April 22, 2013

Lamia Gargash: Stories of Interior Spaces

The Staircase, Lamia Gargash (2005-6)

I first discovered Lamia Gargash's photography in a British Council exhibition, My Father's House a few years ago; a travelling exhibition, its first port of call was at Bait al Baranda museum, Muscat and while I admired the other featured photographers' works, I instantly gravitated towards Lamia's images, particularly those of interior spaces that she had photographed.

As a child, I had always loved reading about interiors and how people chose to decorate their homes; what and how they put together their homes revealed so much about themselves. However, as I grew older, while my fascination for gorgeously and unusually assembled interior interiors remained undiminished, I found myself looking beyond the picture-perfect images in glossy interior magazines and websites. I realised I wanted to see more of interiors which were unvarnished, a little rough around the edges: faces wiped clean of make-up, so to speak. These were interiors with personalities and quirks of their own, in a constant state of evolution. 

Window Light, Lamia Gargash (2005-6)

While Lamia has since then worked with other subjects, I still retain my affinity for her 'Presence' series. Starkly devoid of people, these are piercing portraits of spaces - and yet, they are also portraits of those invisible inhabitants occupying those spaces as well, documenting their presence through the way they choose to present their most immediate spaces. I find her images of abandoned buildings and structures particularly haunting and powerful: even in or perhaps, because of their derelict state, they are palimpsests, each layer reverberating with voices and echoes and stories...only if you are willing to listen - and that is what precisely Lamia has accomplished through her images and coaxed her viewers to do so as well.

I was therefore thrilled to get the opportunity to speak to Lamia about her work via Khaleejesque and here is my interview with her reproduced below:
1) What made you choose photography as your medium of artistic expression?

Honestly speaking, as a child, I never ever thought of becoming an artist or photographer so it was a happy accident as to how I became one. When I had applied for my MA at Central Saint Martins, London, I actually applied for graphic design; however, I was then told that my work was more photographic and subsequently, placed in photography. I tried my best to get out of it as I wanted to pursue digital media; fate though had decided that photography was my destiny.

2) You mention in your biography that you were concerned with the relics of a self-renewing architecture and thereby documenting the private and public realms of Emirati architecture. Could you further elaborate on this statement in context to any of your particular projects?

I love what the camera captures, paying attention to details and using it to record and preserve what intrigues me. Space is a hub for many changes that occur around us; it dictates not only styles and eras but also a way of living. How a room is experienced leaves many stories within its walls. One always looks at the outside word as a sign of progression and expansion but the true essence of change occurs within our own quarters. How one identifies himself within his own room and how he chooses to present his individuality and persona through it is what’s exciting.

Through 'Presence,' I sought to document a culture that exists in interiors and becoming extinct due to modernization and globalization. When I first started this project, I was studying in UK; coming back home, I was more aware of the changes happening and felt the desire to document my old home – and the work developed from there. I documented homes of people, who were shifting from them to newer ones as well as recording abandoned homes.

People always ask me why there are no people present in my photographs. To me the spaces and interiors not only narrate stories of the lives that existed in them but also give the viewer an insight into our culture: how swiftly things change in our country, the rate at which things are being destroyed and built is probably more obvious in the space we inhabit on a daily basis than merely the exterior urban landscape.

The Orange Room, Lamia Gargash (2005-6)

Meelas-Yadee, Lamia Gargash (2005-6)

3) Many of these spaces are clearly private residences. How was it photographing these private and intimate spaces?

I found that documenting private spaces was much harder than taking someone’s portrait. Also, as we live in a quiet, conservative society, which admires and respects privacy so taking one’s photographs is quite a challenge enough – but taking pictures of their private spaces was even more challenging. Many perceived it as an intrusion and invasion of privacy to expose their most intimate spaces, whether it be kitchen, bedroom or even bathroom. They would question: why would anyone be interested in living quarters? Go photograph the garden or the sunset instead! Initially it was very hard but I gradually found a language by which I was able to communicate my message.

4) The Brownbook collaboration focused on the Emiratis' fixation with the label, Louis Vuitton. How did that materialize? What kind of a commentary were you making through this project?

The idea behind this project was to showcase the idea of the brand LV being submerged in our everyday lives and presented in a series of photographs that had a vintage feel. I am an avid film user and almost all my work is shot on film; despite the difficulties associated with its post-production, I love the anticipation of waiting to get my images back and not knowing what they truly look like. The use of film helped capture the mood that Brownbook and Louis Vuitton were looking for.

I was given a brief and asked to recreate it in candid old school shots. The idea was to keep the images as honest as possible. “Presence” actually was its visual guideline; the mood and style of the photographs inspired the creation of the Louis Vuitton series.

6) I found the 'Through the Looking Glass' project very relevant and topical, considering the almost obsessive preoccupation many people have their appearance. You include subjects belonging to both sexes and a spectrum of nationalities and ages. How did the participants feel about becoming involved? What did you take away from this project?

