Exploring the human presence

BEIRUT: “Eyes Recently Open,” the latest exhibition at Letitia Gallery, explores the structures and struggles of daily life through photography and video. Curated by Lauren Wetmore, the eight-piece series by Pakistani artist Basir Mahmood is his first effort to delve into photography, having spent many years as a sculptor.

Most recently, Mahmood participated in the 10th Berlin Art Biennale and completed the Rijksakademie residency program in Amsterdam in 2016-2017. His work has been shown in such international events as Dubai’s Abraaj Group Art Prize, Sharjah Biennial 11 and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.

Taken over the last five years, these photos mainly focus on themes of labor, hierarchy, distribution and identity, the goal being to understand or highlight the often controversial nature of these topics.

“Many themes from Basir Mahmood’s work will be relevant to the Beirut context, from picturing an interdependent relationship between humans and the sea to exploring the societal position of so-called ‘unskilled’ laborers,” Wetmore said in the series’ catalogue. “Basir’s work brings an array of contexts and themes in sharp focus through his process – the way he allows us to transcend the distinction between how an artist sees the world versus how the world is seen.”

Wetmore first saw Mahmood’s work at the Contour Biennale in 2017, and has since encouraged him to create this show, combining both old and new pieces.

“We developed the show and I’m surprised when I see it became something else than we initially imagined,” Mahmood told The Daily Star. “My interest in the last six or seven months was to declare myself a video artist that could do other things.

“I’m very interested in human activities and all my works have human presence in one way or another,” he added. “Looking at things and trying to find a narrative or certain meanings.

“Photography has been constant in my practice over the last decade,” he said. “There were certain ideas that were close to video, in the sense that they had a narrative or a story in their making.”

Among the works is “All Divided Equally,” a pair of photos showing an array of fruits and vegetables halved – half in each image.

“This was the last work I made for this show in which the title came before the image – usually it’s the other way round,” Mahmood said. “There is this idea of hope that what would happen if we could divide all the resources in the world equally.

“I know this is impossible to achieve, but that’s the beauty of art. It creates a space within your work to allow you to fail and sometimes your failure becomes your work,” he continued. “We cut each and everything in half to create a mirror image and it’s a manually set up flipped image, rather than just a mirror image of the same photo.”

The show also includes a six-minute video installation from 2012 called “A Message to The Sea.”

“I was staying in a fishermen’s settlement. It’s not important where because if I say it, it becomes specific to that location,” he explained. “This area was known for fishermen earlier but now because of all the hotels and developments the fisherman profession isn’t really there anymore.

“I wanted to make a connection between man and the sea, which may not exist anymore but held a big importance at one point,” he added. “[In the video] there’s this guy who is sending an empty boat out into the sea and waits watching until it disappears. ... It’s kind of metaphorically building a language between sea and man, even though the profession is gone but the feeling lingers.”

The next few months are set to be busy for Mahmood, who’s off to Amsterdam to set up his studio, followed by a trip to Beckford Museum, which has commissioned a film.

“Then on to the Sharjah [Art] Foundation to do a project and then I’m curating a program at [Amsterdam’s] Stedelijk Museum ... ending the year with another solo show.

“It’s an exciting time and I think I became an artist for these moments.”

“Eyes Recently Seen” is up at Letitia Gallery, Hamra, until Nov. 3, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 11, 2018, on page 16.




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