of settler colonialism,” and create historical evidence that can be felt as well as theorized and analyzed. This helps individuals theorize their own experiences.13 “The stories people tell about their family albums are rich and sustaining frameworks that help the viewer to draw connections between subjects and contextualize events.”14

I’m still not sure what compelled me to work with the family album to begin with, but I know now that I look to it to create a felt archive. I can apply a critical lens to images produced throughout my and my family’s life, and to the experiences that have brought us here. From this point of entry, I infer broader connections to the structures that have brought me to where I am. In this work and in this text, theory and writing serve as architecture for my own intuitive knowledge— what I gain from knowing the people in the photographs, the places they have been, what came before and what came after. This knowledge also gives me the comfort and trust to use and manipulate these images in ways I see fit. Knowing the people in the images allows me to feel confident in their representation. If somehow one of the subjects feels I have misrepresented them, I know that the community will hold me accountable.

As I use the archive as a way to look back at the past, it is a key tool in trying to understand my future.

Notes:

1. Gabrielle Moser, “Porous Sounds: Frequencies of Refusal in Diasporic Family Photographs,” The Making of an Archive: Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn (Vancouver: Grunt Gallery, 2017), 69–90.
2. Moser, “Porous Sounds,” 71.
3.Moser, “Porous Sounds,” 78.
4.Moser, “Porous Sounds,” 78.

On pressing pause

Zinnia Naqvi, April 2020

It seems silly to continue to write to you about making when you have just been forced to stop making. To stop is sometimes even harder then it is to start. Especially when you have just started to get that ball rolling, to find your momentum. Now all of a sudden everything has been ground to a halt.

This is a feeling I have become familiar with.

Last year at about this time, I had been working extremely hard on producing two exhibitions for Contact Photo Festival. One was a new public project, and the process of working on this project was the most difficult circumstances I had faced before. I had gotten into a conflict with one of the organizers from the onset, and this had really shaken me. I had been extremely stressed for months, not sleeping well, constantly going over details in my head. Finally just when I had finished all the work and was getting excited to celebrate it, I became very ill. A week before the shows were about to open, I was hospitalized for severe pneumonia and flu.

As I sit here now and smell the spring air wafting through my window, I remember the same smell coming in at this time, when I was sick. The illness took hold from out of the blue. I didn’t have any previous health conditions and had never been this sick before. The doctors didn’t understand how someone my age, in good health, could become so sick so fast.

When I was in ER getting an X-Ray, the technician said to me:

“Oh you are very sick!”

I said yes. I guess I was. I was mostly drowsy from the morphine they gave me so I wasn’t sure.

“How did you get so sick?”

I don’t know.

“Hmm. Are you stressed?”

Not really. I said, thinking that I had been stressed for the past few months, but at that time I was actually starting to feel more calm.

“Stress can do crazy things to the body. It can totally change you.”

The technician told me about his own experience of becoming suddenly ill and spending three weeks in hospital at a stressful time in his own life. No other medical professional has ever said anything like that to me. The links between the states of the body and mind are very hard to quantify with science. But I often think about the story that this technician told me and I am so grateful that he did.

For the next few months I felt like a shell. My lungs were very weak from the infection and that made me tired all the time. I was also angry that my celebratory moment had been taken away from me. I worked really hard to be able to get to a certain place with my work, and I felt like I deserved to enjoy it. I also felt like I couldn’t trust my body anymore. How could it fail me so suddenly like this, with no warning? How could I know if it might happen again?

But maybe there were warning signs and I just didn’t notice or listen.

We live in a world in which we are constantly expected to produce, innovate, re-invent ourselves. That is the only time we are given the kind of validation that we are supposed to want — exhibitions, awards, residencies, opportunities. No one gives you special recognition for slowing down and listening to your body, or having healthy work-life boundaries. We are supposed to figure that part out while also pushing ourselves to our limits.

After this happened I kept thinking about all of the artists I know who are constantly traveling between exhibition openings, residencies, teaching positions, film shoots all over the world. How was I supposed to have a career like that if my body was just going to crap out on me without notice? I was confused and I was tired.

Eventually after a few months, I did regain my strength. I thought I had learned a big lesson, about recovery, slowing down, and saying no to things. But maybe I moved on too fast. I planned another very busy fall for myself. I was traveling out of the city almost every weekend for multiple projects. I felt strong again and ready, but I think that my body didn’t agree.

I was supposed to graduate from my MFA at Concordia in January 2020, but on January 1st I broke my ankle.This injury was an accident from going on GT Snow Racer on New Year’s Eve, so at least it was a funny story. But it was more painful than getting sick. This time, I had to spend a few months also doing a lot of ‘social distancing’. I had to make the hard decision to postpone my thesis show from January to May.

During that time, I pivoted my focus. I held a lot of skype studio visits with people whose opinions I wanted, or who I just wanted to get to know. I focused on refining my writing. I also watched a lot of Gilmore Girls. I cried a lot. I leaned on my friends and my partner and my cat. I was grateful to have a nice apartment to hole up in. It was hard being alone all day. I rode waves of being sad, content, angry, and happy. I was very deficient in Vitamin D. I had to start taking supplements, and also asking friends to come over to just “take me for a walk” so I could go outside and stand on the corner in the sun.

