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One Piece By… is an interview-column by Kajal arts contributor Sarah Burney. In each piece, Burney will have an in-depth discussion with a South Asian artist about one work of art they have created.

Pakistani-Canadian artist Zinnia Naqvi mines her family album for inspiration and source material. In her photograph The Wanderers – Niagara’s Falls,1988, she has built a complex and colorful tableau around a photograph of her mother and sisters visiting Niagara Falls. This personal image, like all travel photos, is especially poignant today. As the global pandemic wanes and peaks around the world it is unclear when, if ever, we will return to the days of unfettered tourism. Furthermore, by presenting the brown body as an explorer, consumer, and conqueror of the great outdoors Naqvi is subverting one of the most problematic tropes of Western art history.

Kajal sat down with the artist to discuss her inspirations, influences, and creative process in making this photograph.

Zinnia Naqvi, The Wanderers – Niagara’s Falls,1988, 2019, Inkjet Print

Kajal: Hi Zinnia, thanks so much for making time for this interview. I have so many questions about your photograph, The Wanderers – Niagara’s Falls,1988, but wanted to start by talking about Yours to Discover the larger body of work this piece stems from. How and when did the idea of this series come to you? And what were you making before you started this series?

There was a combination of factors that led to me making this project, Yours to Discover. Almost all of my work touches on themes of migration, stemming from the family album. I look at the family album for inspiration, as a place to look back and reflect on my family history and where that has brought me now. In combination with the family album I often use performance for the camera, sometimes with myself as an actor or with others.

The images I’m using in this project come from a trip that my family made to Canada in 1988. They came to visit my mom’s sister who was living here at the time, and visited various tourist sites. Later on, in 1991 my family immigrated from Pakistan to Canada. In this series I am looking at three specific tourist sites in Ontario, which are the CN Tower, Niagara Falls, and Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village (which was a miniature village very close to where I grew up, but closed down in 2006).

I first started thinking about these images in particular when I was invited to create an artist multiple by a Toronto based collective called Sad Art Store, under the theme of “Tourist in Your Own Home.” Immediately when I was given this theme I thought of something my dad used to say, which is that he likes to live in each place he has lived as if he was a tourist. I started thinking about what we learn when we go to these tourist sites, about the places we live. And then I started thinking about who decides that these places are in fact tourist sites. That’s why in this project I am thinking about ideas surrounding Canadian national values, and how we are supposed to consume and learn them from these places.

Right before I made this work I was mostly working in an interdisciplinary way. Meaning I was combining photos, video, text, sometimes props in the gallery space. For this work, it was kind of a time for me to move back to photography as a single medium. I wanted to find a way to do what I was doing in the gallery space but translate that to a single photo. This was a super hard thing to do. I wanted to find a format to include all of the thinking work I was doing about these photographs to the photograph itself.

You’ve touched upon what you were thinking and making at this time and I’m curious as to what was influencing this rumination and creation — What were you consuming? As in what art were you looking at?

A lot of the photo work I am and was consuming at the time was returning to the genre of still life. Many artists I was looking at were combining props, objects, plants, and found images within the studio. Two friends whose work I was thinking about and ended up talking to about this project are Celia Perrin Sidarous and Juan Ortiz-Apuy. Both combine objects and images in new and imaginative ways to speak about collecting, archives and image culture.

This was also the first time I had a nice bright studio all to myself to work in. I live in Montreal where studio space is still affordable, and for the first time I had access to a nice white room with bright natural light where I could work and make photographs. I used the studio space as both a site for taking photographs, but also a place for learning, studying, and experimentation.

The large family photograph in The Wanderers – Niagara’s Falls, 1998this photograph is such a gorgeous image. Like you mentioned, a lot of people have images like this in their family album; it’s familiar, it immediately registers as a personal, family photo. Can you tell me more about it? When was it taken? Who is the photographer?

