New York is known for its elaborate art scene. With commercial galleries strewn across Manhattan and Brooklyn, this city has learnt to keep artistic spirits alive and thriving. A place which has been associated with the likes of Jeff Koons and is home to museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it has no dearth of small or big museums, art fairs, and auctions. While New York can open many doors for you, it is not always easy for South-Asian American artists to find the support they need to navigate the rough tides that they might initially encounter.
Being a member of the diaspora, trying to find your footing in the NYC art scene might take longer and the journey can be more tumultuous if you don't have the safety net of a community. Nonetheless, it is inspiring to see women of colour raising their voices in support of issues that are in dire need of attention. Together, these female artists are staking their claim in the international art scene, while creating opportunities for their entire communities.
You! is featuring one of those female artists this week: Farah Mohammad, a Pakistani printmaker and installation artist based in NYC. She received her BA from Bennington College and her MFA from Columbia University. She has taught as adjunct faculty at Columbia’s School of the Arts and was recently the recipient of The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Robert Blackburn Printmaking Award (2021), Lucas T. Carlson Grant at Columbia University (2020), and IPCNY’s Coursework Award (2020). Let’s hear what she has to say about her work as an artist…
You! What is your artwork centred around?
Farah Mohammad: I work in different printmaking techniques to process complex feelings that arise from working with underserved communities and to negotiate my own presence as a Pakistani immigrant in the United States. I draw inspiration from images I capture of spaces undergoing change. In my process of creating prints, where I break images down into shapes around which to build the main subject; this enables me to take an emotional inventory of their personal symbolism. My exhibition highlights include a solo exhibition at Nyama Fine Art, and group exhibitions at the Moss Arts Centre, the International Print Centre New York (IPCNY), The Jewish Museum, ChaShaMa, The Wallach Art Gallery, Field Projects (NYC), and Local Project Art Space (LIC, NY).
You! Can you tell us about printmaking?
FM: Through printmaking I link anthropological research to my fascination with urban architecture. Through my work I create a visual reality for myself, where my past and present, including both Pakistani and American identities can coexist.
You! Can you tell us about your recent work?
FM: Some of my most recent works have been sculptural woodcut prints and monotype prints of architectural forms that hold emotional significance. A recent installation, ‘Unfettering’, consists of stitched woodcut prints suspended on orange painted wire. In the woodcut prints I carved imagery of a construction site across my childhood home in Karachi, architectural remains in a Karachi neighbourhood Saddar, and buildings in my Harlem, NYC, neighbourhood. I stitched the woodcut prints together, referencing a view of a construction site immediately outside my Harlem studio window.
You! Could you tell me more about your representation of the homeland and how you decide to explore it in relation to your audience?
FM: When I think of home, I immediately envision my house in Clifton, Karachi, Pakistan where I grew up. I think of the surrounding streets. I notice the changed and unchanged architecture.
The thought always begins there, but home alludes to familiarity, comfort, place of origin, connection, ownership, freedom. I feel each of these things in different places.
I think of homeland as a space that is constantly being restructured with our memories, incorporating new ideas, while also bearing stubborn traces from the past. I live in New York City now but Pakistan is a place that I frequently return to physically, or in art, in order to gain clarity about my motivations in life, and to understand the people and politics I am most affected by.
You! Have you felt a shifting sense of homeland, given the transnational nature of today’s world?
FM: For me one of the most consistent ideas about home is that it is a place of built associations: where different human emotions become attached to imagery and memory. It is the place where we first began to see. I am attached to this lens or frame of home; through which I notice myself understanding my life experiences. It becomes interesting for me to then literally integrate images from the past with the present. I create spaces that the viewer can engage with. Because these spaces are collaged with references of things and places from my life, I notice different people relating to different sections of the work. In an installation, ‘Motion and Rest Chaos and Longing’, I incorporated silicone casts of Prince Chocolate sandwich biscuits. I had recently thought about these biscuits that I used to eat as a child in Karachi for no apparent reason after many years as I was walking under a construction site in Harlem. Something in that space smelled like the biscuits, and I was fascinated with how olfactory associations can transport us back to moments we had never considered significant. When the work was on view in the gallery Nyama Fine Art, I noticed that this installation element evoked personal memories for different Pakistani audience members.
What has changed since you started exhibiting in the States?
FM: My art career began while I was living in the US. Although I did study printmaking in undergrad, I majored in social science. After undergrad I worked full time as a social worker in NYC for three years while also renting space and making work in a print studio. Eventually it made sense to pivot into pursuing art as a full time career, so I did my MFA at Columbia University and started exhibiting more in NYC. This way I met curators, gallerists, and artists who became my collaborators. I built strong relationships in the NYC art community.
You! How did moving to the US impact your work? How did it help navigate your work in a new direction?
FM: Prior to coming to the US I made paintings. I came to the US in 2012 for my undergraduate degree, for which I went to Bennington College. It was here that I took my first printmaking class and I was immediately hooked. I was interested in how printmaking required me to gain a deeper understanding of materials around me and tools that I wasn't accustomed to using in painting.
You! How has printmaking contributed to your career as an artist?
FM: Printmaking refined my thought process, where I could commit to an idea and make it, and then add and alter it. Printmaking has become a thinking tool. I realised that I could differentiate the subject matter of my work by the print technique I chose to use. I’ve used woodcut when I depict shifting architecture, or some sort of violence, because the process of carving and printing feels similar to breaking and building. When I want to add narratives, I paint monotypes. When I want to map out flat colours, I use screen printing.
You! What are monotype prints, can you elaborate?
FM: Monotype prints are paintings created on Plexiglas, but they become an exploration of managing the texture of paint. Sometimes you feel you’ve applied an even layer of paint onto the plexi but it gets smudged under pressure so in your next layer you alter its texture so that under pressure it transfers evenly. Using image transfers in my printmaking work helped me directly engage with my research.
You! What medium do you enjoy working with more?
FM: There is an element of discovery in printmaking: you have to carve, draw or paint, and then wait until you are ready to print to see what your marks look like. I enjoy the slow build-up of images, and the stages of building an image are tangible. Often I look forward to the surprise of when you peel the substrates off the printing matrix after rolling it under the printing press, and seeing the image reversed.
You! Can you tell us about your recent work?
FM: Some of my most recent work includes installations I built using printmaking. Because my work is architectural, the large scale that I have been able to achieve through this medium excites me, as it allows me to layer different ideas and engage in multimedia and conceptual explorations in my studio.