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New York is known for its elaborate art scene. With shopping arcades dotted across Manhattan and Brooklyn, this city has learned to keep artistic spirits alive and thriving. A place that has been associated with the likes of Jeff Koons and is home to museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is no shortage of museums small or large, art fairs and auctions. While New York can open many doors for you, it’s not always easy for South Asian American artists to find the support they need to navigate the rough tides they might initially encounter.
As a member of the diaspora, trying to find your place in the New York City art scene can take longer and the journey can be more tumultuous if you don’t have the safety net of a community. Nonetheless, it is inspiring to see women of color speaking up in support of issues that urgently need attention. Together, these female artists are reclaiming their place on the international art scene, while creating opportunities for their entire communities.
You! features one such female artist this week: Farah Mohammad, a Pakistani printmaker and installation artist living in New York. She received her BA from Bennington College and her MFA from Columbia University. She has taught as an Adjunct Professor at the Columbia School of the Arts and is a recent recipient of the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Award from the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts (2021), the Lucas T. Carlson Fellowship at Columbia University (2020), and the Coursework Award. from IPCNY (2020). ). Let’s hear what she has to say about her work as an artist…
You! What is your artwork about?
Farah Muhammad: I work in different printmaking techniques to process complex feelings that arise from working with underserved communities and negotiating my own presence as a Pakistani immigrant in the United States. I am inspired by the images I capture of spaces in the process of change. In my print making process, where I divide images into shapes around which I build the main theme; this allows me to take an emotional inventory of his personal symbolism. Highlights of my exhibition include a solo show at Nyama Fine Art and group shows at the Moss Arts Centre, International Print Center New York (IPCNY), The Jewish Museum, ChaShaMa, The Wallach Art Gallery, Field Projects (NYC) and Local Art Space Project (LIC, NY).
You! Can you tell us about the engraving?
FM: Through engraving I link anthropological research with my fascination for urban architecture. Through my work, I create a visual reality for myself, where my past and present, including Pakistani and American identities, can co-exist.
You! Can you tell us about your recent work?
FM: Some of my more recent work has been sculptural woodcuts and monotypes of architectural forms that have emotional significance. A recent installation, ‘Unfettering’, consists of stitched woodcuts suspended on orange-painted wire. In the woodcuts I carved images of a construction site at my childhood home in Karachi, architectural remains in Saddar, a neighborhood of Karachi, and buildings in my neighborhood of Harlem, New York. I stitched the woodcuts together, referencing a view of a construction site immediately outside my Harlem studio window.
You! Could you tell me more about your representation of the homeland and how you decide to explore it in relation to your audience?
FM: When I think of home, I immediately picture my home in Clifton, Karachi, Pakistan, where I grew up. I think of the surrounding streets. I notice the architecture changed and unchanged.
Thought always starts there, but home refers to familiarity, comfort, place of origin, connection, property, freedom. I feel each of these things in different places.
I think of the homeland as a space that is constantly being restructured with our memories, incorporating new ideas, but also carrying obstinate vestiges of the past. I now live in New York City, but Pakistan is a place I return to frequently physically or in art, to gain clarity about my motivations in life and to understand the people and politics that affect me the most.
You! Have you felt a change in the sense of homeland, given the transnational nature of today’s world?
FM: For me, one of the most consistent ideas about the home is that it is a place of constructed associations: where different human emotions come together with images and memory. It is the place where we begin to see for the first time. I am attached to this lens or frame at home; through which I realize that I understand my life experiences. It becomes interesting for me to literally integrate images from the past with the present. I create spaces with which the viewer can interact. Because these spaces are mixed with references to things and places in my life, I notice that different people relate to different sections of the work. In one installation, ‘Motion and Rest Chaos and Longing’, I incorporated silicone molds of Prince Chocolate sandwich cookies. I had recently thought of these cookies that I used to eat as a kid in Karachi for no apparent reason after many years while walking under a construction site in Harlem. Something in that space smelled like cookies, and I was fascinated by how olfactory associations can transport us to moments we’ve never considered significant. When the work was on view at Nyama Fine Art Gallery, I noticed that this installation element evoked personal memories for different members of the Pakistani audience.
What has changed since you started exhibiting in the United States?
FM: My artistic career began while living in the United States. Although I studied engraving in my undergraduate degree, I specialized in social sciences. After graduating, I worked full-time as a social worker in New York City for three years, while also renting space and working in a print studio. Eventually, it made sense to switch to art as a full-time career, so I did my MFA at Columbia University and started exhibiting more in New York City. This is how I met curators, gallery owners and artists who became my collaborators. I built strong relationships in the New York art community.
You! How did moving to the United States influence your work? How did it help navigate her work in a new direction?
FM: Before coming to the United States I made paintings. I came to the US in 2012 to get my undergraduate degree, which I went to Bennington College for. It was here that I took my first printmaking class and was immediately hooked. I was interested in how printmaking required me to gain a deeper understanding of the materials around me and tools I wasn’t used to using in painting.
You! How has printmaking contributed to your career as an artist?
FM: Printmaking refined my thought process, where I could commit to an idea and do it, and then add to it and modify it. Engraving has become a thought tool. I realized that I could tell the subject matter of my work by the printing technique I chose to use. I have used woodcuts when depicting changing architecture, or some kind of violence, because the process of carving and printing feels similar to breaking and building. When I want to add narratives, I paint monotypes. When I want to map flat colors, I use screen printing.
You! What are monotype prints, can you elaborate?
FM: Monotype prints are paintings created on Plexiglas, but become an exploration of handling paint texture. Sometimes you feel like you’ve applied an even coat of paint to the plexiglass, but it smudges under pressure, so on the next coat you texture it so that it transfers evenly with pressure. The use of image transfers in my printmaking work helped me to be directly involved in my research.
You! What medium do you like to work with the most?
FM: There’s an element of discovery to printmaking: you have to carve, draw, or paint, and then wait until you’re ready to print to see what your markings look like. I enjoy the slow building of images, and the stages of building an image are tangible. I often look forward to the surprise of removing substrates from the print matrix after rolling them under the press and seeing the inverted image.
You! Can you tell us about your recent work?
FM: Some of my more recent work includes installations that I built using engravings. Because my work is architectural, I am excited by the large scale I have been able to achieve through this medium, as it allows me to layer different ideas and engage in multimedia and conceptual explorations in my studio.