It’s been a hard winter, and right as it seemed I was starting to get out of it, we have been hit with this unprecedented international pandemic. And I am back at it again. Although to be very honest, I was generally feeling calmer about this one then I was about having pneumonia or breaking my ankle. Maybe this is just me being selfish. We are on Day 11 of isolation. A week after the doctor told me I could start walking on my ankle, they decided to shut down the schools.

I don’t think I have cried since this has started, but I listen to the radio and I am feeling very scared. I think a lot about my experience of being in the hospital last year. I mostly think

about how I don’t ever want to be in that position again. I am also sad for my friends, who have lost jobs, and my students who are being forced to navigate this thing that no adult has lived through before. Usually we try to look to our elders in these times of crisis, but this has really never happened before in a comparable way.

But I think something that I have learnt from this difficult year is that the best way to keep my body healthy is to try to keep my mind healthy. Stress can make you feel sick when you aren’t and it can also make you get sick very easily. Trying to find the calm in all this is a lot easier now that I am not going through it alone. Perhaps this is one thing that we can find solace in — that we are going through it all together.

My thesis show that was set for May 2020 will most likely be cancelled. I will have to present 3 years of MFA work to a jury over Zoom. I am sad about it, but also slightly relieved. I would have loved to have that moment to celebrate with friends, family and peers. It really would have been the cherry on top of a very pivotal experience in my life. I learned, grew, absorbed, read, thought, and expressed so much. It’s sad to think that all of that will now be reduced to a video call. But I have realized that these moments are never really the picture-perfect moments that you envision them to be, nor are they the most prominent memories that you keep afterwards.

After this is over, I don’t have any plans. I have no idea what I will be doing this summer. I won’t have a job and I imagine it will be a hard time to find one. But all I can think about is how happy I will be to walk to my favourite ice-cream shop and get soft serve, and sit in parks, and see my family and my friends again. I have no idea what the future will hold after this. Even though the prospect is a scary one, I just can’t help but feel that it will be a slower, kinder one. Maybe I am being naïve, but I think it will be some time before we all forget about the feelings that have come up in our time isolation.

The experience of being sick has also taught me that everything can be rescheduled. Things that seem urgent can be put on pause. If you really need to stop, you can. And if you really need people, and ask, they will show up for you. It is extremely empowering to realize that you are not in this alone. It will take time to figure out how to heal from this trauma. But we are all bonded by this experience. We must be kind to each other going forward.

In the Studio

Zinnia Naqvi, March 2020

While I was pursuing an undergraduate degree in photography, the studio was intended to be the primary place to shoot photos—a cavernous room filled with backdrops, curtains, large flashes, and expensive equipment. About a dozen partitions called “bays” were sectioned off with heavy, black velvet curtains.

There was no natural light in these spaces, and you could only book a bay for a few hours at a time. The bays were often in high demand, especially at peak times of the academic year. In maybe two or three hours, you were expected to set up your shoot, arrange heavy and expensive lighting equipment, get your work done, and then take it all down. There was very little time for play or experimentation. If not handled properly, the equipment could burn you, crush your hands, or break and cost you hundreds of dollars. I did sustain a few unfortunate injuries in this space. As you tried to shoot, other students’ flashes and strobe lights would go off in the adjacent bays, spilling into yours. A queue of impatient students might be waiting for your spot. This absurd setup made everyone run around at hyper speed and full of anxiety. One small mistake could lead to a total re-shoot. I hated this space. I found it very intimidating and avoided using it.

A studio like this is the photographer’s equivalent to a blank canvas. A neutral space. It’s up to you to set up the tools and make something. I’ve never had much interest in a blank canvas.

Because of this overlap in the lexicon of photography, between the photographer’s studio and the artist’s studio, I never really understood what one was supposed to do in the latter. At Concordia, the Photography department had to fight for many years to get artists’ studios for graduate students. The students had darkrooms, printing facilities and studios for shooting, which was thought to be enough. Subsequently, this was the first institution to give me an actual workspace. I think learning how to conduct oneself in a designated workspace is a critical first step towards developing as a professional artist.

I recently came across this series called The Artists’ Studio by photographer Joseph Hartman. He travelled across Canada to photograph artists’ studios. In an interview with Leah Sandals about the project he talks about the uniqueness and intimacy of each artist’s space. He also touches on the fact that many of the artists’ spaces he has photographed have ceased to exist, particularly in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, as a result of gentrification.15 Sandals goes on to ask:

“LS: What about art that doesn’t fit in a studio practice? Or that is a post-studio practice, done on a laptop or in a community or in a camera? Most of the artists in your project focus on painting and sculpture—traditionally studio-based mediums. But that’s not the only kind of art that gets made nowadays.

JH: We are in an age where, because of digital technology, you can make art without a studio, you can have your photographs or 3-D prints or sculptures made off site, and you don’t even have to have much of a studio, just a work desk.

