Profile — 23 Nov 2018
Though trained as a sculptor, Basir Mahmood moved to working with lens-based media after embracing it as a more immediate mode of expression. Through his film, video, and photographic work, Mahmood focuses on objects, subjects, and phenomena that are brushed aside or overlooked as ordinary. For his 2016 video Monument of Arrival and Return, the artist employed a production company in his home country of Pakistan to film a group of porters who work at the Lahore railway station. These men, who have been called “coolies” since the era of British colonial rule, are easily recognizable on account of their bright orange uniforms.
Working from Amsterdam, Mahmood sent the film crew a collection of sketches and instructions on how to direct the performers, and eventually received a package of footage in return. Though he decided not to take an active role in film’s production, the artist, who also has experience in theater, saw himself as its dramaturge. By creating a context in which participants were encouraged to engage with one another and improvise with the artist’s personal belongings, Mahmood experiments with giving up a degree of control over his work.
The film opens with porters haphazardly moving through an undefined interior with concrete walls and rectangular doorways. By placing the men in a seemingly neutral space, Mahmood removes them from the social context in which they conduct their business. In subsequent shots, a fixed camera portrays individual porters standing motionlessly and staring into the distance while bathed in a luminous side light that recalls Golden Age portraiture. By slowing down the men’s movements, Mahmood allows the objects they carry to become a central focus of the film, on an equal plane with the porters.
Though they handle valuable personal goods, the porters—who are identified by numbers stitched onto the back of their uniforms—often remain invisible intermediaries in the eyes of their customers. For many of them, the film marks their first experience of being on camera, and Mahmood depicts this process of discovery by including the first takes of most scenes. The artist embraces the chance elements that appear in the footage, such as sweat dripping off the porters’ faces and flies buzzing around them.
Mahmood considers art an unbounded manner of living, and is wary of being tied to a studio in a particular locale. With Monument of Arrival and Return, Mahmood proposes a new model for artmaking from afar, made possible by increased mobility and rapid communication. However, this mode of production notably contrasts with the daily reality of his subjects, who work in poor conditions that have barely changed in the last hundred years. Mahmood acknowledges that while the porters are constantly in transit from one place to another, they remain “persons who move but do not go,” continually arriving and returning again.
About the artist
Basir Mahmood (1985, Pakistan) studied at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore and received a yearlong fellowship from Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart in 2011. From 2016-2017, he was an artist-in-residence at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. His work has been shown at venues including Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, East Lansing; the Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; and at the Sharjah Biennial, the Yinchuan Biennial, and the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art.