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.

 

Advertisements

Short film Review: Balcony – Winner of Iris Prize 2016

balcony-e1467133634128

Genevieve Dunne (left) and Charlotte Beaumont (right) star in Balcony (Toby Fell-Holden/Film Doo)

Balcony, the Iris Prize Winner of the Cardiff-based international LGBTQ short film festival, is a confounding 17-minute drama set in an estate of high rise flats and features two girls in a hostile environment. Tina is a lonely teenager who finds herself drawn to Dana, from Afghanistan, who lives with her father and does not mix with the rest of the kids.

“The problem about being surrounded by bad things is you get the urge to destroy anything good,” Tina shares with the viewer after we see her take a photo with Dana.

The film is seen through Tina’s eyes and imagination. The viewer’s assumptions about Dana, who wears a headscarf and Tina, the tough teenager, are questioned. “People seem like they care but really, there’s way more to it than that,” Tina says, as we learn more about her abusive home life.

Toby Holden-Fell’s film questions stereotypes about immigrants and the choice of Dana as an Afghani opens up wider issues of Britain’s relationship with Afghanistan. “You’d think people’d want the truth when, really, they just want to hear whatever’ll make them feel better,” Tina says at the dramatic end.

Iris Prize jury chair Cheryl Dunye commented, “We felt that the director crafted a powerful film where not a single moment of its 17 minutes was wasted. The lead performance by Charlotte Beaumont was particularly outstanding as she took us on an internal transformation that left us speechless.”

Other winners on the night included Real Boy, a documentary by Shaleece Haas, which picked up the Best Feature Award, and Sign, selected by members of Pride Cymru’s Youth Council for the Iris Youth Prize Award.

Further information

Balcony is currently available to view with a TV licence on BBC IPlayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b082rtyw/iris-prize-winning-film-2016-balcony

Montage of the films that competed for the £30,000 10th Iris Prize, 2016 – https://www.youtube.com/user/johnberwyn

Film Doo interview with director, Toby Fell-Holden:
https://www.filmdoo.com/blog/2016/06/28/interview-toby-fell-holden-on-balcony/

IWM London: Mahwish Chishty’s Drone Paintings

01_reaper

Reaper Drone; Gouache & gold flakes on paper; 30″ by  20″; 2015 (Mahwish Chishty)

Art is a useful lens through which to introduce children and teenagers – and adults – to painful and difficult issues – to help them make sense of the images they see on screens and to help them understand global conflict. The IWM Contemporary series at IWM London is dedicated to providing a platform for cutting edge art on current conflicts and has previously featured artists such as Omer Fast, Hew Locke, Imogen Stidworthy, Rosalind Nashashibi, Nick Danziger and Edward Barber.

From Wednesday 19th October 2016, IWM London will be showing an exhibition by US-based, Pakistani artist, Mahwish Chishty, who uses the Afghan/Pakistani folk art tradition to depict US/British armed drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  The exhibit will include sculpted painting on wood, painted drone models and works on paper.

It was after a visit to Pakistan in 2011 that Chishty began her drone art series to examine and raise a discussion on the cultural, psychological and physical impact of the foreign drones that hover over areas of Pakistan. In Chishty’s exhibit, the lethal drones which are used to carry out the US/British extra-judicial assassinations programme in Pakistan – with some Pakistani government collusion – become colourful, intriguing works of art. Her work has been described as “resistance through beauty.”

10-mq-9-2-chishty

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

Chishty uses her training in traditional miniature painting, notable in her use of tea staining, to produce  intricate, symbolic artwork inspired by the art used by drivers of haulage trucks to decorate their vehicles in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By reinventing the foreign drones, she is bringing attention to them and the stories we are told about them – but doing so in a symbolic way with “truck art.”

IWM London’s “Visions from Above and Below,”Gallery 2, features another artist’s depictions of drones. On display is a series of ink drawings by Alison Wilding, a British renowned for her sculptures. Whilst Chishty has mythologised drones with traditional Pakistani art, Wilding’s depicts them as sinister, bird-like entities.

wilding-drone-4

Drone 4; drawing in acrylic inks, 2012 (Alison Wilding)

 

The British government has sanctioned its own drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and, recently, Syria. Moreover, it has been revealed that Britain works closely in the US’ wider assassination programme by providing a base in North Yorkshire, likely intelligence support and lending its own operators, thus linking itself closely to the US drone programme and strikes in Pakistan.

