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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.