More and more artists are moving and making that way. The reason I didn’t photograph any of those, though, is that I felt that act of making the artwork on site was very important to the photographs. That is why I stuck mainly to painters and sculptors.”16

The irony in this statement is seeping through the pages. Hartman, a photographer himself, has decided that those like him—photographers and other users of digital or non-tactile mediums—and those who simply can’t afford a space, were unfit to be included in his series. As a consequence of the current real-estate crisis in Canada, many artists are unable to access affordable workspaces and must instead work from home or their laptop.17 I wish Hartman, or perhaps someone else entirely, would document how artists working without designated spaces are adapting their practices. It is a reality facing too many.

One of the reasons I decided to move to Montreal was real estate. As the cost of living is significantly lower here than in most cities, studios are plentiful and affordable. Here I was able to take the studio out of the dark and into the light—a room with large bright windows and white walls. A place where I could set things up and leave them there for long periods of time. Look at them for many weeks before I took any photos. Try out various tests and arrangements. I took digital test shots with my phone, looked at them, showed them to friends, posted them on instagram, before I was ready to shoot the final images.

At first I definitely did not know how to make use of the space. I would say that most of my artmaking happens in my head. While speaking to a friend of mine, we called this the “incubation period”. You incubate on an idea for many weeks, months, years. You think about it a little at a time. You look at other art and that helps you think about your own art. In that sense, going to exhibitions or artist talks is also part of the incubation period.

In Raqs Media Collective’s essay, How to be an Artist by Night, they describe the perils of artmaking in a “continually burgeoning culture industry”.18 Artists who graduate from institutions often have to spend time being “no collar”19 workers by day and artists by night. There is continuous pressure to balance this work and that work. Nevermind that it isn’t enough for artists to simply create, but they are expected to constantly innovate. “The fear of irrelevance, obsolescence, and marginality haunts many younger practitioners, and the pressure to exhibit as an artist is almost as lethal as the pressure to innovate as a cultural worker or entrepreneur.”20 “What is missing in this frantic supply-chain is time and care, and the ability to reflect on one’s own practice.”21

Raqs suggests that a solution to this problem is a self-reflexive artist’s practice. The practice itself becomes a space for the artist to think through ideas and present them to the public. The benefits of this strategy is that “Here, making is thinking, and learning is what occurs at the instance of activity. Praxis is theory.”22

I do agree with Raq’s overall propositions towards using practice as a space to think, reflect, make comparisons and visual puzzles. Here you can invite the audience to try to understand your thinking work, and a little of what happens in the studio.

However, I also believe there is a line to be tip-toed in this realm. In the essay, the authors go on to name attributes that reflexive work should contain, such as embedded criticality, unintended consequences, and radical incompleteness. This brings to mind trends I have seen in contemporary art right now, for artists to simply display different parts of a project, such as research components and ephemera, and leave it to the audience to make the connections. I find this kind of work can be very demanding and inconsiderate of the audience. Those who come to the gallery space rarely have the time or patience to spend hours with a single work, no matter how much they would like to.

The key is to create a work that both has immediate and lasting impact on an audience, through visual language, while also creating a space for those who wish to dive deeper. This is the power that visual art has, to use various techniques to draw in a large audience while also creating space for intense criticality. I think regularly about how intimidating a space the cultural institution can be for those who do not frequent it. I do not wish to speak to only the no-collar workers, but also the teachers, security guards, administrators, and children who are invited into the gallery. It is a very difficult place to inhabit, but one that I strive to make for my work.

Notes:

1. Leah Sandals, “‘Photographing the Artist’s Studio—More Than 100 Times Over,’” CanadianArt (CanadianArt, June 13, 2017), https://canadianart.ca/features/joseph-hartman-the-artists-studio/).
2. Ibid.
3. Raq’s Media Collective. “How to Be an Artist by Night,” in Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 71-81)
4. Ibid, 73
5. Those who obtain whatever kind of employment necessary in order to fund their artistic practice. This could vary from being a studio assistant, working for a cultural institution, or working in the service industry.
6. Ibid, 74
7. Ibid, 74
8. Ibid, 76

Writer-in-Residence: Zinnia Naqvi

Function Magazine is excited to announce our first writer in residence, Zinnia Naqvi, a 2019 New Generation Photography Award recipient and an alumni of Ryerson Image Arts. Naqvi’s practice explores the relationship between authenticity and narrative, encouraging the viewer to interrogate her process. We are thrilled to open up a dialogue between Naqvi and current Image Arts students on themes of the family album, studio, and format in regards to visual culture in the next coming weeks.

Zinnia Naqvi is a visual artist based in Tkaronto/Toronto and Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. Her work uses a combination of photography, video, writings, archival footage and installation. Naqvi’s practice questions the relationship between authenticity and narrative, while dealing with larger themes of post-colonialism, cultural translation, language, and gender. Her works often invite the viewer to question her process and working methods.

Naqvi’s works have been shown across Canada and internationally. She received an honorable mention at the 2017 Karachi Biennale in Pakistan and was an Artist in Residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario as part of EMILIA-AMALIA Working Group. She is a recipient of the 2019 New Generation Award organized by the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada in partnership with Scotiabank. She has a BFA in Photography Studies from Ryerson University and is currently an MFA Candidate in Studio Arts at Concordia University.