The title of Pakistani-born artist Zoya Siddiqui’s ongoing show, hosted online by Bengaluru's Museum of Art & Photography, is laced with irony. A Distant Place, as this body of predominantly video-based work is called, is an arch reference to the idea of home—or rather to the ways in which most people around the world remember and un-remember their homes. The concept may be inflected by the passage of time and physical distance, made and unmade through proximity and separation, or leavened by harsher realities—be it forced migration, trauma or tragedy.
In Siddiqui’s art, home becomes richly complicated by her own life experiences. Pakistani by birth, she spent her first ten years in Saudi Arabia, moving from city to city as her itinerant father shifted jobs. Later, she went on to art school in the US, where she lived through the turbulent years of Donald Trump's misrule, his outrageous “Muslim ban”, for instance. Now, since her marriage and recent motherhood, she is settled in Vancouver, Canada.
“Home, for me, has to do with familiarity with real structures and objects,” says Siddiqui on a phone call from Lahore, where she is spending time with her folks before she heads back to Canada at the end of the month. But then, home is also rooted in structures of feelings. A sense of belonging, which is usually a function of homeliness, can assail us unawares. “It becomes a form of validation for me when, for instance, a Pakistani Uber driver in Canada starts speaking to me in Urdu,” Siddiqui says. “Language becomes a home then, an affirmation that I, too, exist, in a foreign land, I feel seen."
Siddiqui’s art provides us multiple lenses to visualize the emotional truth that underlies this sentiment. While memory is the pivot on which the work turns, the latter is also heavily invested in technology, like drones and cameras, that bring the faraway closer. In the time of the pandemic, especially, the internet is a great source of comfort for many. It is the bridge that connects those far from home with their loved ones. Yet, while electronic screens or satellite imaging devices can show us distant places at a click—they can even allow us to zoom into our old homes and the neighbourhood we once lived in—can the nostalgia of such returns compare with what our bodies remember?
In one of her most affecting videos, Memoryscape II, Siddiqui navigates the world of her childhood in Saudi Arabia by typing on Google Maps the names of the cities she grew up in. Most of the physical places are all there still, but also not quite, at least in the form they remain etched in her memory. “This is not it,” becomes a refrain after every click, followed by a fresh quest.
A similar gulf opens up as Siddiqui remotely explores the home she grew up in through a drone. As the device flies around, like a mechanical bird, taking in the crevices and crannies of the family garden and porch, the stories and memories associated with various spots attain lives of their own, enriching the anodyne physical forms they retain in the present.
While tracing her peregrinations across the globe, Siddiqui’s art also grapples with her upbringing within the culture of Islam. There is a real struggle to find a niche for herself, for her creative energy that bristles with an edgy and modernist aesthetic, while paying an oblique homage to tradition.
Siddiqui’s gift of synthesis is evident in To God Shall The Alien Return, where a pulpy Lollywood sci-fi movie called Shaani (1988) is invoked to hark back to the dictatorial regime of Zia-ul-Haq and—by extension—to dogmatism in general. “Religion is a major structure we grow up in,” she explains. “Yet, I feel, there are multiple associations around the idea of being a Muslim—it’s always been the case.”
Even within Islam, there is a rich diversity of practices that makes it difficult to define one binding Muslim identity. This is the subject of an extended debate in a video, where Siddiqui argues with her family about the forces that tethers all Muslims around the world into a singular whole—does the Ummah really exist, and if it does, in what form? Is Islamic TV, relaying images of the Kaaba in Mecca all day, which Siddiqui grew up watching, able to impose an overarching sense of solidarity among the faithful, though they may be culturally distinct?
Visually reticent, at times elliptical, Siddiqui’s cerebral and multilayered videos leave the viewer with more questions than answers.
A Distant Place can be viewed at https://map-india.org/