The Missing Slate’s Creative Director, Moeed Tariq sits down with Umer Wasim to talk about his work, dreams growing up, his choice of art school, and the pros and cons of group versus solo exhibits. See more of Mr. Wasim’s art in our tenth issue.
You enrolled into the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) for both your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Is there a particular reason behind the choice? Did you apply to any other schools?
I graduated from high school in 2008, and had acceptance letters from 11 different schools in the U.S. and U.K. The only school that I didn’t get into was the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford. I was [mostly] leaning towards attending a school in the U.S. from the very beginning, and that rejection letter from Oxford only made my decision easier. I chose MICA because it was the right combination of traditional and conceptual art training, and also because it was ranked — still is — among the top ten art schools in the U.S. In fact, it was ranked number four when I started. As trite as that sounds, it made me feel a lot better about my choice back then. MICA also worked out well financially. I qualified for merit scholarships and financial aid consistently. I learned a lot and was given the freedom to establish an interdisciplinary approach to fine arts, with an emphasis on problem-solving skills. I chose MICA again for grad school because the program was everything I wanted to do; it was new, hence extremely experimental and very hands-on. There was a lot of one-on-one time with the faculty which needless to say, is extremely important for graduate work. I also got a huge grant to do graduate work, which always helps.
What has your experience at MICA been like?
It was absolutely fantastic. I came here with basic skills; I could only draw and paint when I first started. That obviously changed over the course of five years. I was exposed to technology, sculpture, and newer genres. I learned about site-specific sculptural interventions, became fluent in installation and conceptual art, and absorbed art history, theory, and criticism. Learning is basically done by making mistakes. There were times when projects failed, and I bawled my eyes out during critiques. But all of the faculty members were extremely supportive, always pushing us to[wards] perfection. Another good thing about MICA is that it values academics as much as it values art itself. The academic culture helped me understand critical theory, enabling me to give meaning to the banal.
Did you ever want to be anything else growing up?
Like every other child, I wanted to be a doctor and a pilot at some point. I was academically motivated and did very well in school. At the same time, I never really excelled at anything else besides art. My decision to pursue art was pretty obvious to me, as there is no point in being mediocre given the current competitive environment. If I [do] say so myself, I made the right decision.
Was it a struggle back home to get to go to art school?
It was never really a struggle. I went to a good high school so applying to colleges was a breeze, and my parents were always on board. The whole application process was time-consuming, which was the only frustrating part besides waiting to hear back from colleges.
What are your hopes/plans for your first solo show if presented with the opportunity? Where would you want to do it?
In order to map the complex relations between sexuality and its representation in visual culture, we must allow for what the psychoanalytic critic Jacqueline Rose describes as an “idea of sexuality which goes beyond the issue of content to take in the parameters of visual form (not just what we see but how we see — visual space as more than domain of simple recognition).” My first solo show will attempt to understand how homosexuality, its prohibition, and eventual acceptance has structured the visual field at particular moments, drawing attention to certain images and interpretive possibilities. The show will touch on a sense of place in which absence matters as much as presence, a place shaped no less by the suppression of homosexuality during the AIDS crises than by homosexuality’s expression. The exhibition will look at what does not appear within, and what has been made to disappear from, the visual space of our society. I will draw inspiration from the public billboards of Felix Gonzales-Torres, which comment on the calamities of AIDS and the HIV virus, and juxtapose them with more recent billboards seemingly depicting the same subject matter to explain the change in how AIDS and HIV have been represented, and how this has largely been informed by the social and political space of our culture. I haven’t given much thought to where I would like to show my work. A clean and substantially large space would do — and certainly a high profile name would not hurt either.
Tell us about the pros and cons of group versus solo exhibits. How do they differ?
There are more cons than pros as far group shows are concerned. The first and foremost con would be the lack of authority an artist has in terms of curatorial decisions. Talking from personal experience, it is unavoidable at times to sacrifice the content of the work if it is seen next to something made by a different artist. I’m extremely particular about how the audience enters my work and the way it is lit. In a group show, I haven’t had as much control over these things. One good thing about group shows would be that you are not the only one at stake, and everyone is going through the same thing you are. There’s a lot of positive energy and a general understanding of how these things function. At the same time, you can always run into creative differences — nothing a good conversation cannot solve. Solo shows, on the other hand, are very much self-driven, I would assume. All the cons mentioned about would be pros potentially, and vice versa.
If you could pick up any pre-existing work of literature and illustrate it, what would it be and why?
