Maryam Wahid is a British-Pakistani artist, who has been exploring her heritage and culture through photographs in her family album. Wahid’s academic background in art, photography and religious studies – alongside her fascination with cultural cognition and religious ideologies – have deeply influenced her work. Born and raised in the UK, Wahid's experience of her heritage has been through her community in Birmingham experiencing her culture as a second-generation Pakistani woman.
She’s currently developing Zebunnisa, a new work reimagining what life might have been like for Wahid, if her mother and her paternal grandfather hadn’t emigrated to the UK.
An emerging artist, Wahid has previously been commissioned by The Guardian, The Financial Times, Manchester Metropolitan University and The People’s Picture, amongst others. She was the winner of the British Journal of Photography’s 2018 Portrait of Britain award, and most recently the Format20 Reviewers Choice Award.
Autograph’s Curatorial Project Manager, Bindi Vora, spoke to Wahid about the power of family albums to unlock the past, and empower representation in the present.
Bindi Vora: Your practice is very much focused around the visual materials and stories told through your family album. As a second-generation Pakistani woman who has grown up Birmingham, how have these narratives resonated with you?
Maryam Wahid: My family settling in Birmingham, and me growing up in this metropolis, has influenced my work significantly. My grandfather migrated to West Midlands in 1965, where he worked in factories such as the Royal Mint manufacturing coins, vending machine tokens and proof medals. Eventually the rest of his family, including my father, migrated to the UK in 1967.
I never met my grandfather, but I was always fascinated by his story. As far as I know, at the time Pakistan was a new country formed during the partition in 1947, in which British India was divided into what we now know as the Republic of India, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. 10 - 12 million people were displaced across former British India in a short space of time, the region drastically suffered and the opportunity to work and sustain a living was extremely difficult. Although both my maternal and paternal grandparents migrated from Amritsar to Lahore – my maternal grandparents started a business and settled into life in Lahore, my paternal grandfather was displaced in Pakistan. This coincided with Britain welcoming labour from the South Asian diaspora to help rebuild it’s own economy, due to the hardships my grandfather faced in Pakistan he emigrated to the UK to sustain a living for his family.
I was never taught about migration in school and I never saw the Pakistani community represented in the Arts in Britain. The knowledge I had came from my family album and the community around me in Birmingham. I wanted to know more information about Pakistani migration to the UK, in particular to understand it from my own family history. I wanted to find out about all those people, women, places and stories that had been lost as a result of migration. Photographs allowed me to immediately connect with the individuals and places that were part of my history. Reflecting on my Grandfather’s journey to the UK, I feel it is so important to collect these narratives to create cultural understanding between various communities in Britain.
"I was never taught about migration in school and I never saw the Pakistani community represented in the Arts in Britain. The knowledge I had came from my family album and the community"
BV: Let’s go back to one of your first series Archives Locating Home (2018), in which you began to explore your heritage. The images are intriguing: each photograph is juxtaposed with a 1950s beige motif wallpaper, and you used a green tone to paint out the eyes of some of the individuals that appear in the pictures. I am curious to know why you chose to paint over aspects of these people?
MW: I have a special relationship with my family album and Archives Locating Home includes a few photographs from that archive. The photographs show a moment of post-empire, time and its effects, people and places, all of which have allowed a deeper understanding of my family history.
Obscuring the eyes is a way of expressing my relationship to certain individuals in the photographs. For instance, in this image my mother, her mother and her sister are depicted. I have obscured my aunt’s eyes as a way of protecting her privacy, my mother and my grandmother are the focus of my research.
Green features a lot in my works. If it isn’t in the tonality of the images, I like to capture green objects and nature, such as trees within my photographs. The colour green for me symbolises Pakistan, motherhood, my family tree and hope.
The photographs from this series are layered on top of the same wallpaper that featured in my parent’s bedroom after they got married in 1982. They lived in a joint family house and often their bedroom was the only the only place they could hang out in private and be away from the other members in the household. This wallpaper represents privacy, individuality and connects me instantly to the start of my parents’ journey and their life together, which has shaped me.
BV: Various bodies of your work speak to your relationship with your mother. You often use photographs of your mother as a way to cite her experiences of migration, her sacrifices, her guidance as a source of strength and courage - not just within your practice but also within your life.
MW: My mother has very few photographs of herself growing up, and nobody in my family had seen a portrait of her aged 15 until I discovered it in our family’s archive. Since I was 8 years old, my mother has beat cancer twice, and I feel like I have only really seen her get older and weaker, day by day. She’s now 57 and this photograph takes me back to a mum I never knew: one that wore flats, tied her hair a certain way, wore glass bangles and went to the studio with her family to have a photoshoot.
