IWM talk: Covert War and Colliding Cultures by Mahwish Chishty


This is a transcript of the free public talk, Covert War and Cultures Colliding given by Pakistani-born, US-based artist, Mahwish Chishty. Her exhibition of drone paintings is available to view at IWM London until 19th March 2017.

The talk was held at Imperial War Museum London in October 2016 and also featured Lisa Barnard and Clare Carolin. The full video is available to view with Facebook here.

Thank you so much for being here. It’s such a pleasure to show my work here at IWM Contemporary. It’s just a perfect venue for the kind of work that I do. I guess you’ll learn more as I talk about what I’m doing, but if you haven’t seen the exhibition, please do check it out because I think it’ll make a lot of sense after this talk, hopefully.

History of making pictures go as far back as cave paintings and my interest lies in new arts forms, politics of war, artificial intelligence and its implications in modern warfare. Painting is my language of communication, either on paper, wood or plastic.

There are two very distinct, yet contrasting features in my work – colourful and bright symbols that are influenced by Pakistani folk art, truck art, “jingle art” and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also known as drones. I will discuss both in detail today and how they relate to my research, to me and to each other.

chishty-talk-truck-art

Video still – Afghan/Pakistani ‘truck art’

Truck art – my first introduction to any form of visual art was through these moving trucks – moving works of art. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I did not have any access to art museums or art galleries but these vehicles were very intriguing to me. Decorating moving vehicles is a very common practice in Pakistan. In fact, virtually all privately owned trucks are decorated with colourful imagery and visual iconography.

Jamal J. Elias wrote a book about these vehicles in which he provides a unique window into Pakistan’s complex society, addresses complex questions of culture and religion. It is very expensive to decorate each truck. It costs anywhere about $3,000 to $5,000 on the lower end and on the higher end it could be as much as $16,000 per truck – to just decorate them. It is fascinating to me, like many others, that the need for these decorations and the maintenance of these works of art is so important for those people. Even more fascinating to me is that the decoration never consumes the primary function of the truck and yet truck art is pervasive in Pakistan.

The messages on these trucks convey socio-political attitudes as well as views on contemporary issues. For the longest time, this was not considered a form of art. It could still be said that. To me, the history itself of truck art is fascinating. This practice of decorating trucks was prominent in Afghanistan and during the Soviet invasion, in 1979-89, a lot of Afghanis were migrating to Pakistan and brought this tradition with them. Pakistanis took that even further and started making their own version of trucks and now truck designs vary from region to region within Pakistan.

chishty-talk-rugs

Video still – example of Afghan ‘war rugs’ – Mahwish Chishty

Effects of politics and war can be seen in everyday life and this is just one example of that. Another example that I would like to share with you is the imagery of warfare that is used in daily lifestyle, even in domestic household items, such as rugs. These are war rugs in Afghanistan. During the Soviet invasion, Afghani women were weaving these rugs that would depict imagery of war. At this time, tanks and different types of grenades were used incessantly, hence we saw use of those times of images, including Kalashnikovs. Nowadays, they incorporate imagery of drones.

I particularly want to point out the rug on the right-hand side. It has these corner images of stealth drones. They’re kind of camouflaged. Once again, functional objects that use decoration for pure aesthetic. They are still functioning rugs.

I currently live in the US and I have been living there since 2005. I did not go back to Pakistan until 2011. So, there was that 6-year time period that I had not been there and not seen the progress of one year to another. So, for me, the contrast was quite high. It felt like a lot of things had changed when I went back. These are the pictures that I took with my cell-phone camera as I was walking down the street to my grandmother’s house. Very surprised and disturbed by the idea of these gunmen holding Kalashnikovs sitting behind sandbags. I wanted to know more about why things had changed so much and, of course, it has a lot to do with the geographical positioning of Pakistan. We’re neighbours with countries like Iran, Afghanistan, China and India.

For the most obvious reasons, US is more that interested than ever in maintaining its alliance with Pakistan. Pakistan favours US involvement so that we can together eradicate Islamic extremists. Pew Research centre in early 2010 did a survey and found out that 6 out of every 10 Pakistani have unfavourable view of US government. Not shocking data – but still quite interesting.