‘The Body and Its Dangers and Other Stories’ by Allen Barnett and ‘Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir’ by Paul Monette are two books that I have extensively used since 2009 to make work and find inspiration — I literally pull moments from the books and reinterpret them in my work. The works resonate with me in the sense that they communicate both homoerotic pleasure and political rage. The stories also talk about the threat of censorship by representing that threat, by picturing the restrictions to which queer bodies were subjected; diseased bodies are used to bring about social change and critique the institution of oppression. By doing so, they also signal the insufficiency of the written word to capture the true experience, and vulnerabilities, of living with a disease shrouded in such mystery.
Art to you is?
Since the earliest days, I have identified nearly irreversibly with art. I strive for the encapsulation of “art as self” and “self as art” despite the knowledge that the environment is not always conducive to such association. For me, art is not a choice. Art is a foundational logic in understanding the self. The “irreversible” association between art and self helps me situate my works in and out of the exhibition space.
What do you believe is the most important message artists heralding from Pakistan today should be conveying through their work?
Of course, one must know or think — in a specific time and place, one knows, however temporarily — what one believes to begin to talk about others’ creative expressions of what they may believe, also in a specific time and place. Our beliefs are fluid, after all, just as we, or our subjectivities, are fluid. I personally have been very preoccupied in the last couple of days with death. Most people rarely let death into their lives; we tend to repress the otherness of death, marginalize it, forget it as nearly as we can. But it’s there nevertheless, and it defines our lives; we cannot live without death any more than women could live without our others the men, homosexuals could live without our others the heterosexuals, black people could live without their others the white people, and this I think is true even if there is no race — really — and everyone has their own gender and sexuality, that is, that there are not just two of each, because each of these concepts is a sociolinguistic construct. But the omnipresence of death is certainly something I’ve thought a great deal about in the last week because, among other things, death reminds us of the importance of life and of what we value in life, which, of course, may encompass what one believes. From that perspective, death in our lives, however sobering death is, could also be a source of joy.
Death reminds me of an ancient concept that probably first appeared in Indian philosophy and later in ancient Egypt and classical Greece, and during the European Renaissance. It’s called “eternal return” or “eternal recurrence.” It’s a concept that floats into and out of pop culture, in Jim Morrison’s Light My Fire. But it first had an impact on me when I encountered the notion in Nietzsche, who says that the thought of the concept’s burden is the “heaviest weight” imaginable; he suggests that to wish for the eternal return of all the events in one’s life would suggest the supreme affirmation of life.
Nietzsche noted that to accept the thought of eternal return of the same, one would have to be a lover of fate: amor fati. He says that his “formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it — idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary — but to love it…”
The guiding principles that propel me toward artistic freedom included these:
Don’t hide, don’t lie.
Do that which scares me.
Resist the urge to settle.
Be as many things as possible in this lifetime.
To me these principles seem to add up to a kind of amor fati, whatever it brings, and therefore they also affirm life in a most complex way.
I think that I’m also in the process of affirming life in all of its complexities, no matter how difficult and painful and joyful it may become for me. In my work, I appear to be grappling with some of the things artists have grappled with, including the imperatives “Don’t hide, don’t lie.” Absolute imperatives like these — ”always,” “never” — of course, are impossible for fallible human beings to fulfill perfectly all of the time; we simply are too flawed and too chicken most of the time; we tell white lies to protect ourselves and to accommodate others to whom we are sensitive. But if we have principles like these, we recall them to ourselves, aim for them, and go with the flow. If political forces in the world silence us or attempt to silence us, we must speak, we must communicate, we must say what we need to say, we will go with that flow, we will do what we need to do no matter what the risk is to us, we will become lovers of fate — amor fati.
I aspire to generate that kind of energy in my work. My work is primarily composed of grey tones, and grey is neither black nor white and both black and white, a muted, somber color, like the grayness of the day today.
I’m coming to believe in resisting the forces that restrict or constrain my emergence in a stream of changing subjectivities. Constraining free speech that harms no one is a political act that one must resist if one is to accept artistic freedom and make use of it as an artist. If others, the dominant majority, for instance, or those more powerful than we are — heads of state, or corporate masters that determine cultural trends and try to make cultural slaves of us all, consuming slaves — suggest that who or what we are or where we think we must go with our lives is not appropriate or right and suggest, too, that we must not go there, that we must not go with the flow, that that is forbidden and instead we must resist. This is a sober, grey thought because resisting takes courage; we may be at our loneliest loneliness going with the flow, going as we go, going as we must go. But many artists did it; they went where they wanted to go. And, in my own time, I, too, will been going as I must go.
Describe your work for us in five words.
This is proving to be harder than I thought — site-specific, not-landscape, not-architecture, ephemeral, and conceptual.