Kashif Nadim Chaudry: Swags & Tails (Asia Triennial, 2015)
The text that follows is transcribed from the soundtrack of a short film made to accompany a display of new work by the sculptor Kashif Nadim Chaudry during the 2015 Asia Triennial in Manchester. The soundtrack records excerpts from Chaudry’s responses to a series of questions which were then edited out to leave a kind of non-linear reflection on the works and materials seen in the film. The film itself was made in a single afternoon with neither a budget nor equipment, so the intercut footage, shot in and around the artist’s studio at Primary, Nottingham, is very much on the lo-fi, slightly shaky end of the spectrum, having been recorded on a 15 year old Lumix digital camera with no tripod or control over lighting. It’s certainly not a slick presentation, then, but it is hopefully an informative one. Chaudry’s latest commission opens at Turner Contemporary in Margate on the 19 November 2016 and will remain on display until 23 April 2017.
Kashif Nadim Chaudry: Swags & Tails [transcript]
I’m really interested in religious objects and the language of monuments, which is often very symbolic and bound up in a narrative of some sort. One piece I made in 2014, which was called Monstrance, is based on a Catholic religious object. A monstrance is basically a very opulent cross at the centre of which is a relic, usually the bone or some kind of bodily fragment of a Saint. I like periods in history that are very opulent and aesthetic or ascetic…so Mughal India, Tudor Britain, in particular Elizabethan costume, which was very opulent with very rich materials, piling on jewels as a way of proclaiming power. I’m really interested in that language of power, so am interested in things like Islamic architecture, buildings like the Taj Mahal, the Great Mosque at Isfahan, where you just have the most incredible, overwhelming tile-work and pietra dura inlaid marble work, where that kind of overwhelming beauty was meant to glorify God but could also be quite intimidating – when you’re in a space like that it can be very intimidating, very overwhelming, but it can also be slightly absurd and ridiculous at the same time, which I quite like.
With Swags & Tails specifically, one of the biggest influences for me was thinking about a kind of queer identity, and how I could express that as an affirmative thing. So it’s a space for affirmation but it’s also a space of fragility at the same time. The piece Navel was originally made during a residency that I did called Memes, and it was based on the Tudor ruff. When I was making it I worked on it horizontally, making it from lots of layers of fabric that are glued together, and it felt like a landscape as I was building this piece up, so I’ve now returned it to being a landscape. But it feels like the material that I’ve used, the jute fabric, has a real skin-like quality to it, it feels like flesh in some way, in the colour and the texture of it, and this new version almost references a mortuary table or something that has a very bodily quality to it. I liked the fact that it was something slightly interrupted – that it became a landscape you have to view and survey with your eyes. At the centre of this body or landscape there is a big, hairy hole, which again, in terms of a queer context, can lead you in many different directions. It’s quite opulent and fecund as well, like a sort of garden, so you’ve got all these vines growing from it, the magpie skulls and leaves made of rich fabric, but there are also lots of tumours growing out of it, which contain human hair and bones, so it’s that combination of something quite beautiful and rich with something that’s quite diseased or broken at the same time.
When I was at university in my second year one of the things I looked at was sacred architecture, and deconstructing sacred architecture, and for me that was predominantly Islamic architecture. So classical mosque designs, looking at Mughal India, and also the Safavid dynasty, which was in Iran and Iraq, and some of the mosques that they created, and some of their secular buildings as well, which are considered very classical Islamic architecture and design. But when I was at university one of my tutors said to me “be careful not to become a token Asian artist”, because I was looking at all this classical Islamic architecture. But as you said, I was born and bred in Nottingham, in a very working class part of Nottingham. Bulwell is an ex-market town and also an ex-mining community, so it was a very hard, predominantly white area to grow up in. My parents were born in Kenya, my great-grandparents in India, so I’ve kind of grown up with these stories about those far-off places they grew up in. I’ve been fed all these romanticised stories about where I’m supposed to have come from. Which means that classical Islamic architecture and design has always been very exotic to me, it doesn’t relate to my actual identity in any way shape or form. Similarly, if a white British person had been looking at Islamic architecture, they’d be looking at it in the same way that I was, I don’t think it’s any nearer to my identity than it would be to theirs. And when I look at Bollywood films, I especially like the very early Bollywood films, things like Pakeezar and Mughal-e-Azam which typically refer to a very romantic, very idealised image of an old-school India, and that’s what I choose to draw upon. I am very conscious of that because I’ve been to Pakistan quite a few times and it’s obviously nothing like those films whatsoever, so I choose purposefully to not look at the reality of what Pakistan is.
When I studied at university on a textiles course at Goldsmith’s, the course was quite unique because it wasn’t really aimed at manufacturing or industry, it was focused on very gallery-based kind of work, I suppose, so you were encouraged to take fabric and all the processes associated with it as a starting point for your own conceptual investigations. What I came out of that course realising, the thing that worked for me, was that textiles on the most basic level were about bringing together all these different strands, different threads, the warp and the weft, to create a whole, which could then be broken apart and become something else. So I’ve always borrowed from different periods, different traditions and areas of study – so historical periods, things like Bollywood cinema or interior design – and making objects that have some sort of narrative to them, and a narrative that is open-ended, I think, that doesn’t really fit into one sphere or another. But that narrative is informed by lots of different areas of study, referencing lots of different periods and lots of different things. In that respect it’s a kind of syncretic language where all these things come together. I think that probably relates to the ways we create identities in a globalised world.
I don’t think there is enough humour, for me there really isn’t enough humour in contemporary art, and if you consider that in a gay context, a queer context, perhaps there is something slightly humorous and camp about my work, which is an aspect of it that I quite like. So on the one hand it does relate to the opulence and decoration of interior design and the language of power, but it also relates to a lot of camp references and semi-humorous influences. There can be something quite shamanic about it, it can look as though it might belong to some kind of ritual or semi-religious performance, but there’s also something quite ridiculous about it – something about the way everything is so excessive, where it all slips easily into being absurd. That duality is something I really like. It does have this seriousness, but there’s something ridiculous about it as well.
When I think particularly about Monstrance, when that was originally made for the Memes exhibition, it is important to have had this opportunity to completely change that piece again for this new context. The process reflects, I think, a deeper understanding that I have now about my practice as I make new work. When I talk about creating this syncretic language that process of reworking and remaking is a big part of it. Memes was all about that, in some ways, since a meme is essentially a unit of information that is passed from one group of people to another, and studying a meme you can track how it changes and evolves. Memes referenced ideas I’d been working with for quite a long time, but maybe the most exciting thing for me is discovering new materials and working out how to work with those new materials, seeing how they behave, then applying and adding them to the toolbox, the vocabulary of ideas and materials, that I’ve already got. This allows me to express my ideas with more clarity as I go on. There is this constant reinvention…or I don’t know if it’s a reinvention or if it’s just kind of adding – adding and shedding, adding and shedding as I go along. But I like the idea of creating a very rich visual language, which is also rich conceptually. I want the work to reference lots of different things, and I want that in the materials too, so there is always something of that sense of reinvention in the process, but also in my wider practice as well.