As a Pakistani-born American citizen, I found myself in the middle of this conversation very often – more often than I can even think of. I went back to US and started doing some research on drones. As a visual artist, I was obviously interested in the visual representation of drones themselves – what they look like… But more importantly, what is available in the media that I can find to get that information.

To my surprise, I did not find too many images of drones online. Wikipedia is an open forum for everybody to provide information and to share with everybody else.  In 2011, I received an email from Mark Miller who did Wikipedia renderings for all the drones that we see on Wikipedia right now (shows images of drones from Wikipedia). He told me about his own experience of working on this project.  As an American taxpayer, he was interested in giving information, providing that to everybody. In 2009, we was searching for images of RQ-170 and he could only find 4 very grainy photos online.

He uses a technique that he calls photo-graphicking (?) where he smooths out pixels of those photos and he did his own rendering. To give you an idea of what RQ-170 actually looks like – which is also known as Beast of Kandahar. Not to mention that the names of these drones are quite striking.

What he found later really shocked him. He saw his renderings being used by news media as they did not, also, also have access to photos of RQ-170.

I think it goes quite parallel to my own research into drones, in many ways. The physical presence of drones in the region is contrasting the visual absence of these deadly machines in the media. I find that really interesting. I started to question the photographs that we could see and find online. I started to think about who’s the photographers, where is the camera placement, where is the photograph from and hence questioning the authenticity of the photograph itself. And particularly when that same image is being used in the print media to create a visual narrative, I felt that there were some artistic licences that somebody’s taking advantage of. As a visual artist, I took that even further and made my own version in the form of painting.

10-mq-9-2-chishty

MQ-9/ Predator; Gouache & tea stain on paper; 12″ by 24″; 2011. (Mahwish Chishty)

For this particular piece… obviously, there’s no video documentation of a hellfire missile being dropped – how it goes from being a horizontal hellfire missile to falling down with gravity, going vertical. So, this is my imagination, my own version. My way of creating that.

chishty-talk-drone-eyes

Video still – Mahwish Chishty drone painting

This detail shows the different types of imagery I’m using to depict the deadliness of the drone, in a more stylised fashion. I use these decorative elements to lure the audience into the work.  From what I’ve witnessed, people are drawn more to the detail of the work first. More usually people notice the smaller elements, decorative elements, more stylised versions of those first before they see the bigger picture. So, I used that to my advantage to bring people in and get them interested in the work.

I also think that something about this is also something that mimics something that we find in nature. That the deadliest animals in the world are the bright in colours, just like these paintings. The question comes to mind – is that a warning or an invitation?

Some of the visual imagery is directly borne from truck art genre but sometimes I did improvise. Manipulation becomes more prevalent in my work as I started to explore more images online. I used eyes to draw the viewer into the work, which also refers back to the surveillance aspect of the drone itself – looking at a painting as the painting is looking back at you. I find it interesting that the detail of the work is what you notice at first but the overall image is still of the drone – so it’s still there.

What is it like living under the drones? People probably see a dark silhouette when they look up in the sky on a clear blue day. Recognising a flying object by its silhouette, hence, becomes a survival mechanism. And that is the first step in the process of creating these paintings for me. I start off with a silhouette. I take images from the Internet, from online, from which I get the basic outline and then I start to give more intonation to give it a second skin, a patina, so it looks very different from what it originally looks like.

chishty-talk-red-daimond-breaking-point

x-47B, Gouache on paper, 16″ by 16″, 2012

All the other details are added later in the process, as I go along. This painting was a breaking point for me because it lead to exploration of 3D works. It is a flat painting that suggests dimensionality.

by-the-moonlight_chishty_iwm%5b1%5d

By the Moonlight, Gouache, tea-stain and photo-transfers on birch plywood, 12.5″ x 25″ x 8″, 2013

This is the work that came about later. It is important to me how the audience experiences the work. Works on paper often gets framed and it goes behind glass. I wanted to remove that barrier of glass and allow people to witness the work directly.

Wood was the solution. These are image transfers either of the streets of Lahore or from Pakistani newspapers I brought with me from 2011. This is a good example of that, where I’ve used some print media, from 2011.

