A Conversation with Zinnia Naqvi

Thursday, December 15, 2016



It's about 8am in Winnipeg and 9am in Montreal. I wait as Zinnia Naqvi gets online to begin our video chat. My internet stream is cooperating, within moments Naqvi appears on my screen. "Hi there, don't mind me. I'm just having my breakfast" she declares.  When I first got in touch with Naqvi mid autumn, she'd just been settling in after relocating from Toronto to Montreal to begin her graduate studies at Concordia. 

At the root of her work is documentary based photography and video. Naqvi is aware of the social and political drawback that surfaces out of this medium and the complexity of this is what her work investigates. Naqvi's work has developed to include sculptural and installation components that taps into cross-cultural translation and identity-based politics.  Naqvi's work has been shown at Gallery 44, Gallery TPW, Ryerson Image Center, Montreal's Articule, and internationally  at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Buenos Aires, Oberhausen International Short Film Festival and Uppsala International Short Film Festival.

Before we knew it, two hours had already flown by and we both had to return to our morning routines. My conversation with Naqvi gets into the nuances of her work, her adventures in Romania this past summer, her skepticism on beauty, and her stance on Canadian emerging artists feeling the need to relocate to places like the States in order to gain legitimization.


It was such a pleasure getting to speak with her and hear her talk about her work. You can read our full conversation below.





Luther Konadu: Have you ever been to Montreal before this?


Zinnia Naqvi: Just on short trips.  I came here last year twice to check out the school and then I came back to look for an apartment.



You are a busy person. You do quite a lot and show a lot. You were just in Romania for a residency?



Yes, I really like to travel so whenever my art lets me travel I go for it.  I’ve only been out of school for two years and I started working full time almost right after school. I find that submitting to festival and shows and having deadlines is the best way to produce for me. This residency in Romania was really funny; I was looking for residencies for a while and most of them charged fees but his one was free, I just had to pay for my flight and I was lucky enough to get a travel grant. It was the first time the organizers had ever set up the program. This woman, Ingrid Pimsner is from Philadelphia grew up in the US but she was born in Romania. She acquired a house by the beach in Mangalia that belonged to her grandmother. The house had been taken over by the military during Communism for twenty years or so. She finally got the house back and she decided to set up an artist's residency there. It was called the International Institute of Contemporary Art & Theory or IICAT. It was the first run of the residency so there were some quirks but it was a really great opportunity and the people were great. Ingrid is a writer, painter and arts facilitator and lives in Romania with her husband but travels back and forth to the U.S. She set up the residency with her friend Sophie Hodera who is also a professor/artist in Boston and Sophie’s partner Nathan Wilson was also helping facilitate the residency. It was a really great group of people to bounce ideas off of. It was a really nice bonding experience with a whole new group of international artists, and it was great to get different perspectives on my work. It kind of felt like “Big Brother” or “the Real World”  at times but I like getting to know people in an intimate way so I loved it. There were four resident artists; myself, Essi Ojanpera from Finland, Ben Saint Maxent from France, and Aaron Ershler from the States, as well as the two facilitators and their partners. There were also some visiting artists from Romania and the Ukraine. We would typically do an artist talk in the morning then break off to do our own thing in the afternoons. I would go to the Black Sea which was just a few feet away, come back, have dinner and talk more so it was really nice. It was only a two-week stay so it was a bit hard to produce a whole project in that time but I learnt a lot.



So you found that you spend more time talking and having discussions about your work and your ideas...were expecting to make work?


Not really because it was such a short visit. But I was shooting. We had to propose something we might do for the residency so I proposed doing work around the migrant crisis from the perspectives of Eastern Europeans. Then I also started to become interested in the Roma culture in Romania. I have some interesting footage from this trip but I would probably have to go back to make a full project.


How do you think you want your documentaries to be viewed? I think I’ve seen it shown on TV monitors online somewhere but do you think the way you present it has anything to do with the content? Do you think the setting in which you present it matters especially with True North and Seaview...and in relation to work you made for the residency where you had sculptural components to the work


For Seaview, I’ve shown it both in a gallery where it plays on loop. I’ve also shown it at film festivals where people are sitting down and watching it. I think it works both ways. In a gallery setting I think it needs to be isolated. There’s a lot of layers and a lot happening throughout so it communicates better when you watch it from start to finish.


