A monument, a phallic cone, a green light, exploding flowers, and the shady voice of an Urdu poet: New York-based artist Umber Majeed created an animation and speculative fiction on the feminist historicization of Pakistan as the first »Muslim nuclear state.« The multilayered project takes it point of departure from the archive of the artist’s grandfather with documentation of his work as photographer in Pakistan. For In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present, the artist interweaves materials from this familial archive and materials of state archives with symbols and narrations of the patriarchal state structure used to push the Pakistani nuclear project, showing bodies of citizens, specifically women, as the containers that incorporate the state-sanctioned notions of love, science, and nature. Visit the project with video and publication and read a talk with the artist on the background of the work as part of the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM on the topic Refiguring the Feminist Future curated by Morehshin Allahyari.
Schlosspost: Your proposal is an animation and speculative fiction on the feminist historicization of Pakistan as the first »Muslim nuclear state« through state and familial archives. Where did this idea start and what is the script about?
Umber Majeed: I was initially researching city planning and state monuments built in Islamabad, Pakistan, in the 1980s to early 2000s that coincided with my grandfather’s documentation I found within that same time period in his analog photography archive. That is when I came into contact with an image or the lack thereof (image below) of an ugly fiberglass state monument called Chaghi Monument Hill. In 1998, multiples of the monument were built in major metropolitan cities in Pakistan. However, in the span of the last 15 years, each was destroyed due to very particular reasons of state security or conspiracy. This was my first contact with this monument, Youm-e-Takbeer (May 28th – a national holiday to commemorate the nuclear tests of the late 1990s) and Pakistan as a nuclear power via low-res imagery of its disappearance. It started my journey into finding more information on the life of a failed monument that no longer exists.
Schlosspost: The Chaghi Monument Hill stands in the center of the narration – what is the story of this monument and what other specific historical moments do you interweave in the fiction?
UM: This was the first image I came in contact with; the monument in its absence. According to unreliable second or third-hand Internet sources, in 2004 a fire broke out and destroyed the first Chaghi Monument Hill in Karachi, Pakistan. Apparently the Father of the Atomic Bomb (Abdul Qadeer Khan) had at the time been arrested for allegations of leaking nuclear knowledge. It is rumored that »patriotic« followers demanded the release of the scientist and burnt the fiberglass mold in vein. Abdul Qadeer Khan’s accusations were removed in 2009 and he was released from house arrest in Islamabad Pakistan.
I was interested in the dichotomy between Chaghi being visible only through its destruction, like in the moment of the blast, the underground nuclear tests that were done in Chaghi, Baluchistan, Pakistan in the 1998. Through the destruction of the mountainscape (an abstraction), the patriarchal Islam Republic could be visible. The blast was also reproduced in the failed life/destruction of the ghost-like monument, Chaghi Monument Hill. My research speculates that with each blast Chaghi (state power) is reproduced on micro-scale with macro-scale implications. In such, the project led me full circle to my grandfather’s analog photography archive and more specifically documentation of his 1994 exhibition (catalogs and images) at a state-funded cultural institution called Lok Virsa in Islamabad, Pakistan.
It is an image of Abdul Qadeer receiving a gift of my grandfather’s photographic work. The image is of flowers that are exploding, made with a special filter for film cameras. It also had references to Urdu poetry of Allama Iqbal. It was rumored that the photograph was inspired by the atomic blast and love for nation. Pirzada A. Waheed, my late grandfather, participated in the nationalist movement as a young man in British India.
What interested me was looking at Chaghi as a motif, location, and historical moment that is consistently reconstituted within religious – state logic, and in digital space. This methodology of the research lead to my interest in fiction and digital interface as narrative tools. When looking through the historical state rhetoric around the nuclear history which involved the consistent exclamation of love, nature, and God. It was even visible in present day publications of Urdu poetry. I came across a poem called »Atomi Daamaki Wali Mohabbat« (The Atomically Explosive Love) which described a love so powerful and destructive equated to the atomic blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The most interesting thing about this statement was that it came from a (clearly) patriarchal state academic (evident in other poems he wrote) who taught at a governmental university in Pakistan and wrote on poetry as his »hobby.« His work is evidence of explosive implications of the monopoly of state propaganda in cultural production and education. In all these historical moments, the idea of the blast plays out in different ways from my grandfather’s photograph and branching out to the monument that is still due to be rebuilt in Islamabad since its demolition in late 2016. It is planned to be rebuilt in Fatima Jinnah Park in Islamabad, turning the next chapter of Chaghi into something akin to a return to origins (nature) premise.
