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By: Alinah Azadeh
I'm blogging my work on a new installation commission for the National Portrait Gallery, London in collaboration with The Chasing Mirrors collective - young people and families from Arabic speaking communities in Barnet, Brent and Ealing. It's funded by the John Lyon's Charity. It opens in October, so expect this blog to be action packed as time is short!
# 23 [5 May 2011]
Here's the film of the project, commissioned by the NPG and made by Blackbarn media, now online -
# 22 [3 December 2010]
I know I haven't written much since the installation opened in October, this is because I have been so busy with the learning programme connected to the show, with talks and workshops to families, schools, staff - and next week a general Artist talk for anyone who is interested. This will take place on Thursday 9th at 7.30pm in the Studio gallery , and we'll go up for drinks to the Late shift bar afterwards as the NPG will be open til 9pm.
.Prof Janis Jefferies, of Goldsmith's University, who has been mentoring me for the past few years, since we met through my first textile-based project The Loom: from text to textile (2004-6) is going to be there and we are hoping to have some kind of in- conversation. I am always hungry for dialogue around the work I make, because it is relational work I guess . I have had a lot of interchange with the public through he learning programme so far, and I am hoping this will extend to the arts community too.
I have been concerned at the lack of coverage /writing about the work and have been talking with a writer about possible doing a piece on the show as I feel it exposes and draws together so many rich threads and issues that are of 'now,' particularly in relation to the Paiwand group. My concern has also been based on what the legacy of the work might be, beyond a set of photos -since it is a work that, literally, has a lot to say. I have suggested a few times to commissioners of this kind of temporal, relational site-specific installation project that video documentation would be a good idea. For the first time in three years, this has been listened to and acted apon, and the NPG are going ahead with planning to make a short film on the project. I am really pleased about this and also about how enthusiastic they are about it. I do realise that, as mentioned before, resources are a primary element in enabling works like this to be documented. But it's also the culture of this organisation that seems willing to listen and get the value of what could come from it. There is also some trepidation as it is going to involve bringing together all three groups -who have not met before- to do a workshop and be interviewed about the project. So now we have to focus on what I can bring to make this happen in a relaxed and engaged enough way so that the encounter is meaningful for the groups and filmmaker has rich material to work with.
If you' re interested, there is an essay 'One and Another- a handshake with the ancestors' that Janis wrote for the catalogue of 'The Gifts' project, (part of the shape of things commissions) which fed directly into this commission. You can download it from my site here.
# 21 [24 October 2010]
It's a strange floating feeling after a show opens. This time I don't feel so empty, I guess because I am booked every week at the gallery, either doing sessions with the staff or workshops with the public. So the connection with the show is a very real, ongoing one. RE the staff sessions I am doing, this is a first . I have never been asked to work directly with the staff, mainly the front of house staff, on nurturing their understanding of a project in a meaningful way (after and initial talk and Q+A, we do wrapping session using personal objects they bringin). It's such and obvious thing to do and yet no organisation has been committed enough to invite me to extend the participatory element of the work to the very crucial part of the puzzle -those who operate in the space between the work and the public. I think it must be to do with the culture of the NPG, which seems to be open and genuinely inclusive in its intentions. So I wanted to mention this here as I believe it makes a huge difference to the public's experience of this kind of work, to be able to talk to staff in the space who have experienced the processes of the work, even in a brief way. Though i do get that resources play a major role in the possibility of this happening.
The afterglow of the private view last week renewed itself as I looked through the excellent photos that were taken by the photographer at the NPG, Natalia Calvocoressi. I was very moved by how moved people were during the opening, by the work - like a reflecting effect brought on by the presence of mirrors! It felt vibrant and I managed to stay present and take it all in, enjoy the positive energy and emotional rollercoaster of it all. Here are some photos, I will put together a gallery for my site soon and I assume the NPG will be using the photos for PR purposes. It was thrilling to see the 'In pictures' feature on the BBC world news the day after and know that those images have carried far and wide...I do hope there is some kind of proper review of the show, there are a lot of interesting discussion around the work - given its context and nature of the groups- the beginnings of which I heard and engaged in at the opening. I am sure they will unravel here and elsewhere.Will write more on the opening too.