For True North, I was working with a partner from Argentina, and that project came about because I was part of another project with Gallery 44 for the Pan Am Games. soJin Chun from Gallery 44 in Toronto and Jasmine Bakalarz, who is Argentinian-Canadian artist decided to set up this photo-exchange project where they paired up six artists from Toronto and six from Buenos Aires. We were all at various points in our careers and sometimes we didn't even speak the same language. I got partnered with an artist from Argentina, Melania Liendo and we were Skyping and creating for about six months. I lived in Argentina for a year when I was younger so that's what attracted me to the project, and I speak Spanish but I had never made an art project in Spanish. Because the project was for the PanAm Games, it felt like we had to do something that somehow represented Canadian identity. And I there’s no way I could talk about Canadian identity without talking about Indigenous issues so we decided to make it about that.




"There’s a bit of disconnect with the language [Urdu] even though it is suppose to be my mother tongue but it’s really not anymore. I was born and and have lived here [Canada] my whole life but no matter where I go I get asked “Where are you from?" and the first answer is never good enough. When I travel I tend to stick out a lot. It is strange to be part of a culture that everyone is identifying you with but you yourself don’t necessarily identify with.  You will always be boiled down to what you look like."







So you guys were commissioned to do the work before the idea came out?


Yeah, after we were partnered up we were able to do whatever we wanted so it was a really great opportunity. It was important for me that Indigenous issues be highlighted somehow and I felt like if it wasn’t going to be represented it would be a bit problematic. That was also a challenge for me because I’m not a part of that community and I’ve never made work about it so it was very difficult. On the other hand PanAm and the Canadian Embassy in Argentina were supporting the project as well so it was kind of a funny spot to be in.


I ended up making a short documentary with three different people. I worked with Elwood Jimmy who is also an artist and community worker, Landy Anderson who is a child protection worker and has a background in Native and Family affairs, and Danny Beaton who is an elder and a native environmentalist and healer. I made with a short doc with these three people to help bring to light some contemporary Indigenous issues. I think because the work was going to be shown in both countries, I tried to make something that would be relevant to a wide audience. A lot of the time people think colonialism is a thing that happened in the past and don’t realize how present it still is both here in Canada and Argentina. The histories are so similar throughout the Americas so I wanted to bring those voices into the gallery in both countries. My partner for the project also spoke to Indigenous community members who were camped out for month-long protests in Buenos Aires, protesting the illegal acquisition of land by the Argentinian government. She actually had an added challenge in reaching out to the indigenous community members as most of they don’t speak Spanish. They speak their own language so it made it that much harder to communicate with them sometimes.



How much time did you guys have to put this whole thing together? It seems like a lot of planning went into it.


It took us about six to eight months. The first couple months were very much us trying to figure out what we wanted the project to be. It was difficult because we were really far apart, we didn’t know each other at all, and we were on totally different levels when it comes to what we are interested in and creating work. I feel like I kind of pushed her a bit to make this kind of work. It's really important for me to make work that is socially conscious. But in the end I think we were interested in the issues at hand and we were happy with the outcome. The work showed in Toronto at Gallery 44 and in Buenos Aires at the MACBA - Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Buenos Aires.



Have you worked collaboratively like that in the past?


No, never that was my first time.  It was really challenging. I still feel on the fence on this project. I don’t know if it was successful in being an authentic voice about urban Indigenous culture. It's such a large and weighted topic that it's hard to really do it justice. But at least the voices were part of the conversation. This is one project in which I tried to keep myself out of it and just let my subjects share their insight.



 True North Installation View





I think that the thing with documentary in general or social documentary...there’s always going to be the issue of whether you are doing justice to the subject or portraying your subject in its totality. How do you think about that moving forward into future documentary based works?


Yes that’s true. I think about this a lot in my work. When I was making Seaview it was a big concern for me.

I came to school with the intention of becoming a photo journalist but then I didn’t think I had the temperament for it. Photography can sometimes feel very one-sided. There is so much beyond the frame that you can't see, and a lot of time context is stripped from a photo. Film and video can give you more information but also be even more persuasive and convincing. That can be a very scary thing, it's a lot of power to hold. You might be able to get your point across more easily but there’s always another side that gets left out.