My training in traditional miniature painting style is apparent in my work, sometimes more than the others. By starting with a neutral background by tea staining is a very common practice in traditional miniature painting genre. Besides that, I’m also using wash which is the flat quality – the brightness in the colours – achieved by using watercolours. It’s quite interesting – I think it works great with the work that I’m doing.

unknown_chishty_iwm%5b1%5d

I bought model drones to take photographs from different perspectives and to use them in my paintings. Just as a starting point – just to get those dynamic silhouettes of drones. And it was only until later on that I started to see them as objects and I started experimenting by painting on them. My biggest fear when I was doing this was that they might look too much like toys. Which is another interesting conversation to have – that I am working small and on an intimate scale on my 2D work but that question never came up – but once these became 3D objects, it automatically became toys.

Living in US has allowed me to have a very unique perspective on understanding both sides of this arbitrary war. I have personally received emails from drone operators. They can say for sure, despite the physical disconnect, the physical distance from the actual events, drone operators are experiencing PTSD.

The above image (not shown) is from a movie, which came out around 2014. This is a still of a bunker in Nevada, California. The drone operators physically go into these bunkers where they are surrounded by these computer monitors so that they can operate a drone thousands of miles away – I say miles but I should say kilometres! I like that still from that movie – of that little poster – “You are now leaving the USA.” Almost, psychologically preparing the drone operators that they’re going on a mission, they’re taking this flight mentally – it’s not physical but it’s mental.

chishty-talk-kill-box

Video still – Kill Box by Mahwish Chishty

I’m currently working on a series called Kill Box that depicts aerial view of that region, within a grid-like pattern, as the view of the land seen on a screen of a drone operator. I did a residency last year where I asked to be – I requested if I could get a studio that was good for sculpture and installations because I wanted to work with those model drones and the shadows of them. But I ended up in a ceramic studio, for some reason, which worked out great because I started to explore clay and I was surrounded by ceramicists. So, I had this great opportunity to actually go beyond this barrier of medium and to just explore.

So, I started to work with those frames that I have when I would buy drone models online. They come in these plastic frames, in different shapes, in which the drones are pretty secure in the plastic frame. And I thought that if I take it out of that and if I start to construct something it becomes something very delicate and it might be difficult to ship it back to myself. And, I figured out, just keep it like that and explore what else I can do with it.

So I started taking impressions in clay of those frames which I think looks quite amazingly close to some of the images that I’ve seen of drone operators on their monitors – what they see on the monitor.

Those ones are charcoal rubbings on paper of those plastic frames. It looks very much like the aerial view.

And recently, I was invited to collaborate with a stage design team to construct a Reaper drone for the play ‘Grounded’ in Idaho. It is amazing to see all the works being produced in various different creative platforms and I was so glad to have my voice be heard or seen through my work.

I’m going to jump to a video real quick and then I’m going to end with that. This is a video, actual footage of what a drone operator would see on their monitor – just to give an idea of what the perspective, the angle and also, the pixilation of images. How clear it is or how unclear it is.

Thank you so much.

 

Remembering – Duxford IWM

“Duxford is a place where they preserve aircraft. Many of these machines saw battle at dark times in human history. These machines are preserved so the stories behind them and the acts of bravery of many people can be remembered. Because maybe, hope against hope we can learn the mistakes of our history.”

November 2016 review of IWM Duxford, Cambridgeshire, by Simon Farnell of Planet Simon

Planet Simon

Duxford Imperial War Museum is one of those places that one cannot help but find interesting. It’s able to capture the imagination of people of all ages. I’ve been gathering together and selecting pictures for this post for a long time.

It’s huge (and it is damn huge) main hangar houses some of the most iconic aircraft that’s come from these shores and many others. Including the original Concorde prototype, you’re able to get on and see just how cramped the Concorde was and get that feel for what supersonic flight was actually like.

The Harrier – the first aircraft (and perhaps still the only) to be able to take off and land vertically on a singe engine.

The huge wings of the Vulcan with it’s huge open bomb bay that is likely to have held God only knows what kind of nuclear weapon.