BV: Presentation and the way images sit with one another is an important part of the reading of your work. I am drawn to the fabrics, textures and papers that you use alongside the photographs. Why are these details important, especially for portraits featured as part of The Hijab (2018)? What do they represent for you when they’re placed together?
MW: Signs and symbols are crucial, they help to illustrate my projects’ narratives. In Women from The Pakistani Diaspora in England I used my mother’s saris and jewellery from the 1970s and 1980s to represent her identity, staging self-portraits in locations that resonated with that time period. I use similar materials, make up, styles and poses to convey my intentions to the audience.
I use clothing to represent my identity, using different prints, fabrics and styles. Also, as a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, I have over 90 coloured headscarves. Colour therefore was particularly important for me in The Hijab as it emphasised the diversity of women who choose to wear the hijab all over the world, expressing their own individuality.
When photographing that series, I specifically chose materials and styles that resonated with my models’ ethnic backgrounds. In Gambian Muslimah, the sitter (a Gambian-Muslim woman) brought her mother’s headscarf and styled it herself to represent her cultural identity within the understanding of hijab. Using exaggerated make-up, I wanted to emphasise the creativity of these Muslim women, and describe their identity and this hybrid culture that comes from living in the UK.
BV: As another layer, you then incorporate some of these elements into your installations. Your 2018 installation for the Inspired Festival at Birmingham City University featured some of these motifs, such as the wallpaper, and a particular style of frame. When you begin to think about merging some of these ideas, what are you trying to evoke?
MW: In this installation, I wanted to use the opportunity to share my mother’s story. I used ephemera such as the wallpaper to embed her story of pre and post migration: details from her marriage, children and her lifestyle. I also wanted to enable cultural understanding for people that encountered this story on migration for the first time, and for audiences whose own story may be similar to this.
It is important for me to connect with the South Asian community in Britain, I feel these personal stories of migration have shaped us. Through the images and textures of the installation I wanted to evoke feelings of nostalgia, and a greater understanding of the history of South Asians in Britain.
BV: It was wonderful to hear you speak about aspects of your practice and your journey into the arts at the first online Photo Café talk with Grain Photography Hub recently. Aspects of your interests, and route in photography, echoed my experiences too. Through Grain you have harnessed a variety of opportunities, how has this support been for you as a young artist?
MW: I received a Mentorship Award from Grain in 2018. This was shortly after I graduated from university and the opportunity hugely shaped my practice. Nicola Shipley, the Director of Grain, would spend a couple of hours with me every month: educating, facilitating and supporting my practice.
During my A-levels I studied photography, it was the first time I got to experiment and deconstruct my family album through art and photography. I created photomontages of my grandparents and parents, some of these evolved into my installations using ephemera layered with the images themselves.
At university, the course I took focused on documentary and commercial photography, and I was steered to think commercially about photography. I had no tutors or educators of colour, and as the only British-Pakistani student in my class, I always hesitated to explore my heritage through photography. It was only in my final year when visiting lecturer Kate Peters mentored me that I opened this dialogue about identity through my work again.
Grain laid out the foundation for me as an artist, helping me understand the world of photography. I was introduced to symposiums and events, the significance of collaboration and encouraged to look into photo festivals they felt related to my work. Nicola Shipley encouraged me to apply for opportunities that I was afraid of, such as talking about gender bias in photography at the National Photography Symposium at RedEye a few months after graduating. Through the mentorship and beyond, I gained confidence in myself and my practice, which I think is what was missing throughout my time at university. I feel motivated to learn more, and to continue practicing what I love the most – visual arts.
BV: During your talk, I was drawn to the series Women From The Pakistani Diaspora In England (2018), in which you restaged photographs of your mother when she was 18. As I understand, the original photographs were taken when she had just emigrated to the UK after getting married, and was experiencing a very different culture to her lifestyle in Lahore, Pakistan. What were you trying to imbue when you took this idea on?
MW: In this series, I wanted audiences to have a deeper understanding of the British-Pakistani community, and I was also very keen to represent my own identity. I grew up in the 2000s and went to an Islamic faith primary school that promoted multiculturalism and multi-faith ideas. Having this experience in childhood, I have always felt open to getting to know the diverse range of people who surround me.
Through my family album, I found out what life was like for first-generation Pakistanis in Britain and this was fascinating for me to see. I connected with my heritage, and when I would see photographs of women in my family, particularly my mother, I was intrigued to see the way she dressed and what their home looked like when she emigrated to England. The fashion in these images stood out to me, and the way the women in my family used their clothing to share an aspect of their identity. I realised how important these photographs were to me, they were a step closer to that moment I had never experienced.