When I was making Seaview I went back to Karachi where my family is from and I wanted to portray an authentic picture of place that I’m partly familiar with, but I’ve only ever been there twice before I made the film. I took a bunch of photos but when I came back and looked at them, none of the photos could really say how I felt. They didn’t help explain the experience of actually being there.




Naqvi's photos from her Karachi visit



So I then decided to make a film, because I was able to use more techniques in the film that would be able to help explain what I feel was an authentic portrayal of what it was like to be there, and the challenges and nuances involved in that. There are parts of the film where I show you photos I took but then I talk about what was happening in the background or what I was thinking at the time. The photo might look very picturesque but maybe it was actually really dangerous for me to be there, or it was really uncomfortable and stressful to be there. The pictures don’t show all that.



 Seaview (2015) Installation View




 Seaview-Tailer (2014)




One of the reasons I really got interested in photography what because of this photographer named Ali Khurshid.  He used to go to the same beach close to where my family lives and take really beautiful photos, so that was one of my inspirations to go back. But I found it was very challenging for me to try to do what he did. Being a young woman and going around in public by yourself is not the safest thing to do, especially for someone like me who is young and a foreigner. I couldn't go out and shoot by myself ever. I always had to have someone with me which was inconvenient and annoying. There was also the challenge of presenting the final work to people in Toronto—a western audience who doesn't really know the politics of Pakistan. People have their assumptions of how things are based on the media, but it's more complicated—there aren't specific laws that make it illegal for women to do certain things but there are societal norms and safety concerns that prohibit them. Explaining that dynamic and my discomfort in the process is what I try to do in the film. I’m also really in interested translation both in language and culture. I think it is very difficult to understand what it’s like to be somewhere else as a local person, especially when you look at developing countries from a Western perspective. The East-West divide might be bigger than ever now and it can seem like a really black and white contrast sometimes, or is shown as really black and white but it's much more complicated than that. And that’s what I try to grapple with in the film.



You were saying how you were a foreigner. Is that an internal thing? Do you not look similar to the people there?


People there could see me on the street and could know that I’m a foreigner. Even if I don’t open my mouth, the way I dress and my mannerisms it’s obvious to local people that I’m not from there. Even though I am Pakistani and both my parents are Pakistani, people there could easily be able to pick out that I’m not from there.




"...I generally have a problem with beauty. I'm skeptical of using beauty in my work at surface level. Maybe it's because I'm a young woman and I don't want myself or my work to be fetishized or cast away as something pretty. I try to only use beauty in the work to draw people in and then play with their perceptions..."





And you felt there was a barrier for interacting with people over there?


Yeah, definitely because for one, I was really uncomfortable speaking the language, people can tell I have this heavy accent and there’s shyness in the way I’m speaking, so there’s a bit of shame around it too. I think a lot of second generation immigrates feel that way about language. There’s a bit of disconnect with the language [Urdu] even though it is suppose to be my mother tongue but it’s really not anymore. I was born and and have lived here [Canada] my whole life but no matter where I go I get asked “Where are you from?" and the first answer is never good enough. When I travel I tend to stick out a lot. It is strange to be part of a culture that everyone is identifying you with but you yourself don’t necessarily identify with.  You will always be boiled down to what you look like.


What work did you end up submitting when applying for grad school?


I submitted a few things, my film, some photo work and an installation. The installation is up right now at Articule in Montreal as part of the HTMLles Feminist Video Festival. It’s a video installation with a portrait of a woman wearing a sari. It consists of about seven saris suspended from the ceiling and cascading down, with the video projected onto it. Initially when I was trying out this project I was thinking about the formal aspects of the sari, but then I got a little bit annoyed with the reception of the work. I felt people really just liked how the piece looked and weren't getting anything beyond that. And I generally have a problem with beauty. I'm skeptical of using beauty in my work at surface level. Maybe it's because I'm a young woman and I don't want myself or my work to be fetishized or cast away as something pretty. I try to only use beauty in the work to draw people in and then play with their perceptions, so that's kind of what I have done with the piece now.