»Atomically Explosive Love«
Schlosspost: How do you refer to the current political situation in Pakistan and what role does the national media play within the context of your project and research?
UM: I would define national media as material containing state propaganda; all the references previously illustrate that. I look through both personal and state archival material, but a majority of it is also circulated low-res imagery, such as memes of Pakistani national-military Facebook groups and it can funnel its way into the animation or writing.
Through looking at a recent past (1990s–2000s) within a specific region such as South Asia, it aims to make visible global emergent nationalist uprisings, an alternative method of looking at current political conditions.
Schlosspost: What role do Urdu authors play in Pakistan?
UM: I was interested in inverting the state patriarchal narrative by writing and performing (queering) a patriarchal state-affiliated author »character« to make visible the nation-state propaganda that uses women (bodies) to contain and perpetuate their ideals. In my current research, the replanting of the faux mountainscape back into the »natural« national park was a poetic parallel to the instrumentalization of »objective« scientific knowledge for nationalistic rhetoric. This is how I came to work through the current chapter, »In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present.«
Publication: »In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present«
I found this particular scientific canon in Urdu publications for children about color vision and its possibilities through the natural wonders of the world created by God. I have appropriated some visuals and text from this publication available in mainstream publishing houses in metropolitan cities, affecting mainstream educational platforms. I may add that previous publications of such an author include texts on conspiracy theories and Zionism. These authors may also occupy a high position in academia and thus can publish through university presses. One such publication written by a head of department at a prestigious government college in Lahore is related to mind control and the New World Order (the publication is also available in Urdu and shown below)/ The animation and pseudo-publication seek to make visible the absurdities and paranoia of the so-called hegemonic, green.
Schlosspost: Referring to the context of the call: How does your project refigure the feminist future?
UM: The conceptual background of the project looks at the national holiday called Youm-e-Takbeer (The Day of God’s Greatness), which commemorates the underground nuclear tests that were done in 1998 in Chaghi, Baluchistan, Pakistan. Chaghi Monument Hill was the site of the male-dominated celebrations which reflects the claim that men have in public space. The narrative in the animation allows for an interversion of the performativity of the citizen on »claimed« landscape (homeland) but in extension to the »claimed« citizen body as the new landscape for nationalistic pursuits. I am interested in how there is a circulation of hegemonic nationalistic/patriarchal pursuits within South Asian diaspora. The animation narrates the implicated citizen-body (»woman as another homeland«) as a reproduction of nation via an empty signifier such as the cone?
Schlosspost: Could you explain how the nuclear state, the female body, and religion are connected as elements in the project?
UM: The female body I am using specifically are found 3D model characters and templates. The play within the digital of female bodies is already explicit in the design and features available; the generic becomes politicized. The explanation of the nuclear state is flourished in the name of God, which proliferated the popular advocacy to protect that history and famed figurehead of the nuclear project, Abdul Qadeer Khan. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has an intertwined history with state-sponsored religion, which was more apparent after General Zia ul Haq’s Islamization policies in the early 1980s. Once can hear the shrill cries of the nation-state as the scientists scream out God’s name after the success of the blast indicated in the documentation below:
Link to the documentation from Pakistan Television (PTV) of the 1998 underground nuclear tests:
Schlosspost: What is the meaning and function of the green light?
UM: Green or more specifically Haraa (Urdu translation) is meant to represent the Pakistani national flag, military, and the color of Islam. It was said to be the favorite color of the last Prophet in Islam (Sunni-Islam).
Within the project, green »holy« light, is produced through the green-screen interface or phototropism (nature). It is described as a mode of spirituality perpetuated and disseminated by Islamic orientalism, Pakistani nationalism and militancy, projection space for the populist imagination, and bodily light therapy. The light is meant to activate the cone an an omnipresent part of body and nature for the state.
Schlosspost: In the work of fiction, the Chaghi Monument Hill will be replaced by a phallic green cone. In your concept text you describe the cone to be an omnipresent part of the body, nature, and state. Could you elaborate on this idea further?
UM: Through the research, the cone appeared as a motif in the physicality of the human body (ear, eye, brain) and reproduction organs in flora as well as in the abstract from the theories of physics and plausiblity. Within the narrative it is fictionalized as a »phallic cone(object).« The narrative outlines the presence of the cone as present in all parts of a citizen’s life; it implicates the viewer (citizen-body) to reproduce the nation-state.
Schlosspost: What is the cone in digital space?
UM: The cone basically represents a space of future projection, which is consequently hijacked by the state.
Interview by Clara Herrmann