Asuf Ishaq Interview | Mother
Interviewed by Josie Reichert, director of Ort Gallery
What was your initial inspiration for the project ‘Mother’?
In my MFA [Master of Fine Arts] research, I have been exploring themes of migration, representation of experience, story telling, trauma, and diasporic body as an archive. My inspiration was to look closer to at my own family’s migration experience. A few years ago my mother gave me a damaged and torn photograph of her young self-taken in Pakistan, she asking me to repair it. I didn’t manage to find time to work on it. So the lockdown in March I re-discovered the photograph and began working on it. This project gave me an opportunity to collaborate with my mother. And the process resulted in a 16 minutes film, which is a combination of film, sound and archive and new photographs.
When did you first hear from your mother about her experience of immigrating to the UK?
Migration experience of my mother and father is always ubiquitous, but not vocalised or communicated directly. Traumas and memories are difficult to talk about. There are some moments when stories are communicated, especially vivid and impactful ones, for example a story about a harrowing river boat crossing to Kashmir. Photographs communicate the moment too, for example of photographs at Trafalgar Square of mum and dad, and standing in front of a bed of flowers at the local in Birmingham. These photograph represent the excitement, optimism and achievements. The body is also an archive, containing narratives, and evidence of experiences, something like the hennah (Mehndi) on mums hair, hands and feet, worn today just as she was taught to wear by her mother and grandmother in Pakistan. Memory in the body is communicated in it’s own way. I do think the migration experience of my parents is passed down to us their children.
I love the process of you digitally repairing an old photograph with your mother watching. We are now so used to taking hundreds of pictures on our phones and the fact that we could stare at a single shot for hours feels so out-dated. It felt like looking at artwork rather than a snapshot in time. We are also so used to the photo shopping of images, using filters, all this is so humdrum now and has a lot of negative connotations but you fixing this image for your mum was an act of love and respect. When did it occur to you in this process that there was a story there that you wanted to capture?
You are correct, today we have huge number of digital photographs on our devices, and our relationship with photographs is a new. In my film I explore an old 35mm film photograph, format and it’s materiality. I explore and looking at it, a sort of forensic search, asking for the photograph to speak to me. My idea was to make a long form film work, keep a slow pace and rhythm to the film. I could have made it much longer. I mix documentary genre with new created film footage, and recently taken photographs of the house. By overlapping time and place, I create a new context and viewpoint. My intention was to create time and space for a conversation with my mother.
We don’t see the finished fixed pictures. Why not?
My intention in this film was to involve my mother into the work I was going to make, and show her the technology I work with, techniques I use to make my artwork. Together we unravel the past, it is about repair but not in the literal sense, but also an emotional repair.
During the process, my mother did say, “It does not matter if you can not repair, at least you can see the faces”. I think the repair of the photograph goes beyond this art work, the repair of the photograph may still happen.
I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about healing and care especially after the year we have all just lived through collectively. Was this project healing for you?
It has certainly been healing process for my mother and me, it was very special to collaborate and involve her into my reality. Working as an artist for many years, my mother doesn’t quite understand what I do, or I never stopped and explained in detail. I enjoyed introducing my artwork to my mother, the filmmaking, working on the computer, manipulating photography, filming, and sound recording. It was much about the shared past experience, as it is of sharing new experiences, ultimately understanding more about each other.
In the video you subtitle some of the foreign languages but then a large chunk of the conversation with your mum is not translated. It leaves the viewer hanging and reminds us that we can never fully understand another language when translated. How does language feature in your work and what does it mean to you?
The non-translated part of the film was to illustrate the vulnerability and disorientation one feels, this was intentional. By not using subtitles, it emphasis the experience of lack of control my mother experienced. Growing up as children we use to take on the role as interpreters for my mother, I use to speak for her at hospital, GP appointments and in shops. It’s a tribute to our relationship with language, connected and dependent. In my film I employ the languages we have in our home, classical Arabic for pray, Punjabi which we speak together, and English as an overarching language amongst us siblings, and occasionally speaking with our father. I weave all the languages and narratives in the film, with voice and text.
