‘I am interested in exploring my position as an artist by adopting multiple roles including an author who writes narratives, an initiator who sets in motion collisions of people and improvised scenarios to create original stories.’ – Basir Mahmood
Hung along the walls of Letitia in Beirut are a series of large photographs that mostly depict human interactions with the natural elements of life that affect us all: milk, water and food. These images, which were directed by Basir Mahmood (b. 1985, Pakistan), comment on how we communicate with one another, and how we value the skills that we use to earn a living, as well as the commodities we buy that are essential to sustain life.
Mahmood’s role as an artist could be described as a ‘director’ in the way that he produces his work. Employing photographers, videographers, art directors and even people from the street, Mahmood uses the presence of ‘others’ to interpret, and in turn fabricate his images. The exhibition’s title ‘Eyes Recently Seen’ is a loose translation of an Urdu phrase that can be transliterated as ankho dekha haal. ‘It is like re-telling something’, he says, ‘It means that my eyes are creating an image by telling you what I am looking at.’ During the execution of Milk, 2018, where milk sellers pour crisp, clean, white milk from a great height onto a dark floor, Mahmood was more transfixed by the action of the pouring than by the photograph being taken. ‘The cameraman was photographing…then I saw this line appearing and the splash it made’, he explains, ‘This is what I’m interested in when making photographs: looking.’ The work is also a comment on how something so pure and silky is unable to be put back together once it has been made dirty and separated from its container. Liquid flows through to Holy Water from Mecca, 2015, where an almost empty glass of water appears against a clear background. The image asks how water can be commodified, and why a substance that is essentially the same element all over the world, can be deemed more ‘holy’ based on where the liquid derives from.
From drink to food, One for Each, Two for All, 2013, and All Good Things, 2018, both centre around oranges. Within both works, Mahmood has given oranges to a number of people and told them that they can only communicate using the fruit. The images show figures passing oranges to one another. Removing language, the only actions that could be performed involved giving and taking. Mahmood often uses ‘unskilled laborers’, people from informal economies like security guards and luggage porters. By choosing not to use professional performers, the resulting actions are unexpected and not pre-meditated. ‘I like when only I know what I am trying to do on set. This creates a certain discomfort in the work and the participants start creating a different narrative from the one I intended’, he says, ‘I was intrigued by the possibility that their idea of the work could become my idea of the work.’ One for Each, Two for All, is particularly mesmerising, with long outstretched arms appearing across a triptych where bright oranges introduce the tiniest hint of colour among the cool hues of Mahmood’s inkjet photographs.
The largest work within the show combines many ingredients, including melons, nuts and a whole host of vegetables. All Divided Equally, 2018, is a huge diptych that depicts a stage that has been split in half, across the platform lye hundreds of pieces of food that have been divided in two. When planning the images Mahmood told his art director that he wanted a list of everything that he could imagine to eat, but only in its purest form: ‘Milk and leaves could be included, but not tea’, he explains. Mahmood then asked for everything to be cut exactly in half, even the smallest nut. The work is a comment on the decisions that humans make when dividing food between themselves, and the aesthetics of balance and equality. Within the diptych, the lines than run across the stage between the two images don’t match exactly, causing the viewer to consider whether it is ever really possible to divide food equally at all, no matter how careful you are.
In A Message to the Sea, 2012, the only video work in the exhibition, a man can be seen with his body turned away from the camera, standing in a large expanse of water coming up to his waist and looking out to the horizon. ‘A video is a living thing. It is going to constantly breathe in the space’, explains Mahmood, of the work, which is strangely hypnotising, despite very little actually happening. The fact that the protagonist does not move almost reflects what the work is about. The figure in the water is a fisherman, whose skills are no longer useful to him and the clip appears like a sad farewell to something that once provided this man’s livelihood. Beside the film are six photographs titled No Land for a Fisherman, 2012, which show flowers, ropes and other seemingly random objects. These objects represent the new ways that the fisherman is making money now that his profession has been made redundant.
Mahmood’s images ask his audience to stop for a moment to think about the elements that are essential to everyday life but that we often fail to really consider. Through images that are as beautiful as they are transfixing, Eyes Recently Seen offers an opportunity for reflection and contemplation.
Basir Mahmood: Eyes Recently Seen is on display at Letitia, Tour De Saroula, Hamra, Beirut, Lebanon until 3 November 2018