Interview with Sobia Ahmad

VisArts Next Generation/ Sanctuary Studio Fellowship 2019

August 29, 2019

By Iona Nave Griesmann

 

Weaving Google Maps screenshots and images of her childhood home in Pakistan with the various U.S. locations she finds herself in now, Ahmad creates intricate anti-flags that reference ambiguity of place and nationality. Doing so, she envisions ‘home’ for someone who is uprooted as a mythical place, one that is geographically unattainable and ever-shifting due to larger socio-political climates.

 

About the Next Generation/Sanctuary Studio Fellowship: The Next Generation/Sanctuary Studio Fellowship provides support for a promising contemporary visual artist who is emerging and/or a recently relocated refugee or asylee. The fellowship includes mentorship, a studio residency of one year, a solo exhibition, opportunities to share and exchange with the public through teaching, workshops, open studio visits, artist talks, and a community of artist peers. The mentor will assist the Fellow with the development of creative and professional goals, access to resources and services, navigation of local artists opportunities for the exposure of the fellow’s work, and exchange of ideas. Currently Fellows are selected through nomination and invitation only.

 

Glad to have you here Sobia! First, what exhibition are you working on for VisArts?

 

Well, I have a solo show coming up at the end of October that opens in November, and I am working on an installation around the themes of memory, home, place, and geography. I’m exploring how the idea of home for me and my ancestors, and much of the world today, is laced with borders and nationalism. I’ve been experimenting with weaving various materials during my fellowship here at VisArts. I’m creating flags using rice bags, but I call them anti-flagsbecause I’m reimagining the symbol of a flag as a projection of personal rather than national identity. I’m weaving into the rice bags google screenshots and maps of various places including images of my childhood home, the border of India and Pakistan, and maps of where I have lived and where I live now. As I weave, the maps become pixelated and unrecognizable, just like the idea of home is so vague and ambiguous for someone who is uprooted from a place.

 

 

Where did you learn how to weave?

 

I don’t know how to weave! But I am teaching myself. Weaving and rice bags are important to the work because I’m paying homage to my ancestral history of rice farming and rituals. I arrived at the technique and the material after I had a dream about my grandfather’s rice fields in Pakistan. My grandmother used to weave many things – from veils to charpai beds. I’m thinking of weaving as a way to create a metaphorical home for myself by entering a place of meditation and ritual, and connecting with and preserving ancestral knowledge. I’m sewing the flags with my grandmother. Together, we are reminiscing about homes we have left behind – She in India, and I in Pakistan. I’m recording all the stories she is telling me as we sew, and the audio will be part of the exhibition.

Anti-flag (Detail), Sobia Ahmad, 2019, Weaving, screen print on rice bags.

I noticed that much of your work contains themes of social justice, and activism. Was there a turning point when you decided to center your work around these themes, or has your work always been this way?

 

I’ve always explored social issues, but maybe not so overtly. Even when I was in undergrad, I knew that I wanted to make work about understanding my own identity, and how that sat within the larger socio political climates. I think most of my work has been centered around exploring how our identities are created and affected by larger power structures, though I don’t think that’s the entirety of my practice.

 

So when you are exploring ideas for your artwork, where do you usually start? Do you do research? Do you just dive into a medium, or do you find people around you who influence you in some way?

 

That’s a really good question. It’s a little bit of everything. Most of my work starts with a feeling, something that’s very personal. As I’m working through that, I do research about materials, history of a certain topic, and other artists who are exploring similar themes. I also ask people I trust for feedback when I make something. The feeling often ends up taking the form of a question. When I was making Small Identities, the tiles with the ID photos on them, I was really interested in the question of, “How does home and architecture translate into the current political climate, and rhetoric, and how can I reinsert these immigrant Muslims back into the visual language in American homes today?” The arabesque tiles that I’m using are a really popular motif in American homes, used in kitchens and bathrooms, so that’s something that I was really interested in.

 

 

I did notice that those tiles looked familiar, though I couldn’t initially pinpoint where they came from. That kind of familiarity seems to make your message more resounding.

 

I see them in people’s homes all the time, and it reminded me of my childhood. I grew up seeing these shapes, and it reminded me of home. Yet, to see this in people’s homes around here, and not feel fully at home, was something that I really wanted to tease out through the work. That’s what drew me to the tiles.

 

 

When people view your art, what do you hope they will experience, or what questions do you hope they will ask?

