New York is known for its elaborate art scene. With shopping galleries scattered across Manhattan and Brooklyn, this city has learned to keep artistic spirits alive and thriving. A place that has been associated with Jeff Koons and home to museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is no shortage of small or large museums, art fairs and auctions. While New York can open many doors for you, it’s not always easy for South Asian American artists to find the support they need to navigate the choppy tides they may initially encounter.
As a member of the diaspora, trying to find your place in the New York art scene can take longer and the journey can be more tumultuous if you don’t have the safety net of a community. Nonetheless, it is inspiring to see women of color raising their voices in support of issues that urgently need attention. Together, these female artists claim their place on the international art scene, while creating opportunities for all of their communities.
You! this week features one such female artist: Farah Mohammad, a Pakistani printmaker and installation artist based in New York. She received her BA from Bennington College and her MFA from Columbia University. She has taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts and was recently awarded the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Award from the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts (2021), the Lucas T. Carlson Fellowship from Columbia University (2020) and the IPCNY Coursework Award (2020). Let’s hear what she has to say about her work as an artist…
You! What is your work focused on?
Farah Muhammad: I work in different printmaking techniques to process the complex feelings that arise from working with underserved communities and to negotiate my own presence as a Pakistani immigrant in the United States. I draw my inspiration from the images I capture of changing spaces. In my process of creating prints, where I break images down into shapes around which to build the main subject; this allows me to make an emotional inventory of their personal symbolism. My exhibitions include a solo exhibition at Nyama Fine Art and group exhibitions at Moss Arts Center, International Print Center New York (IPCNY), Jewish Museum, ChaShaMa, Wallach Art Gallery, Field Projects (NYC ) and at Local Art Space Project (LIC, NY).
You! Can you tell us about the engraving?
FM: Through engraving, I link anthropological research to my fascination with urban architecture. Through my work, I create a visual reality for myself, where my past and my present, including Pakistani and American identities, can coexist.
You! Can you tell us about your recent work?
FM: Some of my more recent works are sculptural woodcuts and monotype prints of architectural forms that hold emotional significance. A recent installation, “Unfettering,” consists of stitched woodcuts suspended on orange-painted thread. In the woodcuts I have carved images of a construction site in my childhood home in Karachi, architectural remains in a Karachi neighborhood of Saddar, and buildings in my neighborhood of Harlem, NYC. I stitched the woodcuts together, referencing a view of a construction site just outside my Harlem studio window.
You! Could you tell me more about your representation of homeland and how you decide to explore it in relation to your audience?
FM: When I think of home, I immediately imagine my home in Clifton, Karachi, Pakistan, where I grew up. I think of the surrounding streets. I notice the modified and unchanged architecture.
Thought always begins there, but home alludes to familiarity, comfort, place of origin, connection, ownership, freedom. I feel each of these things in different places.
I think of the homeland as a space that constantly restructures itself with our memories, incorporating new ideas, while bearing stubborn traces of the past. I live in New York now, but Pakistan is a place I return to frequently physically or artistically, in order to clarify my motivations in life and understand the people and politics that affect me the most.
You! Did you feel a changing sense of your homeland, given the transnational nature of today’s world?
FM: For me, one of the most consistent ideas about home is that it is a place of constructed associations: where different human emotions attach to imagery and memory. This is where we started to see. I am attached to this goal or house frame; through which I realize that I understand my life experiences. It then becomes interesting for me to literally integrate images from the past with the present. I create spaces that the viewer can engage with. Because these spaces are pasted with references to things and places in my life, I notice different people relating to different sections of the work. In one installation, “Motion and Rest Chaos and Longing”, I incorporated silicone molds of Prince Chocolate sandwich cookies. I had recently thought about those cookies I used to eat as a child in Karachi for no apparent reason after many years as I walked under a construction site in Harlem. Something in this space smelled like cookies, and I was fascinated by how olfactory associations can take us back to times we had never considered meaningful. When the work was exhibited in the Nyama Fine Art gallery, I noticed that this element of the installation evoked personal memories for different Pakistani viewers.
What has changed since you started exhibiting in the United States?
FM: My artistic career started while I was living in the United States. Although I studied printmaking in undergrad, I majored in social sciences. After undergrad, I worked full-time as a social worker in New York City for three years, while renting space and working in a print studio. Eventually, it made sense to turn to art as a full-time career, so I did my MFA at Columbia University and started exhibiting more in New York. I thus met curators, gallery owners and artists who became my collaborators. I have built strong relationships in the New York art community.
You! What impact did your move to the United States have on your work? How has this helped steer your work in a new direction?
FM: Before coming to the United States, I made paintings. I came to the United States in 2012 for my undergraduate degree, for which I went to Bennington College. This is where I took my first engraving course and I was immediately hooked. I was interested in how printmaking forced me to gain a deeper understanding of the materials around me and the tools that I was not used to using in painting.
You! How has engraving contributed to your career as an artist?
FM: Etching refined my thought process, where I could commit to an idea and realize it, then add it and modify it. Engraving has become a tool for reflection. I realized that I could differentiate the subject of my work by the printing technique I chose to use. I used woodcut to represent changing architecture, or a kind of violence, because the process of carving and printing is like breaking and building. When I want to add stories, I paint monotypes. When I want to draw solid colors, I use screen printing.
You! What are monotype prints, can you elaborate?
FM: Monotype prints are paintings created on Plexiglas, but they become an exploration of the management of paint texture. Sometimes you feel like you’ve applied an even coat of paint to the plexi, but it smudges under pressure, so in your next coat you change its texture so that under pressure it transfers evenly. The use of image transfers in my printmaking work helped me engage directly with my research.
You! What medium do you like working with the most?
FM: There’s an element of discovery to printmaking: you have to sculpt, draw, or paint, then wait until you’re ready to print to see what your marks look like. I like the slow construction of images, and the steps in the construction of an image are tangible. Often I look forward to the surprise of removing the substrates from the printing master after rolling it under the printing press and seeing the reversed image.
You! Can you tell us about your recent work?
FM: Some of my more recent work includes installations that I have constructed using printmaking. Because my work is architectural, the large scale I have been able to achieve through this medium excites me, as it allows me to layer different ideas and engage in multimedia and conceptual explorations in my studio.