Post by Evelyn Owen
What does it feel like to be an artist who is also a migrant? How can portraiture enable artists to explore issues of migration and belonging? And what kind of art-making can successfully untangle webs of documentation and bureaucracy, and reassemble them into something new?
Visual artist Tahir Karmali has placed these questions at the center of his creative work, both in his native Kenya and in the United States. Born in Nairobi to parents of Indian and Seychellois ancestry, Karmali has always been interested in the ways that contemporary identities are shaped by economic, geopolitical, and social systems.
His first major project, Jua Kali, hailed the workers in Nairobi’s vast informal economy through collaged photographic portraits that are by turns heroic, futuristic, and surreal. The series was first exhibited in Nairobi in 2014 before traveling internationally, stopping off in Brooklyn last year, and earned him attention online.
Karmali moved to New York City in 2014 to pursue his Masters of Digital Photography at SVA. Since then he’s been developing his practice across media including photography, video, sculpture, and performance. We caught up with him during his recent Visiting Artist Residency at Trestle Gallery in Brooklyn to find out more.
The Africa Center: One of the first projects you made in New York is the photographic portrait series Displaced. Can you tell us about this series?
Tahir Karmali: Displaced is a series of portraits of people who have migrated here from other places, often for economic reasons. Most of the people that I interviewed and photographed moved here primarily for jobs. They came into the United States with an H1B visa, or as students, to better themselves or contribute to the economy. And I came to New York City to study for my masters, for betterment. So that’s why I decided to do this series. I wanted to photograph other people who are having a similar experience to mine.
What ideas or moods were you aiming to explore?
I wanted to bring a sense of otherworldliness to the photographs—a separation of the place and space from the person, and the feeling of this weird in-between. An undefined place of belonging and not belonging. And that’s where the plastic comes in.
More specifically, I wanted to play on the style of photography called the “environmental portrait.” An example would be a photograph of a person in their studio, which reveals how they are connected to the space. And all of the objects in the space mean certain things. I wanted to disrupt this process by adding the plastic.
How did you go about making these photographs?
It would take a few hours to set up. I’d most likely go to the person’s home in the morning, around 10am, so that I could work with natural light. I’d sit down and have tea with them. Each person has a different way of managing the house, with different rituals. And then we’d decide on the location to put the plastic up.
I asked them a lot of questions about why they are in the United States, which are questions that I personally receive on day-to-day basis: “Why do you speak English so well?” and so on. I was trying to get information as a way of self-exploration, but also to comment on what it feels like to move to a new country. There’s a feeling that you are in this place, but that at any moment you might be wrapped up, and packed up and taken away.
The process seemed very ritualistic to me, because I’d go with all this plastic and equipment, like a masseuse packing up their chair and taking it to somebody. It was almost performative. I realized from taking these photographs that I was more interested in making the set-up and performing the ritual, and less interested in recording it and photographing it.
How did your practice develop from this series into your current, ongoing project, PAPER:work?
I started to think about what really made me happy in my practice. A lot of my work is a commentary on material, how materials are used, and my relationship to the material.
At the same time, I was applying for my O-1 visa. I was having to justify myself, both as an artist and just as who I am, to the American government. I had to submit a 700-page document. It’s a lot of paper that you have to deal with. And I was having very long conversations about it! Coming from Kenya and living in the United States, there are a lot of conversations about my race. I have to go through this entire explanation of the history of Kenyan Indians since the 1800s, and explain that my mother is from the Seychelles.
I was also talking with my father about what it’s like to justify my own identification within my own country, Kenya, and then furthermore, justify my identification here in the US. And a lot of it is governed by paper, and records, and filing.
I received all these documents from my family, showing how the definition of our identity in Kenya was constantly changing. Initially it was very race-based, with descriptions of skin and eye color, but as photographs became clearer, you’d see fewer of these descriptors written on the paper.
So I realized that identity is a lot about the processing of paper. I thought about how I could develop a practice that is based on this ritual. Then I started making sheets of paper.
Can you describe the process of making paper?
I start with sheets of paper, documents and pieces of maps and things. I photocopy them, and rip them up and put them through a blender to make a kind of pulp.
The pulp goes in a tray of water, with an aluminum screen. I mix it, and then I pull the screen out. And then I let the paper hang, and it drips and dries. That takes a day, not too long.
I try to make five to ten sheets of paper per day. Sometimes I add elements of rust and materials or embed photographs that reference the uniqueness of each person, or each document, in the way that legal documents show their uniqueness with foiling or paper inlays. I apply these practices to each piece of paper to make 700 unique sheets of paper, that I file away.
PAPER:work is all one work: the papers, the filing systems, the meshes, the performance, and the video. It’s a large collection—a whole train of thought that is my foray into paper!
It sounds like a very therapeutic, ritualized process, much like your earlier work in Displaced.
Yes, it’s definitely continued this idea of ritual. Every time I feel stressed out, or I feel I’m in a desperate situation, or I need some level of grounding, I make my daily five sheets of paper.
In PAPER:work I was trying to reinvent my relationship to paper. There are many ways that I could have approached a project like this, which is about a very serious topic. But my visual output is often very pretty and light. I use a lot of white and pink—all these colors which you see in the documents and the paper itself. So the paper in itself as a material is not an oppressive material. It’s just been used a lot for oppression. So changing how I look at the material is really important in understanding the material.
Is PAPER:work continuing to develop? And will it ever be complete?
The sheets of paper were satisfying to make as a daily ritual, but the visual aspect of it didn’t feel all that satisfying. The more satisfying part was actually pulling the sheets of paper out and performing the filtration. So the work evolved to this stage of showing the process of papermaking, and really looking at the filtration aspect of the paper. The aluminum screens have now become part of the work.
I don’t think I’m going to stop doing PAPER:work at the moment. For as long as I’m in the United States, I feel that I’ll consistently do this work, as practice. It’s one thing to execute a project that has a concept and an idea and a series of things that I want to produce—it has a very “design,” object-making feel to it. Whereas PAPER:work is art practice. It’s this exploration, and it’s very cathartic.