# 20 [16 October 2010]
Letter to the Audience of Chasing Mirrors : Portraits of the Unseen*
I want you to find a space with this space that reflects back something you are but weren't aware of. To catch your eye in a hidden corner and find a moment of illumination. To drop fixed perceptions of others, of those who gave to this work, and see them anew. As one human being to another. To allow colour, light and three dimensional form to permeate your being and whisper in your ear and heart. To know there is no separation between us and that we are all in this together. To learn the feeling of the journey that has been taken by these individuals to become who they are, right now, here. To know we are all on this journey and that it never ends.
*A format learned on a performance Lab 'Lore and other convrgences with the artists Janine Antoni + Melissa Martin in 2006, in London. Supported by the Live art Development Agency and INIVA
(Alinah Azadeh 16.10.2010)
IMAGES of the show now online on BBC World news:
More to come next week.
# 19 [12 October 2010]
Installing the textile sculptures in the gallery with Benoit last week was remarkably, almost bizarrely straightforward. As with Raphaella, we have worked together on this process before ( on The Gifts ) so we were in sync and focused. As I don't often repeat work processes, it's strange to finally get the fruits of our suffering earlier this year, and to have found many more simpler ways of mapping and preparing the work for hanging.
And this week I haven't even been needed at the Gallery as the mirrored lettering and vinyl panels etc are all being done by Nicky and her assistant. I saw the lighting guy and we chatted and I will go up on Thursday to see it all completing. It actually opens to the public on Friday at 10am -before the PV- and I want to go early and sit incognito and watch/listen to people's reactions. I remember for The Gifts enjoying this much more than the experience of the Private View, the night before, which was overwhelming and I was so on the floor with exhaustion from installing non-stop that I could barely keep it together. This one is different and I want to enjoy the easier ride that this installing process has been.
I wondering how it will all land with the groups and whether they will come on Friday - I'm curious to see their reaction and in fact, my own reaction. The sessions seem so far away as the process of creating the work from them has moved quickly through many stages. But it's only been six weeks since the last session.
I did a phone interview with a local London newspaper today and the reporter asked me what I hope the work would do, in relation to the perception of, for example, the young men from the Paiwand group . I said a lot of things and I wonder if I should say anything at all. It's all in the work. But I somehow can't resist responding because I find these human situations and the reflections and relationships that get created from them resonate with me and carry me to places I can't get if I work in isolation or stay silent. So I keep talking. There is still a lot to say. It's like the beginning of a conversation and I wonder what the next chapter will be. By the time I write the next entry the work will be public. And then it becomes something else, another piece of work co-created with the public - an unknown and uncontrollable step in its evolution.
# 18 [1 October 2010]
Last week the objects and the maps we made from the studio hanging got picked up and taken to the gallery. It was so satisfying to have it all locked into boxes, knowing that this time round the installing will be a lot easier after what I learned in Bristol. Two days later, I delivered the final drafts of all the texts to be used in the show, they are now with Nicky the designer. We got permission at the last minute to include one of the persian rooftop poems from the uprising last year in Iran which I am relieved about. The whole text editing process was like weaving, so many languages, levels of meaning, interconnections..I wonder how it will all work with the objects and whether too much or enough has been said. It felt complete when I sent it off so I am trusting that it was right.
I have been at home/in the studio in lewes this last week, taking a long in-breath in preparation for this coming week, which I will spend mainly at the gallery hanging objects in one gallery with the assistance of the brilliant Benoit Bennett who was a real godsend during the installing of The Gifts . Work on the installing already started on a week ago, it has been painted and the discs have been hung. Nicky will be there and they will be fixing on the mirrored names and texts on the first gallery. I really enjoy the idea of activity in my absence, a real step on from 5 years ago when I had to be in control of everything and almost collapsed during projects from the weight of it all.
It all feels very fluid and under control, I am fixing my mind on it unfolding with ease this week and not getting too stressed - the major work has been done with the groups and in the studio. Of course there are always unknowns, (like, will it actually work visually when its physically all up and have the impact I hope for?) but I feel with every project I am more and more supported and its certainly a real luxury to be working with an institution like the NPG, where things seem to move quickly, get communicated properly and responded to with lightness and ease. I like it.