Through to the Mosquito – built from Balsa…

View original post 242 more words

Review: “Black and British: A Forgotten History” by David Olusoga (BBC) – Towards participatory history

black-and-british

Unveiling of plaque to Jamaican-born slave, Francis Barber, by descendant, Cedric, outside Dr Samuel Johnson’s house, London (photo by Michael Ohajuru @michael1952)

“One thing that the British public does not realise adequately is that we are a coloured empire. You cannot prevent the black man from coming here. You could no more tell him that he must not come to Liverpool, London or Cardiff then he has the right to tell you that you must not go to Lagos or Durban or Johannesburg.”

So read a fifth generation Liverpudlian woman of black heritage in the last episode of David Olusoga’s BBC series, “Black and British: A Forgotten History.” The event was the commemoration and unveiling of a plaque for the life of a black sailor, Charles Wotten who was a victim of Liverpool’s racial tensions in 1919. Wotten was rushed by a white mob, including police, and ended up drowning in the River Mersey at Queen’s Dock.

The woman at the commemoration of Wotten was quoting the words of John Hobbis Harris, an early 20th century Baptist missionary and secretary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society. She was speaking to a gathering of the Liverpool community at Queen’s Dock, nearly one hundred years later. The hallmark of Olusoga’s Black and British series is that he engages communities and ordinary people and strives to make them meaningful participants in the documentary.

Olusoga’s series shows that the history – and in many cases, the ancestry – of the British people is very much “coloured” too. In the first programme, he discusses the presence, in the 3rd century AD, of a unit of Africans or “Aurelian Moors” guarding Hadrian’s Wall during the Roman occupation of Britain. This earliest known African community in Britain is commemorated as part of the programme by a plaque in what is now the village of Burgh-by-Sands, Cumbria. The local community, including schoolchildren and members of the African community are brought together for the unveiling.

As Olusoga continues his critical examination of British history, we learn of the third century remains found of an African woman in the quintessentially British town of Eastbourne. ‘Beachy Head Woman’ may have been of African descent but the studies of her remains reveal that she was brought up in East Sussex.

African blood runs deep in Britain. Episode one introduces Cedric Barber, an apparently white man who is, in fact, a descendant of the Jamaican, Francis Barber – Jamaican-born slave and, later, beneficiary of Dr Samuel Johnson’s will. Cedric was largely unaware of his personal black history until late in his life.

In episode four, Olusoga visits Aberysychan in Wales to meet women who are descendants of African-American US GIs stationed in the UK during WW2. The history of the so-called “brown babies” was suppressed by families. In the programme, the GIs are finally recognised by the community with a plaque unveiled by their descendants.

Olusoga investigates the slave trade, visiting the 16th century slave fortress of Bunce Island, Sierra Leone. He charts Britain’s rise as the greatest slave trading nation in the world and its rapid industrialisation on the back of white working class Brits working in the textile trade that, in turn, relied on slave-picked cotton. When the American Civil war caused cotton supplies to fall, livelihoods were destroyed, particularly amongst the millworkers and factory workers of North-west England. Despite their desperation and poverty, workers in Rochdale chose to refuse to handle slave-picked cotton in an act of solidarity.

The series shows, despite the slave trade and racism, black people, through the ages, have found support from white Brits. In episode four, the story of the three Christian kings of Bechuanaland Protectorate is told. Threatened by Cecil Rhodes expansionist desires, the kings came to England not only to petition Queen Victoria for protection but, also, to tour the country for support amongst the British public. They were successful in both cases and their nation, now Botswana, never did join the Rhodes’ empire.

The unveiling of the specially commissioned BBC plaques to commemorate individuals and communities, not only in Britain, but Africa and the Caribbean, takes the documentary beyond mere history-telling and into the realms of real participatory history.

Author and museum director, Nina Simon defines a participatory cultural institution as “a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content.” Olusoga’s documentary-making process achieves much of that, as interviewees are more than just exhibits of evidence to corroborate his argument – but active participants in bringing their community together. Black, white, adults and children and brought together at the ceremonies and, no doubt, the plaques will live a life beyond the documentary.