Through the Looking Glass investigates how we constantly view ourselves in comparison to an ever-elusive standard, prompted by the constant bombardment of media imagery dictating ‘how we should look’. Minor defects become drastic, resulting in even more drastic measures undertaken to reach that ideal standard of beauty. Our self- perception, and subsequently our identity, becomes indistinct, as if viewing ourselves through a distorted looking glass.
The photographic series comprises of diptychs, with one panel depicting a portrait of the subject as seen by the world, and an opposing panel depicting the subject as seen through their mind’s eye.
In many ways all the portraits I have created for this series is a representing of my own insecurities. We live in a world that is bombarded with information and supposed accepted norms be it behavior or physical appearances. I have to admit I am one of those people whose lack of confidence affects me on a daily basis and I was keen on expressing that simple emotion and capture it photographically.
Finding my models was a challenge too as not everyone wants to have themselves presented in such a manner; it was crucial to have committed participants as it was a very delicate, time/money-consuming project.
I found that females were more receptive and excited about the project than men; they in turn were more reserved. The people I worked with were co-operative and understanding; I couldn't have asked for a better crew or cast. I also would like to thank Emirates Foundation who helped fund the project.

7) Your projects have included a gamut of subjects and themes: architecture, fashion, and dynamics of perception. Your project, Yadee however revolves around your grandfather and is therefore much more intimate and personal. What made you take up this project? What was the journey like?

My grandfather was such a strong character in my family; he had a healthy, active, athletic persona, who loved life, travelling and being young. However, he had a severe fall few years back that shifted his whole world and in many ways affected him deeply. For me, coming to terms with the situation was hard and took a while. The series of images of my grandfather (who is still alive) merely captures the sad aftermath of the whole situation. It showcases vulnerability, sorrow and isolation. It is almost like being introduced to a whole new family member. I am a keen observer: I pay attention to so many details that it overwhelms me and the fact that I find it hard to accept change leaves me lingering in the details, trying to grasp whatever I can through my photographs. Every project I have documented or created was an outcome of personal melancholy or pure inner reflections.

8) Would you like to talk about any future projects?

I have been working on a variety of business creative ventures with my sisters and family; however, regarding my next photo project, it will be a marriage between my love of interiors and implementing more of the“self” in the body of work. I still believe that there is still a lot to investigate in the idea of space and that there is still plenty that it has to offer as creative material. After all stories take place in every room in every house, building and structure and allowing the spectator to form his own narrative. How space is constructed and how we choose to embed ourselves within it is inspiring for me.

**You can read the interview in Khaleejesque here**

April 16, 2013

A Bowlful of Nostalgia: Photo-Essay

Nostalgia kidnaps me suddenly, abruptly: sorting through hillocks of oranges at the grocery store, I find myself at Seeb souk, inhaling the fragrance of vegetables and fruits freshly arrived from Batinah farms. I bite into a pita-bread wrapped falafel at a local Syrian restaurant and there I am, outside Turkish Pearl below my office, the taste of pungent hummus intermingling with beetroot pieces in my sandwich. Brilliant blue skies of an over-zealous spring morning, a primrose-yellow door, or cold-warmth of the air, they all possess the ability to hold me ransom to the past, many pasts. Yet, they are merely momentary, these nostalgia-engineered abductions: one minute, you are home, the next minute, the axis of your world swiftly re-aligns back to the present - and you are so overwhelmingly  - here - now. 

The other day, I met my childhood friend and fellow blogger, Shazi for a couple hours of color-glazing ceramic figures; she chose a plate while my pick was a medium-sized bowl. I was earlier thinking of taking an introductory course in ceramics; I wanted to experience the feel of clay and shaping or throwing them into pots and bowls. However, I soon realised that I was more fascinated exploring the metamorphosis of different colored glazes into an alternative galaxy of hues and shades; they were the ones which would dramatically alter the character of the pot or bowl, bestowing upon them unique personalities.

For my bowl, I chose a color palette of pistachio, aquamarine, sapphire and sky-blues; once it was fired  and I brought it home, I set it in in a pool of sunlight and watched it further bake in the light. The sunlight deepened and energised the hues, making it an object of both fragility and solidity. And then, my eyes fell upon this sunset-colored key-ring, which I had brought with me all the way from Oman.

Nostalgia need not always be ephemeral, like sunsets, I thought: it can make a red-purple-gold home for itself in a nest-shaped pond of blue, no more a creature of flight.


Purple Voices

Bowlful of Nostalgia

April 11, 2013

Ghost Trees of Rajasthan

It was a warm, clear August morning; few remnants of the monsoon clouds scumbled the powder-blue sky. The shrine had opened several hours ago, although there hardly seemed to be anyone around apart from a frolicking black topaz-eyed goat–its owner unseen–and three middle-aged men in rumpled white kurta-pajamas disembarking from a Toyota Innova. It was still too early, perhaps, for people to thread their way towards a shrine in middle of the Rajasthani country-side, no matter how exhaustive their lists of favors to cadge from the higher forces.

