February 2016

Amna Asghar was kind enough to walk us through her practice in her stunning Bronx studio. Her work explores her own identity and the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western culture. Her arrangements and recontextualization of images encourage the viewer to explore the relationships between the individual pieces. 

1. How does your identity and cultural background tie into the themes that you are currently exploring in your work?

The whole practice is based on research and personal experiences that are concerned with how identities are constructed. The paintings reflect on the politics of race and culture through a visual language. I’m investigating my own identity, which emerged from personal experiences that don’t necessarily correspond neatly to pre-established categories, specifically as a Muslim American Pakistani born in Detroit.

2. Some of your panels feature book pages or ads that are written in Urdu but have quotes/words in English – what does this juxtaposition speak to?

Early in life I learned how to read and write Arabic in Sunday school. It was to be able to read the Quran, but we never learned what the words meant. Basically, we learned the phonetics of Arabic. Simultaneously, I was raised speaking Urdu, but never learned to read or write it. One language references religion and the other references a culture and that intersection of the two is what I’m attracted to. Both languages, although very different, look similar to one another. I habitually assume that I’m looking at religious texts, but in the paintings we are actually looking at Pakistani, Urdu digest magazines that are love stories, beauty remedies, and recipes.

In more recent works I’ve come across full pages of Urdu text with just a word, a phrase or sentence in English. I saw these as moments that seemed untranslatable by the author or something that had to be written in English to represent exactly the articulation or nuance of the character speaking. The truth is almost all of the English is translatable to Urdu, but I am only able to string together the English excerpts to compile my own, new meanings. The hodgepodge of languages and the outcome of what it actually communicates is the most interesting.

3. What is the significance of the Disney characters and scenery that you sometimes use?

Disney is so good that you just want to eat it up. Their slick, luscious, exoticized, utopic landscapes are all part of their packaging tool. But before we talk about that, I want to preface with how I came to referencing animation. My first encounter of literary disposition on ideas of Orientalism was through Edward Said. His work was based around the representations, or more accurately the misrepresentations, of the Orient by the Occident. I felt that I was the East, the Oriental, the “other”, but at the same time I was also part of the Occident. It further complicated the intricacy of my Eastern Western identity.

My first exposure to this binary was through Disney animations and Bollywood films. Many times the goons, or the villains were attributed with foreignness and otherness. They were simple-minded and foolish. Looking back, Disney feels much more transparent in their handling with this, but because of that packaging tool you’re fed it so well. Now I want to go back and confront those matters through painting.

In the paintings themselves, the Disney landscapes become the platforms and a backdrop for the discussion. They are broken down into land, sky and water. The halos of color are diffused landscapes. It’s distilled with the absence of the stereotype. All that’s left is a color field and luminous glow. By appropriating and recontextualizing these images these paintings enact various modes of quotation, translation, mistranslation, hybridity, and overlap.

4. A lot of your work is arranged in a Tumblr grid-like system, how does this influence the context of viewing the work? 

In this format, the collective of images on canvas hanging in proximity imply that they work in relationship to one another. In a Warholian grid the paintings function similar to the style of the routine, where you have the perverse, next to the absurd, next to sub-continental pop, next to the personal, giving way to talk about extremely complex and multifaceted aspects of identity. The way that these ads filter through painting onto canvas and are translated gives an aesthetic that allows the viewer to partake in the collaging of images, moving from one image to the next. Rather than having collage in one image, there is room for the viewer to move visually and physically across the work. By using these signifiers in painting, I am recontextualizing images, remixing them to create new meanings, new juxtapositions. This body of work then becomes a physical and interchangeable Tumblr.

5. You go back and forth between Detroit and New York, how do both places influence you as an artist?

I love both cities and need one in order to balance out the other. Simply put, New York is having the conversations that I want to have and Detroit is the root of that conversation.