Further information:

– Black and British was made in partnership with the BBC, The National Archives, The Black Cultural Archives, Heritage Lottery Fund England, Historic England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

– The four episodes of “Black and British: A Forgotten History”: First Encounters, Freedom, Moral Mission and The Homecoming are available to view for a limited time on BBC IPlayer with a UK TV licence.

– Information from the BBC about the individual episodes can be found by clicking the links: 1. First Encounters, 2. Freedom, 3. Moral Mission and 4.The Homecoming.

– David Olusoga introduces his series, Black and British: A Forgotten History.

“The first historians of black history in the UK, who began work back in the 1960s and 1970s, dedicated themselves to the reclaiming of a lost past. Through their work, a great pantheon of black Britons was brought to greater attention by the early black histories. The next stage, in my view, is to better integrate them and the worlds they occupied into the main narrative of the British and imperial past. Black and British – A Forgotten History, is, we hope, more than just a TV series. It is a call to arms.”

Interview with Cedric Barber, descendant of Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s slave and virtually, adopted son.

“I spoke to an international group about my feelings when I first felt this,” he continues, “and just blurted out ‘I want to be black!’. A young American black woman came up to me afterwards and said ‘I’ve never met anyone like you before!’. This wasn’t quite the compliment it sounded. She meant that many of the black folks in the USA wanted to be white like Michael Jackson!”

– Guardian review of the series accompanying book, “Black and British” by David Olusoga. Colin Grant asks if the book is “too temperate.”

“Finally I closed the book and thought: “Where’s Marcus Garvey?” Setting aside my bias in having written a book about him, Garvey, who led a mass movement of millions of black people, from his London headquarters between 1935 and 1940, is without doubt one of the most significant black men in Britain ever, but he doesn’t even merit a footnote.”

John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’: more allusion than fact?

pafa-gassed

‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent being installed at Pennsylvania Acadamy of Fine Art (PAFA)

John Singer Sargent’s Gassed is on loan to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) from the Imperial War Museums for PAFA’s exhibition, World War 1 and American Art, running from November 2016 to April 2017. The exhibition coincides with the centenary anniversary of US involvement in WW1.

The Eclectic Light Company

Some remember John Singer Sargent for his portraits of the most affluent in society. For many, though, his most memorable painting is his vast canvas showing the horrors of the First World War, in the Imperial War Museum, London: Gassed (1919). As with the work of all war artists, we tend to assume that this shows a real scene from the front, a hideous truth about that war. This article looks at the probable limits of that truth, and how much might be allusion.

Sargent, as an American who had worked much of his career in London, was commissioned by the War Memorials Committee of the Ministry of Information in Britain to paint a large work showing Anglo-American co-operation in the war. This was originally destined for a Hall of Remembrance, which was never built, but which required a very large if not monumental painting. He set off for the…

View original post 1,041 more words

Why the Imperial War Museums’ Archive Award Matters


The hard-fought defence of the Imperial War Museum’s library and related facilities from planned cuts will prove meaningless if public accessibility is not maintained and developed by IWM. The Museum’s mission statement of telling the story of the causes and consequences of conflict cannot be met unless archives are not only preserved but promoted through library and research services that enable public access to both archival material and supporting non-archival collections.

The recent accreditation of the IWM archive by the UK Archive Service Accreditation Committee not only vindicates the efforts of staff and other campaigners but can be used to protect the archives from new threats, such as any plans for re-location of collections to IWM Duxford, Cambridgeshire.

The award of the Archive Service Accreditation makes IWM only the second national museum to be accredited, alongside the V&A, since the standard was introduced in 2013. It confirms IWM’s suitability as holder of certain public records. Not only does the archive award recognise good practice in archive services management but also serves to encourage and support improvement, including helping archive services “adapt and respond to user needs and interests, and develop their workforce.”

Recognition of IWM’s archive standards vindicates the efforts of staff and campaigners who fought tirelessly to save the reference library and related services from cuts during 2014/15. IWM’s library collection includes the War Memorials Archive, First World War Women’s Work Collection, War Office and Ministry of Information collections. These books and ephemera collections likely constitute archives under the Society of American Archivists definition. Moreover, the non-archival – or “non-core” library material shed light on the archival collections, thus their availability also plays an important role in public accessibility of the archival material.