A teenage boy in gray trousers and long-sleeved plaid shirt stood behind the shrine, evidently having assumed responsibilities as both the priest and the shrine caretaker; on meeting us, he asked no questions but responded readily to ours. Watching him laconically talk about the shrine, I was unable to place the expression on his face: boredom or indifference? Perhapshe perpetually wore this expression, his only accessory. When I requested him to tie the sacred saffron and red thread–a talisman– around my wrist, he did so, ensuring the knot was tidily secure. “It will only fall off when it has to,” he remarked even before I had asked. 

A lean, diminished woman in a green sari prostrated in front of the shrine, alternately singing and rapidly uttering incantations; her eyes remained fastened shut throughout, seemingly possessing no volition to open. Her husband, presumably, silently sat next to her, almost as if he had happened to be in her proximity merely by chance and, thus, bore her no recognition. It was only when she began to sob, the music of her singing having disintegrated into bald sounds of desperation, that he laid a comforting palm on the small of her back, as if to remind her that he still existed and was part of that world which she so urgently wished a respite from.

Beyond the shrine, a monsoon rain-fed pond glimmered, occasional islands of shine speckling the pond’s otherwise mirror-hard surface. Trees stood ankle-deep in the water at edges of the pond; they looked awkward and uncomfortable, ostensibly appreciating the sudden invasion of water in their midst, yet simultaneously resenting it for having disturbed the existing landscape. For me, though, it was serenity post-carded and I stood by the wall looking down at the pond, reveling in the scene’s seeming inviolability: the pond, the trees, and the hillocks girding the pond, plumed with startling green bursts of monsoon foliage.

Glancing upwards and beyond the hillocks, I then noticed the clump of four acacia trees, extravagantly festooned with yards of candy-hued ribbons and metallic tinsel: they looked like surreal Christmas trees blooming in the desert. I wondered if these trees bore any relation to the many other such similarly dressed trees I had encountered during my travels in Rajasthan. I had bestowed the appellation of wish trees upon them: trees bedecked with tinsel-fringed red ribbons, threads, and jewelry, the branches laden with innumerable wishes and yearnings of those who had reposed their unwavering trust and faith within their sacred embrace. 

“What are those trees?” I asked the teenage priest while he sorted out the prasad an elderly man had just offered to the shrine deity. 

“Ghost trees,” he replied, after a pause. “Once people have been exorcised of ghosts and spirits that possess them, they toss these ribbons and garlands onto the trees.” 

I instinctively turned around and began to walk towards the trees only to find him urgently calling out to me. 

“You shouldn’t go near them,” he blurted out. “No one ever goes near them.”

“Why?” I asked. “Ghosts aren’t there anymore. They have all gone away, right?” 

“But still…” His voice faltered, as did his expression; he then almost immediately regained his authority. “You just shouldn’t go there. If you want, you can still look at them from here, though,” he added. 

Suddenly, although noon was yet to come upon us and the sunlight was still new, I found myself imagining the trees by night, especially on a full-moon night. I saw the tinsel of the ribbons glittering in the ivory moonlight, the trees themselves dark and indistinguishable beneath the mass of ribbons that lived within their branches. Unlike the wish trees, which were accustomed to bidding farewell to one fulfilled wish after another, the ghost trees seemed crammed with tenants that had no other place to go apart from these very branches. And yet, the trees– too ironically enough–had become pariahs themselves through the very act of giving shelter to these spiritual pariahs. For some reason, although I still wanted to see the trees up close, I found myself impelled to go no further. I merely gazed at the trees from the distance, noting that they were still in sufficient intimate proximity to the shrine whilst standing in a clump of isolation. 

“I wonder what the other trees make of them,” I said, half to myself; the teenage boy shrugged, suspicion briefly clouding his eyes before turning into relief at the thought that I had not decided to commit the transgression, after all. “Well, can I photograph them, at least?” I asked. He nodded and having been convinced that I would not venture towards the trees, he returned to assume his responsibilities at the shrine, stoking the faith of the many that now lingered in front of the deities.

After photographing the trees, I made my way toward the pond below. I stood by the water, inspecting the jagged inroads it had made into the soil and the yellow tufts of blossoms that the trees had shed, which now littered the surface of the water. Near the pond, I then noticed that a tree stood inside a circle of white-painted stones: sun-bleached images of Hindu divinities and tinsel-fringed saffron flags were planted into the dried mud banked around the exposed tree roots. Here, the tree was a shrine in itself, eliciting, and indeed, bestowing faith and trust – and yet, meters away, a lakshmanrekha of fear and mistrust encircled the ghost trees, preventing them from ever being approached. Through no fault of their own, they had become repositories of apparent spiritual detritus – and were condemned for it. Yet, they nonetheless continued to live and thrive with dignity. 

As I bade farewell to the shrine, my eyes strayed towards the ghost trees one last time: they now appeared to clinically survey me just as I had surveyed them earlier and when I turned my face away, I could feel their gaze briefly linger upon me, questioning before assuming indifference.

This piece was originally published in Issue 12 of Outside in Literary and Travel magazine

Photographs taken by me