Green is a loaded color for some of us. Green is Islam. Green is Pakistan. It is the dominant color on the Pakistani flag and consequently inextricably linked to national identity – saturating government seals, corporate logos, athletic uniforms, and more. It appears prominently in Pakistani-American artist Umber Majeed’s work. Majeed’s choice of green, however, is less flag and more highlighter, and its symbolism encompasses Pakistan, the Internet, the concept of time, radioactivity, and more.

Kajal connected with Majeed to discuss this particular hue and her idiosyncratic – and very green – installation: Hypersurface of the Present.

Hypersurface of the Present, 2018, Installation – 7 pencil on papers (A1 to A3 sizes), wood, plaster, and thread, 10 ft by 6 ft, NARS Foundation, NY, USA.

Kajal: Hi Umber, thanks for making time to revisit Hypersurface of the Present with me. There’s so much to look at in this artwork: seven drawings, all very scientific looking, Urdu text, the Pakistani star and crescent, a shaved head, disembodied hands, string…but we have to start with that green! It is such a particular shade. It makes me think of green screens and the 90s PTV icon! Can you tell me more about this color?

Umber Majeed: This particular green is a chroma key green, usually used for green screen effects and CGI. It is often in reference to a scene in production, as a template to replace imagery. In the context of this project I was interested in how this green referred to the Internet, space of projection, and uranium.

Is chroma key green an easily available paint or color pencil or did you have to create a custom blend? 

I experimented with a variety of greens in color pencil, acrylic and poster paint. I had to mix and overlay various shades to get close enough to chroma key green. In my various video and vinyl installations, I’ve used fluorescent neon green vinyl usually used for car decor to achieve the most accurate shade presented.

Paints and other materials used by artist Umber Majeed to create chroma key green.

Chroma key green does appear frequently in your practice. How and when did you start thinking about this color? 

In my earlier video art experiments I was working with green screens and endurance performance with amateur performers. In 2016, I was immersed in research around the history of Pakistani nuclear nationalism as at this time there were global nationalist uprisings across the world. It resulted in my multi-channel animation series project, Atomi Daamaki Wali Mohabbat (The Atomically Explosive Love) I observed the multifaceted meanings that this particular green could refer to. Chroma key green refers to a method of spatial projection but it can also function as an alternative meaning or “shade” of nationalism – including PTV, militancy, and spiritualism. This new understanding helped me develop a lot of concepts that I explored in later iterations of my research including, In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present, a video and digital publication.

What a title! Are you referencing Bismillah?

Yes! It is an amalgamation of the translation of Bismillah, in the name of God, and the theoretical physics term “Hypersurface of the Present.”

I’m not familiar with theoretical physics – can you explain hypersurface of the present and how it relates to this installation?

Hypersurface of the present is an abstract concept to measure any instant in spacetime between future and past light cones. I use the Minkowski diagram which was named after one of Einstein’s former teachers who realized that space and time could be integrated mathematically into a single four-dimensional manifold. The most interesting element of this theory is how different observers are represented by different singularities on the hypersurface of the present, each with a distinct light cone and a unique perspective on the field of spacetime.

Hypersurface of the Present, my artwork, is a drawing installation that maps out how green light functions as a mode of spirituality perpetuated and disseminated by Pakistani nationalism, Islamic orientalism, populist green screen interface, and light therapy. The absurdist diagrammatic works on paper depict visual perception, essentially highlighting a green cone as a stand in figure for state hegemony.

How did you come to be inspired by this theoretical physics concept? What were you consuming, contemplating and making that led to this installation. 

This drawing installation was produced while I was an artist in residence at Nars Foundation in early 2018. At the time, I was writing a speculative fiction around Pakistani nuclear nationalism and consuming stock imagery of scientific diagrams, graphs on eye perception, and graphics in Urdu science books for children. The children’s books that I bought from Pakistan looked at scientific concepts integrating state religion; a similar rhetoric embedded in Pakistani nuclear history. And an important sound I thought through were the shrill calls of Takbeer as a mountain is destroyed in the video documentation of Pakistan’s 1998 successful nuclear tests in Chachi, Balochistan.

Urdu children’s books the artist collected as research for this project.

I remember watching those videos on the news with my family! I found those shrills a little unsettling and the whole nuclear testing era really frightening – I was convinced a nuclear war was imminent. And yet everyone around me was full of patriotic pride, convinced that Pakistan had “arrived,” that the world wouldn’t mess with us now. It was such a strange time in our history – what compels you to creatively dwell there? 

