It's about 8am in Winnipeg and 9am in Montreal. I wait as Zinnia Naqvi gets online to begin our video chat. My internet stream is cooperating, within moments Naqvi appears on my screen. "Hi there, don't mind me. I'm just having my breakfast" she declares. When I first got in touch with Naqvi mid autumn, she'd just been settling in after relocating from Toronto to Montreal to begin her graduate studies at Concordia.
At the root of her work is documentary based photography and video. Naqvi is aware of the social and political drawback that surfaces out of this medium and the complexity of this is what her work investigates. Naqvi's work has developed to include sculptural and installation components that taps into cross-cultural translation and identity-based politics. Naqvi's work has been shown at Gallery 44, Gallery TPW, Ryerson Image Center, Montreal's Articule, and internationally at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Buenos Aires, Oberhausen International Short Film Festival and Uppsala International Short Film Festival.
Before we knew it, two hours had already flown by and we both had to return to our morning routines. My conversation with Naqvi gets into the nuances of her work, her adventures in Romania this past summer, her skepticism on beauty, and her stance on Canadian emerging artists feeling the need to relocate to places like the States in order to gain legitimization.
It was such a pleasure getting to speak with her and hear her talk about her work. You can read our full conversation below.
Luther Konadu: Have you ever been to Montreal before this?
Zinnia Naqvi: Just on short trips. I came here last year twice to check out the school and then I came back to look for an apartment.
LK: You are a busy person. You do quite a lot and show a lot. You were just in Romania for a residency?
ZN: Yes, I really like to travel so whenever my art lets me travel I go for it. I’ve only been out of school for two years and I started working full time almost right after school. I find that submitting to festival and shows and having deadlines is the best way to produce for me. This residency in Romania was really funny; I was looking for residencies for a while and most of them charged fees but his one was free, I just had to pay for my flight and I was lucky enough to get a travel grant. It was the first time the organizers had ever set up the program. This woman, Ingrid Pimsner is from Philadelphia grew up in the US but she was born in Romania. She acquired a house by the beach in Mangalia that belonged to her grandmother. The house had been taken over by the military during Communism for twenty years or so. She finally got the house back and she decided to set up an artist's residency there. It was called the International Institute of Contemporary Art & Theory or IICAT. It was the first run of the residency so there were some quirks but it was a really great opportunity and the people were great. Ingrid is a writer, painter and arts facilitator and lives in Romania with her husband but travels back and forth to the U.S. She set up the residency with her friend Sophie Hodera who is also a professor/artist in Boston and Sophie’s partner Nathan Wilson was also helping facilitate the residency. It was a really great group of people to bounce ideas off of. It was a really nice bonding experience with a whole new group of international artists, and it was great to get different perspectives on my work. It kind of felt like “Big Brother” or “the Real World” at times but I like getting to know people in an intimate way so I loved it. There were four resident artists; myself, Essi Ojanpera from Finland, Ben Saint Maxent from France, and Aaron Ershler from the States, as well as the two facilitators and their partners. There were also some visiting artists from Romania and the Ukraine. We would typically do an artist talk in the morning then break off to do our own thing in the afternoons. I would go to the Black Sea which was just a few feet away, come back, have dinner and talk more so it was really nice. It was only a two-week stay so it was a bit hard to produce a whole project in that time but I learnt a lot.
LK: So you found that you spend more time talking and having discussions about your work and your ideas...were expecting to make work?
ZN: Not really because it was such a short visit. But I was shooting. We had to propose something we might do for the residency so I proposed doing work around the migrant crisis from the perspectives of Eastern Europeans. Then I also started to become interested in the Roma culture in Romania. I have some interesting footage from this trip but I would probably have to go back to make a full project.