My sisters and I have a large age gap (between 8 and 13 years), so growing up I saw multiple generations of Pakistani women through them. We had an experience of a freedom never really afforded to my mother in the same way – such as building a career or having a life beyond being married woman. The freedom to be independent and go against traditional norms within the Pakistani culture. This was inspirational for me, and I saw how far and quickly the women in my community were transitioning with this independence to educate and pursue careers.
When researching the Pakistani diaspora in England within museum and library collections, I have found a lack of information and representation about my community. In particular, the women were missing in these collections, which made me curious as to why they’ve seemingly been omitted from contemporary culture. I made it my own mission to trace my heritage, and have connected with many South Asian women across the world, and I aim to represent them in some way by framing my own identity in my work. This idea of representation really matters to me.
"It is important for me to connect with the South Asian community in Britain, I feel these personal stories of migration have shaped us"
BV: The cultural bias that surrounds gendered roles within the household - especially within South Asian cultures – have been prevalent for generations. Your practice isn’t just focused on your personal family history, there’s a greater sensibility about the universal experience of the community, particularly from the position of the matriarchal figures within their homes. Why was this important to you?
MW: There are many reasons why I focus on women’s stories. One of them is that as women we collect and pass down ‘treasures’: the culture, the language, the traditional clothing and jewellery, the ways of cooking. For South Asian women, we come from culturally rich and complex backgrounds and tend to pass on these traditions to our children. My mother, who was born in Lahore, has things from her mother, who was born in Amritsar, India. There is no doubt her mother had certain treasures that come from her mother who lived in Srinagar, Kashmir: such as our customs and appearance.
Growing up, I was taught my mother tongue, Urdu. I learned how to make South Asian food, as a way of instilling the culture of food to bond our communities together. Because traditional clothing, and these expressions of culture, are not performed on a day-to-day basis it gives us a great indication of how female identity has transitioned and is transitioning. I was interested in these values, as it taught me the importance of my heritage, and how they can be traced back to our motherlands. This is why I have chosen to focus on these ideas, in the hope people from other communities may also see themselves reflected in my work.
BV: In 2019, the British Council and Arts Council England jointly awarded you a grant as part of their Transforming Narratives initiative. The premise of the three-year project was to establish Birmingham as a leading cultural centre for contemporary Pakistani and Bangladeshi arts. This grant allowed you to visit Pakistan for the first time. There must have been a great sense of two very different cultural identities becoming entwined in one space. What was this journey like for you?
MW: There was certainly an excitement to visit Pakistan for the first time. As part of a Research and Development project for Transforming Narratives, I visited Lahore, Makli and Karachi, and decided to also meet family in Pakistan for the very first time. I developed a project called Zebunnisa, my mother’s name before she emigrated to the UK. The project was later supported by the Midlands Arts Centre, and reflects on what my alternate life would have looked like if my grandfather had not emigrated to Britain.
I had grown up hearing stories about our homeland from my mother, but I didn’t know what to expect. My mother came to Pakistan with me, it was my first time visiting Pakistan and for 24 years she had not been back to Pakistan. She was emotional and excited, as we navigated around the busy streets of Lahore and she would recall memories of her childhood. She also connected with some of her childhood friends who she had lost touch with, took me to her high school and the house she grew up in. More significantly, she was able to visit her parents’ graves for the first time.
When I arrived, I lacked an emotional connection with the country, in the sense that I didn’t feel as though it would or could be home. However, I had a very surreal feeling inside me the whole time. I never met my mother’s parents, but it was as though they were with me on this journey. I realised what I had longed for: the connection with my grandparents I never had the opportunity to experience first-hand. During my travels through Pakistan, I discovered stories and photographs of my grandmother and it was spectacular. There were so many similarities between my mother, her mother, my sisters and me – physically and in our personalities. I began to question extended family about my maternal grandmother, and found traits and behaviours which were prominent in both of us. I am very grateful to the British Council, Arts Council England, Transforming Narratives and all my partners in Pakistan and Birmingham for selecting me to embark this journey. Without their support, and the support of Midlands Arts Centre, I would not have been able to develop this project.
When I collect family images, they allow me reconnect and understand the people that I love. I observe their emotions, the structures of their faces, their body language, their clothing, their jewellery, so many other traits. My relationship with my grandparents has always been through photographs, and feeling their presence in Lahore was the journey that photography brought me to.
This interview follows Maryam Wahid’s presentation at the first virtual Photo Café event programmed by Grain Photography Hub. Both the presentation and interview coincide with Wahid’s participation in South Asian Heritage Month. The festival commemorates, marks and celebrates South Asian cultures and histories - particularly the intertwined histories of the UK and South Asian communities throughout the UK.
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