A story of displacement

October 23, 2022

Artist Mohamed Khalid has a habit of conjuring up possibilities and interactions with invisible people

A story of displacement


here is a common practice in the South Asian countries to tie fabric segmentsat shrines of various sufis in the hope that the devotee’s prayers, needs and demands will be answered. One also comes across similarpieces at domestic and international airports: torn cloth, ribbons, colourful strings attached to bags and suitcases as identification marks: amulets of a modern day traveller, who tries to secure his/her luggageagainst being misplaced, or mistakenly collected by a fellow passenger.

What happens if after all these efforts, you lose your baggage and miss a chunk of your life, in the form of physical objects and the sentiments, emotions and memories associated with it? You might feel that a part of your identity is gone. Mohamed Khalid, a Dubai-based artist lost a bag in Italy. He turned the experience into art. At his solo exhibition, Let Me Tell You Something(being held from October 9 to December 25at Warehouse 421, Abu Dhabi). The first thing a visitor encounters at the show is a cabin-sizedhand-carry. It is filled with his belongings: a laptop, undergarments, notebooks and other personal stuff, put against a large wall covered bya photograph of some street in Genoa, Italy. With buildings, shops, palm trees, pedestriansand mountains in the background. (If for a moment one removes the people, or blurs the shop signs, one starts speculating about the location of the picture. Are those from the artist’s region?The suggestion is supported the pronounced presence of date palms and a loudspeaker fixed to a street pole.

On losing his/her private possessions, an ordinary person laments the loss. A creative individual can weave stories out of the experience. This is like the Israeli author Amos Oz, who traces the origin of his writingsto his childhood, when his parents, due their tiny flat had to meet their friends at a café, and took their only child along. Oz used to sit at a separate table, having his ice cream and imagining lives of customers at other tables. The pastime helped him develop into a fiction writer.

It appears that Khalid has a habit of conjuring up possibilities and interactions with invisible people, who enter his life for various reasons and purposes. He has installed a bus stand (manufactured as if from a European city) in the gallery space, withthe snapshot of Italian landscape on one side, and the other filled with the artist’s message (in English and Italian) about travelling to Venice.

In Genoa, the bus left without him, but with his luggage on board. He was asking the passers-byfor help in finding the driver, hence the lost luggage.

We can guess that he was not successful in retrieving his bags. However, one wonders if losing the luggage could be the original, initial and intended plan. As Melissa Gronlund, in her catalogue essay of the exhibition, begins: “A letter always arrives at its destination, wrote the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The reason is more straightforward than you might imagine: it arrives at its destination, because its destination is whoever opens it.”Perhaps, the lost baggage ‘belonged’ to whoever found it.

Such trespassbetween the chain of owners/possessors, seems to be the real subject and concern of Mohamed Khalid, an artist living and working in a society that due to its multiplicity of populations, cultures, tongues, beliefs, histories, thrives on an inclusive approach. Walk through any street in the UAE and you are not required to worry about who were the original inhabitants, who came from within the region, who migrated from other countries and who abandoned his/her distant land to be a part ofthe Emirati art and life. Andy Warhol famously proclaimed “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”.It can be similarly stated that everyone could be a citizen of the UAE for a brief period of time.

Through languages, professions, shared past, you interact with unknown human beings, regardless of whether you meet them or have an indirect contact. In both cases, you engage with a shadow, and sometimes end up being a shadow as well. In his work Replica Shadow (2022), Khaled has created a number of black and white prints of his own silhouettes. After seeing a stranger’s image in shadow on Instagram, the artist realised that one’s shadow can be as authentic as one’s portrait.

Actually, the translation to a shadow or a correspondence with an unfamiliar parking lot attendant (Thank You, 2022)are extensions of discourse with one’s self as ‘Other’. Khalid has hung (like a washing line) a total of 94 cyanotype prints (During Work Hours, 2022) on strings, comprising texts about imagining other options. From his 9 to 5 job Khaled dreamt of ‘Wishing I was someone else’s shadow during working hours’, or, ‘I have written eight words during work hours’, or ‘Searching for texts whilst making text during work hours’, or ‘Sometimes I am no longer anxious during work hours’, and so forth. In a sense, working hours sound like waking hours, or hours in a wake. However, passing through this installation, which also looks like the worksheet from an office, invokes existential crises.

People are not only displaced when they migrate from one region to another; they are also alienated if forced to act/work like someone else. An artist performing as a corporate employee has to live the life of someone else. This dialogue between one and the otherkeeps recurring in the art of Mohamed Khalid. It is found in his handwritten letters to his school teacher MrsSima, who regimented on acquiring a certain writing style, mainly by using right hand and inscribing beautiful and legible words. This is an exercise allthose from a pre-tablet generation had to go through in order to achieve a highposition – in their classrooms and in their society. Khalid questions this order of training by composing letters to his school teacher, at different levels of perfection/imperfection.

The high school teacherinsisted on a decent handwriting from her pupil. Mohamed Khalid responds to this requirement by producing letter after letter, but this endeavour reaches its epitome when he reproduces official receipts and state documents, quite convincingly, by hand. Demonstrating the capacity of a visual artist to forge a visual of any sort – portrait of a person or the layout of a government paper.

One feels that in his premise of confronting oneself as the Other, Khalid is joined by a league of post-colonial writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians and dancers. He includes stray cats, which he draws and shows in various combinations. The homeless, family-less, disoriented, specie survives in hostile conditions and can be a metaphor for migrants who come and work in the UAE in dire physical conditions.

Sensitively drawn images of felines in various positions and circumstances suggest the existential issue of our times. Those of us, who have migrated, and left our homelands and pasts for imaginary futures, may be highly qualified but had to operate as someone else at a new location: a street cleaner, a car park attendant, a school teacher, forsaking their previous selves for fabricating a new model of life. Like a tourist or an artist, who could lose his/her history/origin/belongings – by mistake, by consent or by force, but still survives. Like wandering cats so warmly rendered by Mohamed Khalid.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

A story of displacement