 

As I’m working through a lot of these themes, and learning that when I make work that is deeply personal, it can be very universal because people can relate to the intimate struggles in a very profound way. I’m just hoping that I can draw the connections between the personal and the political, historical, and cultural lines. For example, the language that I’m using from the supreme court travel ban. I’m extracting that language, the word “alien” for example, and rearranging it in a way to strip it of the specificity of the travel ban, and drawing connections with the history of the United States, how the U.S. has a long standing history of violence and exclusion, and how these words, taken out of the document, are actually pointing towards a larger truth about our society and history.

 

It’s really just about drawing parallels with the present and the past, and how

what people are going through right now may seem like this is new, but really, structurally, it’s all connected.

 

 

Somewhere in your artist statement, you mention that you are very detail oriented. I notice that your work is very clean, and smooth, so I wanted to ask, where did this process, or style originate?

 

I’m very meticulous in other parts of my life as well, and not just my work. In my practice, I am really concerned with not over-decorating work or the ideas, and just using the materials that convey the message clearly and strongly. So, I’m drawn to mostly minimalist styles, because of how they can clearly and subtly convey the themes I’m working. What I’m really thinking about is, “How can I say the most with the least amount of things?” My work is monochromatic, because I’m thinking about how I can make use of the black, white, and gray conceptually.

 

 

 

It does feel like your use of black, gray, and white ties into your messages of social structure, as well as the current divisive political climate.

 

As a spiritual practice for myself, I’m trying to live more in the gray area, and not talk about extremes or think in extremes. It’s not always easy, but drawing parallels with how often our identities are politicized and stripped down to these black and white narratives, something that I experience a lot personally, is why my work is so politically and socially engaged. We are all complex beings. All of us have really complex histories, ancestors, and stories and personal narratives. It’s not black and white. Your life isn’t black and white, and mine isn’t either. But, identities tend to be politicized and talked about in that way. So, I’m really interested in how I can make use of the monochromatic scale in a way to talk about the complexity of these issues.

 

 

 

In your artist statement, you briefly talk about feelings of alienation, and not belonging. When you have those feelings, where do you find the inspiration to keep moving forward with your art?

 

I think that all artists have that moment of feeling stuck, and it’s a constant battle of having to push through a lot of those feelings. I think making the work itself creates a sanctuary of belonging in that gray space that I talked about earlier. My understanding of belonging is changing as I’m making the work; I’m growing in my own practice, and also in my own spiritual journey. I don’t think belonging is about nationality, place, or geographically. I think of belonging now mostly in the metaphysical or spiritual realm. Belonging within oneself and creating meaning as you go. Because everything changes and what you thought you belonged to also changes. While I’m really drawn to notions of place and home, these are still imagined recollections that I’m working with, that I’m incorporating into my current understandings of belonging.

 

So, what keeps me going through the doubts and through the feelings of not belonging is really just the possibility of miraculously ending up at another feeling that feels like belonging in a different way. Transcending these limited understandings of belonging.

 

There’s also a really strong and powerful outcome of just creating work that is rooted in your personal narrative, but is also about community and what is beyond yourself. Creating this work is really showing me how, even when we feel like we don’t belong personally, collectively everyone is seeking belonging. My work, Small Identities, has really brought me closer to this understanding of individual belonging and communal belonging. It’s a really intimate and interesting dance that happens between the two.

Remove and Dissolve, 2018, Sobia Ahmad, engraved acrylic, ink water, cloth, 33 pieces, 3.5 x 5 inches each (standard passport size)

The last thing I would like to know before we wrap up is where you see your art existing in the future?

 

The work that I’m making now is relevant to the current moment, which is very fraught.

But I think much of contemporary art is speaking to a larger truth about where we have come from, and where we are headed if we are not careful. I’m realizing that even when you’re responding to the specific moment that you are working in, the work shows you that it has a life of its own past that moment. I hope that the work sparks dialogue and thoughts in others about interconnection of the current moment and history and offers healing to others who are navigating similar issues as I am.

 

Thank you for taking your time to discuss your work with me Sobia.

 

Thank you for coming and showing interest in what I do.

 

It’s been a pleasure!

 

To see more of Sobia’s Work visit: https://www.sobiaahmad.com/

 

This interview was conducted by Iona Nave Griesmann, a VisArts Intern. They specialize in illustration and are majoring in Graphic Design and Illustration at Montgomery College.