Zinnia Naqvi, May 2020

On Format

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

All images © Zinnia Naqvi 2020.