You filmed your mum praying and also joined in the prayer. This is such a vulnerable moment. Can you expand on your choice of including this in the video?
I film my mother praying because it’s an important part of her, a constant and stable though her life. I joined in with the pray for a short moment, it’s a re-enactment of me learning the pray, as I would as a child. We haven’t done this for many years. I recorded my narration separately and then added it to the composition. It’s an acknowledgment of a language we don’t understand but have closeness as our faith. I mention in my narration, my mothers pray voice is a like a lullaby for me, since we have heard it all our lives.
In another video you explore your mum using tape letters to communicate with family in Pakistan. I find the concept of tape recordings so fascinating as they seem so out-dated now but actually it is so similar to recording a voice note on WhatsApp, for example. Are elders still using tapes to communicate?
Yes ‘Tape Letters’ is a different film work, I am still developing, but I have already made a piece where it’s an re-enactment of my mother recording a voice letter on tape cassettes to her family back in Kashmir. This was popular form of communication in the 1960’s and 70’s, most diaspora communities did this, as it was cheaper than telephone calls, which were quick, with tape voice recordings, one could speak for much longer. In some rural locations in Pakistan there were no telephone connections available. A friend or a family member would deliver the tape. This film work I want to develop further, you can view this on my website www.asufishaq.net
Did you listen to any of your family’s tape letters? What did you learn?
There are no tapes in our family but there are many tape letter archives of Pakistani Kashmiri migrants, at the Bishopsgate Institute in London, which I would like to explore, tape letters in the form of love letters, or messages to parents, sisters, brothers etc. By making a film about my own mother’s experience, I bring to life this practice voice messages. In the re-enactment my mother was speaking to her mother, father sister, brother back in Kashmir. It was a voice of the past to people in the past some who are no longer alive. I am fascinated in the past technologies and the role they played in connecting people, the intimate moment with the slowly turning tape in a cassette.
Find out more about Asuf Ishaq’s work here:
Art in Lockdown
by Monika Mroz (mum of 4)
Me and my 4 children have been attending Ort Gallery sessions for some time now. I think, our first ever introduction to the Gallery was in 2013 when me, mum with crying baby and 4 years old toddler attended our first ever art workshop. Our connection with Ort Gallery has turned into a seven-years creative experience, full of growth and development and way beyond pencil, crayon and paint. Me and my children have became part of art club for families and took part in Saturdays sessions in Ort Gallery.
One can only imagine how sad and disappointed they were when our city and whole country entered lockdown phase. Let’s be honest, my younger ones (Yahya and Mohammed) couldn’t understand why we can’t go out to “our” gallery anymore, while two older (Ismaeel and Ruqayyah) became quite depressed for not being able to take part in something what was important part of their lives. I guess many of us (adults) felt the same…but children mental health is much more delicate and them, being suddenly stuck at home and cut from real world had quite an impact. But then, to our surprise, Josie Reichert and whole team at the Ort went extra mile and organised our sessions to take place in safety of our homes, by providing all the necessary materials needed to run the sessions.
The day we were about to receive our first set of art packs my children were up early morning, full of excitement, stuck to window, looking for Josie arrival. Crafts packs have been delivered with accordance to rules of social distancing…and what a beautiful surprise it was to receive all those art resources. From clay, beads, scissors to pencils, paper, glue and much more… Kids were over the moon. Now only left for me to follow instructions given by our amazing artist Samantha Krankpod, which were sent by email and let the creativity take over. To be honest, it was and till this day is, one of things that kept our moods lifted. We incorporated home Ort sessions into our weekly family routine. We even dedicated whole day to enjoy art and explore new creative techniques. If it wasn’t thanks to Ort Gallery, I wouldn’t be able to provide for my children so many beautiful and fun experiences during this difficult time.
Thanks to Ort we are part of something bigger; a community, support network where me and my children do care. Our art sessions let us have fun, relax and learn while we stay safe at home.