# 17 [14 September 2010]
Since the last entry, apart from school starting for my kids (an intense time of transition for everyone), and the opening of the shape of things show at Flow Gallery last week, I have been buried in text editing for both galleries and preparing objects for this week of design composition in the studio with Raphaella, my dear friend who has worked with me on a lot of projects, assisting and project managing. Always a grounding and practical influence and we get focused well together. We have managed to test hang two of the three portraits in two days -pretty good going. The third, the Tallo portrait, has twice the number of objects so will take a lot longer.
I did some rough sketches of the sculptures based on the shapes of objects and my perception of the groups as a whole, but it is like painting -one stroke (object) leads to another and also one suggests the next -especially as I know their stories, the associations between them start to connect and interact and ask to be placed in certain points within the composition. Of course it will all look different within the gallery, topped and tailed with mirrors, but at least this isn't a complete unknown as it follows, in a methodological sense, The Gifts (1-99), so we are using the learning from that to work more clearly and swiftly and pre-empt what will be needed for the real installing. Like the way objects are numbered and mapped etc. It's a two person job and I only have Raphaella for four days and the objects will be picked up next Tuesday to go to the NPG, so I am riding the deadline with focus and really enjoying seeing it all come into alignment. We have had to make adjustments -which is a pain when you are hanging objects one by one from a great height - but the composition has to be right, No doubt there will be more adjustments on site but it is so essential to work it all out three dimensionally first. Back to text editing now, another of my late night tasks...
# 16 [30 August 2010]
All the threads are being gathered and deadlines bringing the image of the work into focus. This is when what is not essential to the work gets dropped - however beautiful- and saved for another time..and the bare bones of the body that will form the final version of the installation start to emerge.
Nicky the designer has ordered a sample name to be cut in mirror and sent to me to work with on the wall, and she has been doing layouts to see how large they will be and what they might look like in a long panel around the room. I spent an entire day working up a very different layout idea last week, inspired by 19th century Persian 'broken' calligraphy, was certain it was the right one. Then rather frenzied and noticing it was full moon, (the impulse to smoke large numbers of roll-ups should have given it away) woke up realising the original layout of a simple panel around the room is the right one. Simplicity. Keeping the gaze steady. Nicky has also given me a word count for the text that I am collating/editing that will run under the names so this is my next written thing to work on, after sending back comments on the PR that s being sent out this week.
Meanwhile, in the studio, I am wrapping my response / proxy objects, things I have sourced, mainly in response to the Paiwand group's written /drawn' objects (who had no possessions to offer up for obvious reasons). Among the objects I have put into that collection so far are; a model of a couple - wish for relationship with partners/mothers, a model of an apple - the memory of an apple tree back home, a pair of goggles - current swimming routine to stay 'safe and strong', a mobile phone - three people asked for this, a wristband - a lost present connected to a cousin back in Afghanistan, a man's signet ring... I have a copy of the Koran on order (I can't quite part with mine even though I don't really read it much anymore).
The wrapped Barbie you can see in the images is my donation to the Tallo portrait and has it's own story, related to my own teenage years, which will be written about in the show...
Anyway, I have to now go and find or make something that looks like/stands for a spanner, a washing machine and 65kg weights (!), a passport and source the lyrics to Rihanna's song 'Emergency' and look up certain passages of Rumi ...eclectic job that this is...
# 15 [21 August 2010]
The other week I presented my plan for the installation to a large-ish group of staff at NPG and a rep from Paiwand (reps from the other two groups weren't available) at a meeting facilitated by Louise. I was impressed how much listening, input and communication there is around specific projects within the NPG and saw how important it is that there is face-to-face contact between my ideas and the staff running various departments , to get them engaged in the project and understanding it in a deeper way than just from a written proposal or a second -hand account. This culture of listening is refreshing and motivating. They are also not dumbing down my ideas or the writing about them which is even more encouraging.
I've posted up my sketches and it's all focus now on refining the texts to be used in Gallery 1, as the sculptures for Gallery 2 are relatively straightforward in terms of knowing how the production process will go. I have been sourcing objects to match Paiwand's written objects - nearly all of them by trawling through junk shops in Bexhill on the way to the De La Warr the other day to meet my mentor Janis Jefferies. Some of them I have put in from my own life for personal reasons of resonance with the group's experiences - you can work these out when you see the work!