Well, I am interested in the state’s methods to resuscitate that moment of glory whether it being manifested in the celebration of Youm-e-Takbeer, the construction and destruction of ugly fiberglass, state monuments such as Chaghi Monument Hill or the hauntings of pride kept alive and disseminated in diasporic-Pakistani bodies/histories.

Going back to something you said earlier, is “chroma key green as an alternative meaning of nationalism, militancy, and spiritualism” a personal interpretation or are other artists and thinkers also seeing this color as a stand-in for these concepts? Is it a Pakistan-only interpretation? Or perhaps an Islamic country only interpretation? I’m thinking of the other countries that have predominant green flags: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, etc.

This alternative meaning is a personal interpretation and feminist stance, taking into account that land and bodies are fertile grounds for ideology. The details within the project are specific to Pakistan but also refer to countries that have a blurred relationship between Islam and state. For sure other artists and thinkers are using green as a way to rethink politics, urban environments, and nationality in relation to other countries – like many you have mentioned. For example, in his book Paradoxes of Green-Landscapes of a City-State, Garth Doherty investigates Bahrain’s environment and the cultural nostalgic and nationalistic consequences of the conflicting practice of green in its arid landscape.

Drawings from Majeed’s installation.

The body as fertile ground for ideology. That’s a great metaphor. Is that why we see anatomical diagrams in this installation? And can you explain all the cones? 

Yes! I was looking at the body as another landscape for the state ideology to sow its seeds and justify its destructive policies through scientific language and national pride. I was looking at scientific graphics of measurements of spacetime but reconfiguring them to depict a narrative I was developing in my speculative fiction. My fiction looks at how the green cone/green light are inherent in the human body and can be activated. The drawings depict cones as parts in the human eye and ear, reproductive cones, cones in digital space, and within theoretical physics graphs to reconfigure the measurement of time-space. I also refer to the cone as a phallic representation of power within scientific depictions as well as a haunting form of the destroyed mountainscape in Chaghi, Balochistan.

A drawing from Majeed’s installation.

The large “optical” diagram includes Urdu text: the word naqsha meaning map. Yet you don’t translate the word in your title or in your description about this installation. I enjoy the fact that I know the meaning of this word and it colors my understanding of this installation but it is accessible to only those of us that can read and understand Urdu. Did you purposefully build this “insider knowledge” for your fellow Pakistanis? Or is the text purely a visual element? 

Naqsha can also mean location. It is both “insider knowledge” and a visual element. I made quite a few drawings at the time that were also exploring text in that way but they did not end up in the installation. For the experience of the artwork, I am not interested in providing straight forward or rigid translations. Within my overall practice, as a Pakistani-American woman I play with the mistranslation, transliteration, and lack of translations to problematize the content of my research. For example, this is clear in my performance lectures and voiceovers in my animations as I recite Urdu excerpts with no English subtitles.

There’s another drawing in this installation that will be more familiar to a Pakistani, though perhaps not requiring a literal translation: the crescent and star. I assume it’s a government seal or stamp?

There is one main logo or seal in the most central drawing referring to the Government of Punjab, Pakistan. The logo was part of documentation in my family archival materials based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The familial archive is another important reference within my recent projects.

Directly under the logo drawing is a pair of bright green hands, holding a circular object and leaning against a board that has a grayscale image of a human head pasted near the top. Strings appear out of the circular object and extend up the wall over multiple drawings until they coalesce under another green board – creating a vertical cone shaped guitar fretboard almost. Can you talk me through the sculptural elements of this piece – what does the disembodied pair of hands signify? What is it holding? And the string?

The disembodied figure is connected to the drawings through neon green thread that is visible through the lighting. The hands are not particularly the hands of the head depicted, they are pointing towards the state emblems, directing inquiries of who can obtain and maintain the right to land and citizenship. These are the things I think about as a South Asian diasporic artist, inter-generationally connected to histories and politics in Pakistan. I think about these issues to then problematize them.

Preparatory sketches for Hypersurface of the Present.

Are you still creatively grappling with any of these issues?

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to recreate an iPad and vinyl installation for group shows at BRIC, Brooklyn and Southern Exposure, San Francisco. This installation included a custom website for a digital publication that is experienced when the viewer steps on the custom mat. The viewer experiences the images by swiping as if it is an Urdu/Arabic publication. A custom interface was created to reorient technological tools for the Non-Western subject. The content is the extension of In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present speculative fiction series, using the viewer’s body as a mechanism in the experience of the artwork. My main concerns currently are thinking through how bodily movement and the interface interact; what does that mean in terms of community building and accessibility as a visual artist and educator?

Artist Umber Majeed.

All images courtesy of the artist.