Our family workshops during covid-19 lockdown are continuing offline as we deliver materials boxes to the participating families and work with artist Samantha Krankpod to deliver the sessions remotely. Please find out more here. Thank you to the Community Fund for supporting this activity.
Balancing Work & Life – A Conversation
Ort Gallery was recently accepted onto East Street Arts’ prestigious GUILD project, a comprehensive programme of research, mentoring, tailored support, and infrastructure and space development for artist-led spaces. During the first induction session of the programme Director Josie and Diversity Consultant Anisa met lots of other artists running spaces across the UK and one of the topics discussed was around balancing work and life and avoiding burn out.
Following this, Josie started an email exchange with one of Ort’s Steering Committee members Sarah, who is also a good friend of hers, about their experiences of juggling work and life. Sarah does not work in the arts so this is clearly an issue that crosses over into other industries. This is our exchange:
Josie: Hey Sarah. How is your work search going? Have you started? Are you thinking of going into the third sector?
Sarah: Work search has officially begun, I’ve been applying for things, but no luck so far. I’m looking for something part time, so I can then fill the gaps with things I’m more interested in and some freelance projects. I would quite like to end up doing a few different things instead of just one solid job as I think it would suit my personality better and I’m also very much tired of work politics – I figure when you work part time for a business, you need to squeeze in as much as possible in the time you have, which leaves no time for getting too involved in gossip and politics. That’s certainly what some old colleagues experienced anyway!
The third sector is certainly appealing to me and I do regularly trawl through the site ‘Charity Job’ as there tends to be a lot on there. Fingers crossed I find something soon.
Josie: This all sounds very good. I have been thinking about work/life balance a lot, especially since having my son as he has put everything into perspective. I do want “everything”, so I want a career that fulfils me, but I also want to see my child grow up and feel like my mental health and hobbies are cared for. So, as I’m self-employed I have given myself a 30 hour week maximum, spread over 4 days. This means I have 3 full days with him and I also don’t stay at work until 9pm and miss bedtime. There’s a lot to be said for productivity and you can get lots done in 30 hours. No one needs to work 40, 50, 60 hours… that’s just crazy. For me it means to accept that I have to carry on being frugal as I won’t get “rich” this way, but I am ok with that.
I applaud your plans and I really hope you’ll find something. And I also think this is a good time to realise all this. A lot of people don’t get there til they are off long term sick due to burn-out or about to retire. We’re living now! #suchmillenials
Sarah: It sounds like you’ve really got things sorted to achieve that good work/life balance 🙂 and it is good to realise how important balance is earlier, rather than later. So many people don’t get it and I’ve seen some real breakdowns in people over the years, stressing about things that don’t really matter, working all hours and never switching off. Nowhere is perfect, or indeed needs to be perfect, but there should be a duty of care to look after employees who are perhaps at risk of burning out. When I handed in my notice with no job to go to, I was quite surprised that people didn’t look at me with worried eyes and ask me about what I’d do for money, but instead applauded me for taking a step back and reassessing what I actually want to achieve with my life. It has also inspired some friends to pause and look at their current situation and question if this is what they really want to do. I have worked hard to save up so that I can afford to do this, it’s not a flippant luxury, it’s come from a lot of conversations with the hubby and believing in myself and taking a risk. One way or another, I’ve had a job since I was 14, so this was a huge step for me.
Josie: Well I try… sounds like you’ve made some pretty hard experiences. I don’t quite understand where this all comes from. I know it’s to do with capitalism in general and also a societal understanding that working hard = being a good member of society, but even when I was working for a large arts organisation, where we were unaffected by sales targets and those kinds of pressures, our line managers were still driving people to mental breakdowns. It’s as if office life drives people crazy somehow.
I’m glad people were impressed by you leaving. You hopefully showed them that there is something else out there. Interestingly, there’s hundreds of videos on youtube entitled “why I quit my job and how I’m making it work” or something along those lines. Clearly a lot of people wish they could do this.