It will take me a week in September with an assistant to do a test-hang of the three sculptures that are modelled on The Gifts (1-99) and from that to create three maps that will enable the fabricators to prepare the mirrored discs from which the objects will hang, in the right places and with the right length monofilament. Now I am working with the designer Nicky Doyle who is a very experienced and reassuring presence and very upbeat in what can be done. I haven't yet encountered anyone shaking their head and telling me things cant be done despite the fact that I know this is an unusual project to install for this gallery.
Re Gallery 1, we have decided to return to my original idea of using the participants' hand drawn names in Arabic to get them cut directly into mirrored acrylic to form a panel running around the room, referencing the borders on walls in Mosques and Shrines that are seen as the symbolic 'place of transition' and often contain or delineate areas of sacred texts. I'm still considering exactly what texts to use in the two alcoves in that Gallery,(and I don't want to give too much away) but am referencing here the Mihrab (which indicates the direction of Mecca) and literally means the 'place of struggle'. I'm pulling our sections of the UNHCR report I have mentioned before on Afghan minors as well as poetry chosen and discussed by the young people in playful bibliomancy sessions, songs gifted to the project and other texts too. It's like laying out the threads and it isn't quite clear, along with the final colour scheme for that room, what it will be. But I am spending quite a lot of time in the studio over the next few days with aim of clarifying this and sending Nicky material to start doing layouts with. There is a big project design meeting next week which Louise, the project manager will present at, and the sign -off for all this is a not far -off now. I'm leaning towards less in more and a more minimal approach than I had first thought, since Gallery 2 will be full of colour and texts related to the hanging objects.
Deadlines are very focusing for the mind , and I am enjoying reaching the other side of all these choices so that I can begin logging and hanging objects.
# 14 [10 August 2010]
Peta and I started and finished our sessions with Tallo, the Somali young people's group, within a week. Our sessions were part of their Summer University at Acton College and there were a lot of other courses going on at the same time. I felt by the end that I had been in a sandstorm, it was fast and hot! They were a group with a lot to say, huge energy and often short attention spans, sometimes tricky to comprehend or handle until we realised that food and drink -or lack of - had a lot to do with it -a s well as pockets of peer pressure. It's so often the basic elements that can make or break a session. I felt this group were the hardest to engage and we never really knew what was going to work, so we had to be flexible.. For example, the identity weaving, which has never failed me before, just didn't work with them, but the name scripts in Arabic and the object wrapping, did.
In the main, they seemed to like and respond to the idea that, effectively, their names are going to be' tagged' on the gallery walls and the objects they have given be seen by a large audience - concealed and revealed. This was fortunate , since these are the two main elements of the show, and I was impressed with how willing they were to offer up objects and commentary on what was being wrapped.
Most of the group are second generation, (and only one had been to Somalia), apart from two girls -sisters- who have arrived here within the last year. The difference in behaviour and self expression is huge, and although a lot of this is of course language related, I was moved to see how outspoken and upfront the second-generation girls were in their views and focus. And how poetic and subtle the more recent members of the group were. One thing that struck me during the 'future object' wrapping was their lack of concern with being rich, famous or remarkable (hooray, advertising doesn't always work!) .Many seemed aware of how they had come from extraordinary backgrounds (ie the circumstances which drove their parents to leave Somalia) and so the aspiration was for stability, a 'decent' life etc.
The star of the show during their NPG visit was the portrait of Ayub Suleiman Diallo. It was like a mixture of relief and excitement filled the group when they saw him, at last someone who looked more like them and was a Muslim, and is getting so much attention! Debates ensued during the next session as to whether the portrait should be kept in the UK or returned to his home country - overall, they felt it would serve a better purpose here, positively representing a rare moment in history and portraiture. Despite their disappointment that he returned to slave trading, he made a real impression on them and I really hope enough money is raised to keep him there during the show, as it will make a brilliant link with the work we are producing.
All in all, it went too fast and the engagement felt like the beginning of something rather than the whole story, but then I realise I now have to engage with the material that has come out of this all, that it's my response to these encounters which will synthesise the experiences into a coherent work of art (Inshallah...).
More reflections later, now, back to the studio!
Alinah Azadeh is a British-Iranian artist with a background in painting, video and new media. She works across artforms, using live and digital processes relying on intimate human interaction to create work that can be a device for mass participation. Textiles and live, participative work are becoming central to her practice.Her recent impetus to create has been inspired by experiences of cultural displacement, birth and bereavement.