Against contemporary greed

Catching up with Huma Mulji as she prepares to unleash creatures other than camels on to the art world 

In the beginning was the camel. It was taxidermied, packed into a suitcase and sent to Dubai as a piece of art by a Pakistani artist named Huma Mulji. Then there was confusion in the sheikhdom. Usually art is censored, through the process of inclusion and exclusion, before the exhibition starts. But the camel invited reprimand after entering the artistic tent. The piece was removed within a day because of an anonymous threat. "I am only a messenger but this camel must be removed," said the bearer of the warning without identifying the origin of the impending thunderbolt. The camel left the Pakistan Pavilion of the exhibition in March 2008 and entered the world of global legends. As it entered the collection of Saatchi, the taxidermied camel was everywhere in the desert of the art world. 

I caught up with Huma Mulji as she was preparing to unleash other creatures on to the art world. The meeting took place after the camel had left Dubai and the monkeys had entered China and before the buffaloes were ready to take over New York. Surprisingly, there were no traces of any animal in the drawing room where we sat and talked. I ask her about her work, the transformation of animals into an art form, the apparent departure from the theme of travel that used to dominate her work. "I just went to the Lahore zoo to photograph some camels. I only had a vague idea for the show in Dubai. I knew I was going to use the animal somehow because it seemed the most obvious link between the Middle East and Pakistan. At the zoo, I met a taxidermist who informed me how Arab hunters come to him to have animals preserved. That gave me the idea of using a taxidermied animal. The link between Pakistani children being smuggled to the Middle East as race jockeys and the import and export of metaphysical beliefs all came together in this animal." 

I ask her if the journey from conceptualisation to the final piece in the exhibition was easy. She gives a long list of bureaucratic and cultural hurdles. The difference between animals we eat and the wild ones also makes the whole process a lot easier or difficult. It is easier to export a stuffed camel but not a stuffed monkey. "To send taxidermied monkeys to China was a huge problem. They are part of the protected wild life even though I had used the skins of those already dead." I ask about the significance of the monkey. "I have sent two monkeys to the Guangzhou Triennial. The theme of the exhibition is Farewell to Postcolonialism. One monkey is busy saluting and the other is sitting on an oil drum." It feels like an anarchic statement to me (the online catalogue of the exhibition has her in the category of Free Radicals). About the monkeys, she is brimful of enthusiasm: "the one sitting on the oil drum is too obvious and the other busy saluting is saying something ironic about our postcolonial condition." 

That Mulji's artistic concerns are very political becomes obvious when I ask her why she put the original camel in the suitcase. Travel is becoming "very humiliating" for Pakistanis: "imagine you have to take your shoes off even at Dubai airport." She is also bothered by the way a human being is treated because he or she is carrying a Pakistani passport. Even within Pakistan, the whole security process at the Diplomatic Enclave "depresses me every single time I have gone to an Embassy to get a visa." So the suitcase full of scissors and blades is her form of critique and so is the phrase "Arabian Delight" embossed on the suitcase containing the camel. And her critique is thorough and rigorous. She has minutely observed the wretched condition of the visa-seekers in the waiting areas of different embassies in Islamabad. The foodless and waterless hours that people spend in front of the embassies have informed and shaped her work. She becomes even more intense when talks about the immigration process at the American airports. The claustrophobia-causing sniffing tunnels, the segregation of the Pakistani passport-holders, the body searches, the questioning, and the idea that you are a suspect being only because of the random accident of place and birth make her produce art that subverts all expectations of art by Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis. She plans to continue to surprise her audience: "I will only use this taxidermy thing for a short while and, then, move on to newer techniques and processes." 

Her philosophical inquiries, combined with their artistic manifestations, are yielding new theories that she plans to use in her work. She thinks the idea of "the survival of the fittest" is being redefined in the current global paranoia about security and border control. It is going to become "the survival of the greediest." Huma Mulji thinks it is symptomatic that families and children cannot travel with ease anymore because they need to carry liquids on the aeroplanes whereas a business person can travel anywhere on company expenses, buy new things at every destination and dispose them off and get the money reimbursed as part of the "businesses travel expenses." As an artist, she plans to continue to challenge the idea that this constitutes "normalcy" or "reality." 

"At the moment, I am going to use disfigured animals. I am planning to make a piece of sculpture in which a buffalo is trapped in a concrete wall. In another work, a pillar has smashed a buffalo into the ceiling. This is my way of dealing with the way the farmers are losing their natural space to different housing colonies and the process of urbanisation." Her conversation reminds me of the way student and union leaders rebelled against the dominance of concrete in May 1968 in France with the slogan "concrete breeds apathy." In the work of Huma Mulji, security and urbanisation are creating angst and a formidable form of critique.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated September 14, 2008