film still from Farzana, 2021
'It was my discomfort that weighted the camera' | Zinnia Naqvi
July 16 - September 10, 2022
Exhibition Organized by Luther Konadu
Artist Presentation & Discussion:
July 16, 2022
This exhibition brings together different facets of Toronto-based artist Zinnia Naqvi’s artistic practice under the title, It was my discomfort that weighted the camera. Though the artist consistently works in discrete series, an underlying throughline often emerges from those seemingly diverging works. As such, this presentation leverages the inherent context of exhibitions as opportunities for making unforeseen and discursive connections.
Commonly at the root of Naqvi’s work is a sourced piece of archive; in most instances a personal family archive that existed before she was born and in others, her own first-hand captured observations centered directly or tangentially on her family. From this starting point, she veers off: searching, attentively dissecting, and critically reflecting on the social and political realities latent in the archives. It's a qualitative approach to research that allows for the microscopic space of her family history to reach outward into a more capacious external and complex world.
The first thing you might take notice of in the gallery is an augmented adhesive vinyl photograph that contours one corner of the gallery, paralleling the architectural references depicted inside. The piece is titled, Keep Off the Grass - Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village, 1988, 2019. It is selected from her ongoing series, Yours to Discover, a title that shares its name with the former Ontario license plate slogan which was part of an economic growth strategy through tourism for the province when it was initially conceived. The vinyl photograph is indicative of the series as a whole, other parts of which also feature in the exhibit. The artist staged a still-life scene on her work table which centers on a series of vernacular pictures her Pakistani family took in the late-80s while at various tourist sites including Niagara falls, Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village in Southern Ontario. These pictures also evince a kind of prospecting and window-shopping for her family before they moved to Canada a few short years thereafter. Their touristic gazing is proffered up by these sites which display a luring taste of ‘idyllic Canadian suburbia’ and advertises a marker of national identity to visitors, perhaps specifically, visitors (from lower income nations) like the artist's parents who were skilled workers and in demand for the labour market in the country at that time. From another register, it can be read as a slight but consequential tie to the multicultural rhetoric Canada continues to uphold today; a conciliatory national policy that removes culpability of ongoing colonial violence on Indigenous lands. The ‘multicultural achievement’ is a strategic performance of an anti-racist state free from xenophobia. It promotes a veneer of diversity, an acceptance of hyphenated identities, and implies that because the country comprises a culture of non-specific configuration of ethnicities, it is defined by none. In this understanding, Canada places the Indigenous people who the nation exists upon, in the distant past or as non-existent when the idea of Canada as a state is imagined. Within the same panoramic still life image, Naqvi extends her analysis of her parents' touristic pictures with the elements of the common North American household game, Monopoly. It is a game that celebrates capitalism by rewarding land-grabbing ventures and greed, and in this context, Naqvi teases out some of the vexed implications of the utopian suburbia the Miniature Village peddles. She also mingles within the same picture frame, books with titles such as ‘The Psychoanalysis of Cognitive Capitalism’ and ‘The New Pakistani Middle Class'. We also see various paraphernalia like toys from her childhood home in Pickering, ON where her parents settled to raise her and her sisters. Together, they form a sprawling mosaic, a reenactment of the past brought into the light of the present for an elastic critical inquiry.
Reenactment is a familiar mode of working in Naqvi’s archival explorations. This exhibition’s feature film, Farzana is another example of the artist’s efforts in furthering archival material through reenactment. Here, instead of photographs, the sourced archive is a captured footage by the artist when she visited Karachi over 9 years ago. Like in her parents' photographs, she shares with the viewer an exploded view of past events with renewed significance; testifying, and reading between the lines.
Instead of a constructed still-life staging, however, her ambitions lead her towards role-playing with professional actors in a cinematic setting. For the first time in her practice, Naqvi scripts, produces, directs, and stars in her first short film with the support of a cast and crew. It centers on three protagonists: Charmaine (played by Marlo Aquilina), an immigrant settler psychotherapist with an at-home private practice somewhere in an idyllic suburb not unlike the miniature models from Keep Off the Grass. With her busy professional life, she hires a house help, Nasreen, a new immigrant finding her footing (played by Sara Casplan) to assist with house chores and her kids. There’s the third self-reflexive character called Zinnia (played by the artist), who hovers mostly out of frame, faceless, or when we catch a glimpse it's through a reflection with a camera as a shield to her face. After homeowner Charmaine hires her domestic employee Nasreen, albeit on a trial basis, rising tension between the two gradually accumulates towards an inconclusive brink by the time the film reaches its 33-minute run. We become voyeurs in this domestic scene of conflict through Zinnia, the character’s voyeuring private viewfinder. But she leaves room for the viewer to come away with their own stance.
Through this film, Naqvi in a sense, imagines what life in the idyllic miniature models from Yours to Discover could possibly be like, especially for the privileged middle-class migrant families not unlike her own family who ended up inhabiting these very spaces of social/economic capital. By setting the film in suburbia Canada, she highlights and localizes the imperatives of class distinction and stratification within a country that only imagines it as exclusive to the world over.
The footage this film is informed by is also present in the exhibition. It is mediated through the artist’s reflective voice-over narration and presented under the title, The Translation is Approximate. The 10-minute video piece is interlaced with Naqvi’s analytical drawings; untangling and coming to terms with the original footage which she captured while eavesdropping on her auntie and their house help in Karachi. The footage is a relatively brief glimpse of a scene where the house-help (Farzana, who the feature film is named after) is on the floor kneeling, in distress and tearing up. She pleads to her unperturbed boss who reclines on a lushly embroidered sofa appearing disinterested in her employee’s plea. It’s a shorthand of class and caste distinction rendered in a snippet.
At one point in her narration, Naqvi confesses to us a disquieting line that doubles as the exhibition’s title: It was my discomfort that weighted the camera. In this line, Naqvi tussles with her own conscience, with the implication of being a prying eye, the viewer’s window into a vulnerable family moment, and the troubling inference of being the voyeur distanced from the observation she captures. Even after consent to use the footage was received retrospectively, the question of privileged access circles around the video. Here, Naqvi is an artist of material and social privilege from North America and a visitor to Karachi, harvesting her curiosity around class dynamics and ethics as it unfolds within her own family. She is able to witness, document, and leave the scene of conflict. Naqvi indicates as much during her voice-over. She’s aware of the inherent contention herein as she implicates herself, the reporter, in her narration process and in doing so, she makes the camera's construction of narration legible. The title of the video--The Translation is Approximate--is a hedge at the camera’s propensity to condense, fix, and omit a more complex narration. Naqvi prompts us to consider what we see in her moving images and still photographs as interpretive sites subject to further critical dissection and never a complete representation.
- Luther Konadu