My Name is Veena (2016) Installation view at Articule, Montreal




I have written a narrative story that is loosely based on my mom's experience of moving to England after getting married. But it's mainly a fabrication, I've kind of projected my memory of her talking about this part of her life into this story. Then I discovered the accents on the Apple dictation settings, and for the English language they have an Indian voice, a woman whose name is Veena. I thought it was funny because out of all the other English accents she is the only one that is a person of colour. I also thought that she sounded the most real, and that people who hear her might be confused as to if the voice is a computer or just a person for whom English is a second language. I'm trying to play with ideas of false narrative and nostalgia in this project. Sometimes artists of colour can get away with bringing their culture back from the homeland and putting artifacts into the gallery for a mostly white audience, who becomes enraptured with the exoticism of it all. That is what I did initially but then I started to resent this reception, so I decided to play a little bit with that sense of authenticity. I think people will come in and still see a beautiful piece, but then might be confused when they hear the audio and start to question what is real.   


That seems more conceptually driven as oppose to a project like Seaview,

I guess I would say most of my work is documentary based and I still consider myself a documentary based-artist. But I’m trying to play with other mediums to see how they can help me express what I want to say. I’m interested in expanding to installation, sound work or even community art projects on a larger scale.



What are some of your interests as you start grad school?


I mainly just wanted to have the space to make work and focus on my practice. But I am interested in ethics within documentary, cross-cultural translation, and identity-based issues. I am interested in writing and fiction as well. So far I've just been reading a lot and it's really nice to have the space to do that.



What other schools did you apply to?


Well I applied at Guelph and Rutgers in New Jersey and I got in there. Rutgers was my second choice but I didn’t really want to go to the States, partly because of finances but also kind of shitty time to be there. Also, I feel like my work is unique to Canada and work about identity politics in the States can take on a very different, somewhat defensive stance and I wasn’t sure I wanted my work to take that direction. 



How do you mean?


I felt like work that deals with identity politics in the States can often feel self-defensive and a little less nuanced, and I felt like my work might become like that if I moved there at this moment. I didn’t want to constantly be in defence of myself, especially doing work around my Pakistani identity. Particularly now that Trump has won and all this anti-immigrant rhetoric is being legitimized, being a person of colour will become even more of a political stance, whether we like it or not.


Canadians can still be plenty racist but it is usually a bit more subtle and institutionalized, although things might be changing. Already and even more so in the coming months, artists of colour will be responding to the racist, misogynist climate in a huge way. All the POC artists who are from or living in the U.S. will be responding to this shift and their experiences living there. I feel like there very little choice about it, if you are a POC and creating you will be expected to form a response and defend your right to have a voice. I didn't want to move into the country at this moment and feel forced to respond to it in my practice as well. In Canada I can still respond to what is happening on a global scale but also keep my unique experience. I'm also starting to realize that distance can allow you to see more clearly, and see small details that you can't see when you're right in the middle of something. It's the same thing I feel when I'm making work about Pakistan. It's very hard to process everything I'm experiencing when I'm actually there. I need to come back and take time to unpack those experiences.



Also, there is definitely an inferiority complex among Canadian artists feeling like they need to move to the States in order to be legitimized and gain recognition. I have always resented this sentiment so that's another reason why I wanted to stay in Canada for grad school.




How did you end up going with Concordia?


The program here is three years so it is not super rushed, it eases you into the program very nicely. It feels pretty relaxed, and really as much pressure as I want to put on myself. I wanted to be able to engage more in the arts with the city as well. Within Concordia itself there is a lot of conversation going on about issues such as Diasporic communities and cultural translation, so I have people to help me with my research. I was also just really attracted to Montreal. It's still a big city with a sizeable art scene that I am starting to get to know. I had a few friends here already and I am meeting lots of interesting people. Also of course it's quite cheap to live in Montreal which means I don't have to worry as much about money while I'm in school, which gives me a lot of freedom. 


There is this stereotype of immigrate families wanting their kids to be engineers, doctors etc...did you ever have the pressure of perusing a practical kind of career?


My parents never really put any pressure on me in terms of what to do, they just wanted me to do well in whatever I did. There was pressure in school to get good grades but that was it. They were skeptical at first about me pursuing photography because they were worried about how I was going to support myself, but once I started showing initiative they were very supportive. Since I often make work about my family, I really couldn't have done a lot without their support.



Is there anything you are currently curious about?


Lots of things. I'm doing research about cross-cultural translation, and gender and class roles within South Asia.



What got you interested in that?


I found these set of photos of my grandmother and she is dressed up in her husband clothes and I became interested in what was going on in them, so that will be part of my next project. 





Cover photograph taken by Sonia Bazar


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