Drone assassinations are carried out without any judicial process. The decision-makers in the US and British government and military act as judge, jury and executioner. A litany of falsehoods have been made to disguise the programme, from initial US claims that no civilians were killed by drone strikes, that only Al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates who posed an imminent threat to the US homeland were targeted, to the US casualty figures themselves, which the US massages with its presumption that all military aged men killed in a strike zone are terrorists, unless posthumous evidence proves otherwise..

The strikes are not surgically precise as has been claimed by our governments and have killed hundreds of innocent people. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the civilian death toll in Pakistan is between 424-966 since 2004. Sometimes the attacks occur on the basis of suspicious activity in so-called “signature strikes.” The identity of the target may not be known. Other times, “double tap” strikes occur which hit first responders and others going to help the victims of the first hit. The devastating effects has served to psychologically damage, as well as to radicalise populations against the US and Britain, furious at the loss of loved ones.

Unmanned drones are just one part of the arsenal of bombing campaigns. Piloted airstrikes inflict immense damage – as we are currently seeing from the Russian-backed Assad campaign in Syria and the US-backed Saudi Arabian campaign in Yemen. In December 2009, a US Tomahawk cruise missile, fired from a US Navy vessel, struck a village in South Yemen, al Majala, killing 41 civilians. That day, 22 children died and, reportedly, 5 women who were pregnant.

Remotely operated drones, however, are increasingly popular for governments because they do not directly risk the livelihoods of pilots or operators. Last year, David Cameron announced that Britain would double its fleet of armed drones to 20 so-called “Protectors”. As long as the deaths of the targets and people in the vicinity and the mental illness and terror inflicted on the target population living under their shadow remain secondary to our concerns, then drone warfare will be seen as PR friendly. Mahwish Chishty’s exhibit at IWM London is a way to open up the discussion for all of us, young and old.

More

Book a place to hear Mahwish Chishty in discussion with photographic artist, Lisa Barnard and IWM researcher, Clare Carolin at IWM London on Thurs 20th October 2016.

Analysis – “DroneART: a Product of Surveillance Criticism” by Anna C. Natale & Dolores Cristina Gomes Galindo.

“In the painting MQ-9/Predator, the sheet appears to have the same texture as homemade recycled paper, the tonal changes are visible, resembling the color of earth and sand grains, but also nullifies the track of time, there is no way to know the age of this work.”

Interview with Islamic Arts Magazine, 24th May 2013.

“It’s something that I didn’t hear much about here in the US. Pakistani people feel bitter and angry towards the American government because of their use of drones near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as it is affecting a lot of civilian lives.”

“I grew up in Saudi Arabia and I felt like my knowledge of Islam was so limited. I learned in school that music and dance are haram (forbidden) in Islam but then I came to discover that a branch of the same religion celebrates and connects with God using music and dance. A dervish twirls and swirls with the beat of music to a point where everything around him blurs and takes him to a state of mind where he feel more connected to the One.”

Interview with Mother Jones, 24th June 2013.

“It’s kind of a folk art. It’s a tradition, a culture. People who drive these trucks basically live on those trucks, sleep on those trucks. They kind of make that into their mobile home and they decorate it into something that’s eye pleasing. They’re extremely beautiful paintings. They spend so much time on it and they don’t get any funding. This is something that they do, just a personal interest. It has no reason whatsoever other than just an aesthetic sense. I always thought that it was not given any importance in the art world back home, and I wanted people to think maybe what would happen if these drones were friendlier looking, instead of such hard-edged, metallic war machines.”

Preview  of the exhibit at IWM London by Asian Voice online, 30th August 2016

“Mahwish Chishty is a contemporary artist combining new media and conceptual work with her traditional practice as a painter. Chishty has exhibited her work nationally and internationally at venues including Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MOCADA), Brooklyn NY; University of Technology (UTS Gallery), Sydney, Australia; University of Michigan, Maryland Art Place, Baltimore, MD; and Canvas Gallery, Karachi, Pakistan. Her works are held in both public and private collections. This will be the first time that the artist’s work is shown in the United Kingdom.”

– Mahwish Chishty’s website.