Sarah: I think office life can drive some people crazy. There is always some form of politics (unavoidable in life really!) and people trying to control others as they haven’t been properly trained to be a manager and some people associate fear with being a strong leader and others associate being super nice as a good leader. It’s a constant navigation of figuring out what’s going on in other people’s minds and how best to work with them. Also, without meaning to come across as hippy-dippy, working in an office is really unnatural when you look at the basics – we’re not designed to be sitting all day and to be inside staring at a screen, so it’s no surprise that people can get cranky.
In my experience, I think a lot of people like the idea of quitting to take a break or changing their careers, but it really is hard because it’s changing this whole mindset of “Don’t quit a job unless you have a job to go to” or if they like the career but hate the boss, it’s having to put the effort into finding a new job in the same industry, where you might slip into a very similar environment and then have another two-year cycle of shit before you feel like you’ve got enough time on your CV to be able to leave. A lot of people I have met really had this thing about staying in a job two years before leaving, believing that new employers would raise an eyebrow at a shorter period of time. It’s also that classic behaviour of wishing you could do something and then not making the effort to change i.e. wanting to lose weight but eating cookies every day and never exercising, lol! Next thing you know, ten years has passed and people settle down, perhaps with kids or pets or other responsibilities, and then really do feel like they can’t escape. It’s a safety net and I totally get it because I used to feel the same way. It’s also a lot of effort to put into motion; perhaps retraining or saving money or doing some unpaid work to build up experience in the area you want to go into. Changing paths can feel like you’ve gone backwards, which understandably may put people off.
Josie: That’s so interesting. I guess a lot of people working in the arts industry would consider a two year employment a luxury. Lots of us are freelance or employed for short term projects only. This has the advantage of working in lots of exciting environments but it also means very little security and, fittingly with this conversation, very long, very hard working hours in often extremely stressful situations. But, after speaking to some colleagues, what came out of it was, that it’s not just the tight deadlines that drive people to have a breakdown, but the internalised ideas around working hard and being the best in your field. Every project becomes part of your portfolio so many creatives feel that each tiny little detail needs to be right even when the budget doesn’t allow for it. It’s an impossible fight and means lots of us work for free or even spend our fees on materials. It seems that working in the arts does not allow you to escape capitalist thinking at all but instead adds the pressure of having to create a brand for yourself and promoting this brand every hour of every day. On top of that we would argue that we love our jobs as they are also our hobbies and allow us to be creative. But the pressures the jobs put on us are equal to the office environment we discussed above.
Sarah: It sounds like a whole other level of pressure! I think the whole ingrained capitalism thing is really interesting and if you have a permanent job contract, it’s a mental challenge to leave the safety net of a steady income with benefits to pursue flexibility and balance, as well as doing something you are really passionate about! A lot of our initial conversations with new people we meet (in my experience anyway, both professionally and socially) can be all based around what we do for a living and some people may feel scared to be judged on doing something which isn’t traditionally impressive ie a lawyer. In fact just the other day, I was in an Uber and the cabbie asked me what I did – I wanted to be really corny and just say “ I do me”, I thought, why can’t we talk about what we do for fun instead of what brings in the cash?! I always felt that my education at school and at home was based around what I wanted to do as a job – it’s a lot of pressure for kids to know and it should be ok to perhaps try a few different avenues in one lifetime.
Josie: So true! And despite many creatives having strong cross-overs between what they like and what they do, we do spend a lot of our time doing emails and populating spreadsheets as the work needs to be done.
I think the problem of quitting a safe job and doing something freelance/part time boils down to the choices we think we have/don’t have. A lot of people think they don’t have a choice because they have large mortgages or debts or, even worst, they are worried about what their families and friends will think (not to mention future employers). It’s as if every choice we make is embroiled in a web of judgement, financial worries, what ifs and worst case scenarios. The reality however is that each of us have to make a decision on how we want to live and this affects our finances, our lifestyle and our mental health. I think a lot of us do have a choice but paradoxically opening up the questions of “what would you do if you quit your job” scares many people to death as suddenly you have too much choice… it’s actually called ‘The Paradox of Choice’. It freezes people and they struggle to make a decision as they technically ‘could be anything and anyone’.