This image in particular was taken at Niagara Falls in 1988. That is my mom and two sisters in the image, and it was most probably taken by my dad. I loved this image right away. It is super picturesque. The film did such a great job of registering the texture of the water. And I love that my mom and sisters are wearing these kind of matching white outfits, they look like explorers. The way they are perched on these rocks reminded me of colonial exploration photos or painting, especially Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, which is why I named this piece after it and included the painting, on a mug, as a prop in the image itself. Obviously what my mom and sister’s are doing is very different from the man in this painting (they are visiting a very popular and constructed tourist site), but the way they have been photographed against the Falls reminded me of the art history paintings I was shown in art school.

Public installation at Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives, 2019.

Last year Peel Art Gallery Museum and+ Archives exhibited The Wanderers – Niagara’s Falls, 1998 this piece outside and at a very large scale, 6 by 11 feet — that’s very atypical for a photograph. Had you ever envisioned this work at this scale, as a piece of public art?

This piece was actually made for this space at the Peel Art Gallery Museum and+ Archives, in Brampton, Ontario outside of Toronto. They asked me to create something for the space so in this case, the site very much came before the actual work.

Brampton is a suburb of Toronto with a very large population of South Asian migrants (about 44.3% according to the 2016 census). The site I was asked to make this work for is a regional gallery in a suburb. The space directly behind where the photos were placed was a multi-generational programming space where the gallery would hold activities like arts camps for kids. Also directly across from the gallery was a large park where families would convene. This played a huge factor into my creation of the piece. I wanted to make something bright and colourful that would be attractive to people of all ages.

Also because there is such a large population of new immigrants in this area I did want to make something that touched on the theme of migration. I used my family’s experience of visiting Canadian tourist sites to try to relate to other people’s experiences as well. Many people have the same kinds of images in their family albums, and hopefully this work would make them think differently about the photos they have tucked away.

It was definitely hard to figure out what would work and make sense at such a large scale. I have never really made such large images before. I wanted to make works that would look good both from close up and far away. It was a hard spot to fit into but in the end I was pretty happy with what I made.

In creating this image, you first made a sculptural installation — I’d love to talk about your process in creating this first work of art. How long did it take you to decide upon this precise configuration/composition? Did you go through many alternate compositions?

It took me about a month to come up with the configuration for this photo, and the other two that are made in the similar format. I would put things together in my studio, and leave them there. I would come back to it on different days. I took a lot of test shots on my DSLR and would look at them on my computer, which changed a lot from looking at the configuration in person. The final image is actually shot on large format film, because I knew they would be blown up large and I wanted them to be high resolution. I would also just take test shots of my trials on my phone and sometimes show them to friends. This is my first time really working with still-life, it’s not a genre I’ve ever attempted before, and to make such complicated images was definitely daunting, so I took my time and made many trials.

Was there ever a point where you contemplated making this a three-dimensional work? It could be sculpture, like one of Joseph Cornell’s dioramas.

Some people have asked me that in terms of the installation in a gallery space, also because I have done installation work before. This project was made for a site-specific purpose, and the final product had to be a photograph. But now that I have made it, I also don’t think the image would really work as a diorama. It’s very important to me that the photo was taken in my home studio, as that is a place where I work, think and learn. Also the positioning of the objects is very precarious, a lot of things were held up with tape and were even falling down as I was trying to take the photos. The final photograph kind of solidifies the objects in place, time and location, and the preciousness of their position is part of the concept. I simply would not have the same control in an installation space and I think the work would lose some of it’s magic.

There is such a strong sense of nostalgia in this image — or perhaps more accurately in the objects in this image: the old photograph, the children’s toys, faded library books, a VHS tape! But the image itself reads very contemporary thanks to its crisp clarity, the bright white space and your post production — that’s a really interesting duality to straddle.

Well the photos I am using are somewhat nostalgic in themselves. They were taken during the late 80’s/early 90s. I wanted to compliment that by choosing objects from roughly the same time period. These are items and media that I would have consumed as a young child. But at the same time I wanted to make it clear that the overall image is new. I am now an adult thinking about these symbols in a new way. I guess I wanted to find a way to somehow bridge the gap between old and new, between memories and new understandings.