Following major government cuts to the Museum’s grant, in 2014/15, IWM proposed to close its library, dispose of the majority of its 300,000 item collection, end important educational services, cut 60-80 jobs and close the educational/research Explore History facility at IWM London.

An astonishing figure of nearly 21,000 people signed an online petition to save the IWM library and other services, following a campaign lead by IWM library staff and the Prospect union. As a result of public pressure, the Government pledged £8 million over four years to safeguard the immediate future of educational facilities and IWM backed down from its most drastic moves, offering a reprieve to the library. Instead reduced services were imposed, including, a reduced Explore History service with closure on weekends, a reduced Research Room service, an end to the telephone collections enquiry and booking service and some job cuts to library staff. IWM finally backed down from its proposal to charge for access to the Research Room.

library-petition

Petition to save IWM Library and services (Prospect union)

prospect_leafleting_img_2522

Prospect union members campaigning to save IWM Library (loveimperialwarmuseumlibrary.wordpress.com)

Following the IWM Library campaign victory, Prospect union negotiator, Andy Bye struck a note of caution: “The huge publicity as the election looms has contributed to this climb-down. However, the long-term future of the library’s collections is still not guaranteed – the status of 240,000 library items has been changed so they are no longer part of the core collection. The devil may be in the detail and our members will continue to be vigilant about protecting this national resource.”

Like all museums, IWM has auctioned off “un-accessioned” and “duplicate de-accessioned” items in its collections, including books and ephemera. In “exceptional cases” of “last resort” IWM is permitted to dispose items for principally financial reasons if criteria are met.

Reduced services, such as an end to the telephone collections enquiry service that received some 22,000 calls a year, has reduced the public’s access to IWM’s collections. The latest threat is possible re-location of parts of the collection to IWM Duxford in Cambridgeshire, 10 miles outside of Cambridge, where new a new £2.1 million archive storage complex is planned by IWM. These plans have been prompted by proposed new WW2 and Holocaust galleries as part of phase 2 of the IWM London regeneration project.

Even if only “non-core” items of the collection are re-located to IWM Duxford, the effect will be to reduce accessibility of core archival material, as non-core items play an important role in shedding light on archival material.

The latest project to develop new galleries could mask a major re-location of parts of IWM’s collections and staff, undermining public access – just as the fanfare, in 2014, of new £40 million WW1 galleries overshadowed drastic plans to end library and related services. If “non-core” library items are re-located, for example, the future of IWM London’s library staff must be questioned. This in turn raises questions about the future of the educational drop-in Explore History service and, even, the Research Room, which are both operated by senior library staff.

research-room

Research Room, IWM London

To continue to meet the standards of its new accreditation, IWM must consider how re-location of any parts of its archive or complementary items from the collection will affect the public: “The archive service demonstrates a good understanding of the needs and interests of the community it is established to serve. It has plans in place which detail the actions that are being taken to meet stakeholders’ access requirements and to continuously improve service provision.” [Requirement 3.2, Access Plans and Planning Requirement].

Any drastic re-location of IWM’s archive or complementary items may undermine accreditation standards, notably the duty to document plans “to continuously improve access and engagement in response to the identified needs and interests of its community. The plans are actively implemented and reviewed.” [Requirement 3.2.3]

Job cuts or re-location threaten the requirement that the archive service has a workforce “appropriate in experience and numbers to carry out the service’s responsibilities and plans.” [Requirement 1.6, Resources: Workforce]

The acquisition, appraisal and deaccessioning of archive items must be “holistically connected and clearly linked to the organisation’s mission statement.” [Requirement 2.2, Collections Development].

The accreditation standards, particularly with regards continuous improvement of accessibility, are in direct conflict with archive service reduction prompted for any reason, be it requirements of new exhibition space or government funding cuts. How these conflicts are to be managed is not discussed in the accreditation guidelines, except that in three years’ time, IWM will have to show to the assessor “progress against required actions or improvement actions outlined in the feedback to their initial application.”

Campaigners and staff opposing changes to education and research services which disrupt public access and the Museum’s ability to fulfil its public mission can hold IWM decision-makers to its new archive accreditation.