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INTERVIEW: THE HAIR AFFAIR

November 12, 2017

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Ali Kazim with his untitled installation | Photo by the writer
Ali Kazim with his untitled installation | Photo by the writer

Ali Kazim is the recipient of the inaugural Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation Art Prize 2017 at the Karachi Biennale. The award, designed by Fahim Rao, comes with a 500,000 rupees cash prize. His prize-winning untitled installation, on display at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, was selected out of 140 artworks. Kazim’s piece can be viewed in many ways — as a snake basket that has just been opened, as snakes darting out, as intestines slinking down from the ceiling, as electric wires or as filaments. The work is open to interpretation.

Ali Kazim discussed the genesis of his installation and the importance of the Karachi Biennale with Eos. The following are excerpts from his interview:

Congratulations on winning the pres­tigious prize. Can you tell us why you chose to leave the work untitled?

If you give an artwork a title it becomes specific and you can’t look at it without the title. And if I had given it the title then there would have been a lot of emphasis on viewing the work through the title. A title gives you glasses through which you see it. I wanted the work to have its own identity.

Ali Kazim’s hair installation at the Karachi Biennale won him the inaugural Art Prize. What was the thinking behind it and what does it all mean?

Can you tell us more about the process in generating this work?

It started with collecting hair. There’s a wig business in Lahore and in other cities. A street vendor comes and announces himself in neighbourhoods, and working class women or middle-class women who are in need sell their hair, which goes for about 2,000-3,000 rupees per kilo. First the street vendor collects it then the wig company people take it, from where it goes further ahead in the market. There’s an industry for this in Pakistan. So I purchased some hair this way, some directly from people.

Were there specific reasons that went into choosing hair as a medium? Was it about reclaiming something or tapping into a culture?

In the entire history of mankind hair has been important. Hair has so many meanings and responses. It is visible and also not visible, it is trimmed, and it is a fashion statement or a gender statement. It has so many layers, and these fascinated me when I used it as a medium. It’s a very loaded medium, unlike with the pencil.

When you were working on this piece, did you develop an intimate history with it, did you discover new meanings?

When an object is created it becomes something else. You connect personally with it. But as an artist you take everything personally. You have this idea that you want to make something, materialise something, but you have to step away from it, like a mechanical engineer manufacturing a car. He can only be personally involved for so long, before stepping away.

Can you describe the process of constructing this piece?

I evenly dropped hair and sprayed it with hairspray, slowly making 18-20-inch long sheets entirely of the hair, which was then pressed. The hair stuck together and was stacked in layers. Then these sheets were rolled out and moulded organically so they wouldn’t look like pipes, but like organic-looking tubes that change direction.

Then each tube was connected with a very fine nylon thread. It was the kind that magicians’ use for tricks, so they can lift things without the thread being seen — literally invisible. So every tube is held together with the nylon thread and each tube is connected over and over as it moves forward. So in the entire structure, if there are 500 tubes then 1,000 strings are also attached. But when you look at it you don’t realise as the whole structure appears to float with these delicate threads. And if you remove even a few threads the whole thing will start falling and this weather here (in Karachi) is troubling it. But with this kind of work it’s a real issue. It’s not a metal cast or a fibreglass cast that can survive the rain and cold and heat.

What was the concept behind displaying your piece in this way?

If we formally examine it, then it’s a drawing inside a space. On paper you make a drawing with lines from a pencil. And this is a drawing in space, where a strand of hair can be viewed as a line.

In this piece, you somewhat step outside of the institutionalised aspect of art?

Sometimes a glass in front of a work creates a layer, and even when I do my paintings or drawings, I try to avoid this.

How does this work relate to your larger practice?

My work deals with the human body, about what it means to be human, and the external parts of the body that we see, I represent that and create a body out of bodily materials. My work is also concerned with the heart — the whole structure of the human anatomy. The intestines, the deep inside, it’s a structure that comes out of that, but isn’t exactly that.

This is a piece that can’t be necessarily commercialised.

How would someone buy it? Someone can commission me, like an institution with a budget, sometimes it works like that. And yes, privately it can’t be sold.

What do you think the Karachi Biennale means for the art scene in Pakistan?

I think it was a historical moment for the art scene in Pakistan. It never happened on this scale before. It was a really big educational event, because it brought students out to see and interact with art. Local artists, new artists and internationally established artists were displayed together. The way the biennale has been spread out over 12 locations allowed all kinds of communities to access it. It definitely required more time to see all of it, but it gave the larger community a chance to participate with it and involved the entire city.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 12th, 2017