A detail from one of Naqvi’s outtakes showing The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog mug.

I have to confess I had a really problematic initial response to this work: I wondered where in Pakistan this large waterfall was. I didn’t grow up in North America (and perhaps haven’t consumed enough American/Canadian tourism pop culture) and didn’t recognize Niagara Falls. Knowing your family background I just assumed the large family photo was taken somewhere in South Asia. It was only after noticing the white figure on the left that I considered that this photo could have been taken in the “West.” Reading the title of the work obviously confirmed its location. I’m both embarrassed and saddened by my myopia; my inability to imagine Brown bodies, like my own, in Western tourist sites. Especially against the context of the work activists of color have been doing to normalize images of joy. Has anyone else made this mistake? Or confessed to making this mistake? As an artist were you concerned that the geographic specificity of this photograph might be lost on those who didn’t read the title and thus lead to some “incorrect” interpretations?

It’s interesting that you assumed it must have been in South Asia because we are Brown! I think a big part of the project is inserting the Brown body into the Canadian landscape, which we so rarely see. So far, this work has only been shown in Canada, and mostly read and interpreted by a local audience. I am thinking very particularly about Canadian concepts of tourism and national values, so some of these things may be lost on an international audience. But I also think that is okay. It’s very often that people think Canada doesn’t have a lot of national myths, values, stories, and stereotypes etc. This is actually false and I think it’s important to acknowledge what they are, and how they work for some people and are harmful to many others. Hopefully if people see the image and maybe don’t understand it right away it might encourage them to find out more.

I see in your sketch that the original photo from the family album included a white man to the left of your family. You edited him out and that makes perfect sense because he was blocking a lot of the waterfall. How come you left the woman in there?

Yes, the man was just a bit distracting, but I did leave the woman there because I didn’t want people to think my family was alone at this site. Even though the photo reminded me of The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, my family are obviously not isolated explorers on an untouched landscape. I wanted to make it clear that other people were occupying this place as well.

Staying with titles for a moment — I’d love to know more about how you decided on the title of this series.

The title Yours to Discover is actually the slogan for Tourism Ontario, and was featured on the Ontario licence plate, until very recently. Right as I began making this work, our new conservative government announced they were changing the slogan to “A Place to Grow”. All of the sites I am looking at are in Ontario, and in the 80s and 90s the government made a big push to promote tourism at home amongst those who live there. It seemed like a fitting title since there is so much to “discover” in the photos as well.

There really is! Thinking about discovery and tourism is kind of difficult these days. I feel like the global pandemic has added another layer to your work; looking at it before the Coronavirus outbreak I saw family photos but now I see travel photos — it makes me yearn for those days of “safe” tourism.

For sure, our movements will now be so restricted for some time. I guess we also saw this after 9/11, traveling for South Asian people became a lot more difficult and hostile. I wonder how it will be after the pandemic is over.

A sketch of the composition.

You mentioned Celia Perrin Sidarous and Juan Ortiz-Apuy earlier and I’m curious if there are any other artists who or specific artworks that you feel strongly influenced this work or this process of making such content rich photographs?

Another important person whose work really influenced the structure for this image is Leslie Hewitt, particularly her Riffs on Real Time (2002) and Still Life (2013) series. What I appreciated about her work was how she was also able to make these structures in the studio and document them for the camera. Her works look minimal from afar, but when you look closely at them you can start to understand her political implications, through books and subtle references. This was a big influence on how I put together these images.

Last question: How did this piece and the process of making this piece affect the works that came after it?

I’m still working on this body of work, and have produced about twelve images and a short video piece. I’m currently in the process of finding venues to exhibit the work so stay tuned! Working in this way has definitely changed how I approach my practice and particularly photography. I had taken a bit of a break from photography for a while, and had a weird relationship with it. Now I feel excited to make images again and that I’ve found a format that really works for me.

All images courtesy of the artist.