LK: How do you think you want your documentaries to be viewed? I think I’ve seen it shown on TV monitors online somewhere but do you think the way you present it has anything to do with the content? Do you think the setting in which you present it matters especially with True North and Seaview...and in relation to work you made for the residency where you had sculptural components to the work
ZN: For Seaview, I’ve shown it both in a gallery where it plays on loop. I’ve also shown it at film festivals where people are sitting down and watching it. I think it works both ways. In a gallery setting I think it needs to be isolated. There’s a lot of layers and a lot happening throughout so it communicates better when you watch it from start to finish.
For True North, I was working with a partner from Argentina, and that project came about because I was part of another project with Gallery 44 for the Pan Am Games. soJin Chun from Gallery 44 in Toronto and Jasmine Bakalarz, who is Argentinian-Canadian artist decided to set up this photo-exchange project where they paired up six artists from Toronto and six from Buenos Aires. We were all at various points in our careers and sometimes we didn't even speak the same language. I got partnered with an artist from Argentina, Melania Liendo and we were Skyping and creating for about six months. I lived in Argentina for a year when I was younger so that's what attracted me to the project, and I speak Spanish but I had never made an art project in Spanish. Because the project was for the PanAm Games, it felt like we had to do something that somehow represented Canadian identity. And I there’s no way I could talk about Canadian identity without talking about Indigenous issues so we decided to make it about that.
"There’s a bit of disconnect with the language [Urdu] even though it is suppose to be my mother tongue but it’s really not anymore. I was born and and have lived here [Canada] my whole life but no matter where I go I get asked “Where are you from?" and the first answer is never good enough. When I travel I tend to stick out a lot. It is strange to be part of a culture that everyone is identifying you with but you yourself don’t necessarily identify with. You will always be boiled down to what you look like."
LK: So you guys were commissioned to do the work before the idea came out?
ZN: Yeah, after we were partnered up we were able to do whatever we wanted so it was a really great opportunity. It was important for me that Indigenous issues be highlighted somehow and I felt like if it wasn’t going to be represented it would be a bit problematic. That was also a challenge for me because I’m not a part of that community and I’ve never made work about it so it was very difficult. On the other hand PanAm and the Canadian Embassy in Argentina were supporting the project as well so it was kind of a funny spot to be in.
I ended up making a short documentary with three different people. I worked with Elwood Jimmy who is also an artist and community worker, Landy Anderson who is a child protection worker and has a background in Native and Family affairs, and Danny Beaton who is an elder and a native environmentalist and healer. I made with a short doc with these three people to help bring to light some contemporary Indigenous issues. I think because the work was going to be shown in both countries, I tried to make something that would be relevant to a wide audience. A lot of the time people think colonialism is a thing that happened in the past and don’t realize how present it still is both here in Canada and Argentina. The histories are so similar throughout the Americas so I wanted to bring those voices into the gallery in both countries. My partner for the project also spoke to Indigenous community members who were camped out for month-long protests in Buenos Aires, protesting the illegal acquisition of land by the Argentinian government. She actually had an added challenge in reaching out to the indigenous community members as most of they don’t speak Spanish. They speak their own language so it made it that much harder to communicate with them sometimes.
LK: How much time did you guys have to put this whole thing together? It seems like a lot of planning went into it.
ZN: It took us about six to eight months. The first couple months were very much us trying to figure out what we wanted the project to be. It was difficult because we were really far apart, we didn’t know each other at all, and we were on totally different levels when it comes to what we are interested in and creating work. I feel like I kind of pushed her a bit to make this kind of work. It's really important for me to make work that is socially conscious. But in the end I think we were interested in the issues at hand and we were happy with the outcome. The work showed in Toronto at Gallery 44 and in Buenos Aires at the MACBA - Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Buenos Aires.
LK: Have you worked collaboratively like that in the past?
ZN: No, never that was my first time. It was really challenging. I still feel on the fence on this project. I don’t know if it was successful in being an authentic voice about urban Indigenous culture. It's such a large and weighted topic that it's hard to really do it justice. But at least the voices were part of the conversation. This is one project in which I tried to keep myself out of it and just let my subjects share their insight.