Earlier this year I was fortunate to visit part of a nation-wide touring exhibition entitled Changing Places, presented by Film and Video Umbrella UK and curated by Mariam Zulfiqar. The exhibition excited me as it enabled me to connect with sites of English national heritage in new ways, by drawing out multicultural narratives that resonate with my own cultural background.
Changing Places aimed to highlight the multicultural histories of different British national heritage sites. At these locations, six artists, who have relationships with Bangladesh, India or Pakistan, created site-specific, moving-image installations that explored the different impact of industrialisation and globalisation in South Asia and Britain.
I visited one of the touring exhibitions located at Osterley Park and House. The red brick mansion located in West London is known for its grandiose collections of objects and furnishings which were acquired from the Child family. I was intrigued to find out the connections between the heritage site and South Asia. Through research, I had found out that three generations of the Child family were known to sit on the board of the East India Company , however did not ever visit the country. It surprised me to learn that the site had international relationships with such countries. This led me to perceive English heritage in a new light. I now personally felt that my own cultural identity was deeply rooted within the house and its international history.
The artworks at Osterley House created a unique ambience by presenting alternative narratives about the movement of objects and people across places during the time of industrialisation.
For example, Imran Channa explored themes of timelessness and social movement, in his installation Dust to Dust. His artwork presented a collection of phials containing samples of dust and soil from Osterley House and other participating heritage sites. The display created a sense of displacement which establishes connections between the changing experiences of the site. I found Channa’s work to also deliver a sense of cultural movement between people who have moved from international countries to England. The materiality of the artwork allowed me to reflect on how people of today may also feel quite displaced after migrating to England and having to situate themselves with their multicultural backgrounds.
In the following rooms artist Bani Abidi presented a six-screen video installation Funland. Each video expresses the tensions brought about by social, political and industrial change in Karachi. One video shows a library undergoing extreme censorship – a figure is seen taking out books and storing them away – suggesting that these resources may be hidden due to political repression. Another video shows a figure staring out to sea. The figure stares into the open horizon, suggesting how one might locate themselves in complex situations of continuous change. Abidi’s work draws out international tensions which in one way could mirror what is happening in Britain and the rest of the world. The film installations evoke this continuous message of change which made me reflect on my own grandmother’s life of working with women in the trade industry in India and migrating to Britain to work in cloth factories in Kent.
Finally, the Desire Machine Collective presented Residue, a film piece installed in the eighteenth-century wine cellar at Osterley Showing an abandoned power station in India, the film evokes themes of loss, preservation and regeneration. It shows a place, once of value, which has now been neglected, left for the world to demolish or regenerate as a new kind of place.
Overall, Changing Places has allowed me to look at Osterley’s English heritage in alternative ways. The exhibition had allowed me to connect with international narratives shown from the artist’s artworks which share close parallels to my own cultural background and heritage. Changing Places provided a platform to voice diverse stories about industrialisation within a national heritage site, and had brought me close to home in a heritage place which I was originally quite distant from.
Interview with Mariam Zulfiqar
Following up from my visit to Osterley Park and House, I was fortunate to meet the curator of the Changing Places national touring exhibition, Mariam Zulfiqar. Mariam is currently the Deputy Director and Chief Curator at UP Projects. Mariam’s diverse curatorial interests revolve around art in the public domain, cultural policy, interdisciplinary collaboration and the history of ideas.
As a student researcher on the Bradford’s National Museum Project I was curious to know how Mariam developed her ideas for the Changing Places intervention at Osterley House and Park National Trust site. Subjects of place, connection and identity were unfolded as I asked the curator questions about working with international artists, the importance of diversifying historical narratives at national heritage sites and the role of the object playing in tandem with issues of industrialisation and political issues such as migration.
Harpreet Sandher: How did Changing Places take place and what were your main interests on the project?
Mariam Zulfiqar: When Film and Video Umbrella approached me about the potential of writing a proposal that would culminate in the 70th anniversary of Indian Independence, I was very keen to explore alternative stories. I knew that there would be plenty of material at this time that would explore the British Raj coming to an end and the birth of India, but I was interested in looking at this complex story from an alternative perspective.
I was also sure that at this moment, when Indian Independence was going to be ‘celebrated’, we must widen the lens and include the two countries that came out of that land mass, Bangladesh and Pakistan. I didn’t want to look directly at the story of partition, this was an opportunity to look at some alternative ways in which we can start to comprehend and understand that moment. I wanted to look at this idea of a continuous process that’s going on rather than situating something that’s a beginning and an end.
HS: How did you choose the artists for the locations of the heritage sites and how did the National Trust get on board?
MZ: I started researching artists who I felt were interesting through studio visits and it was Film and Video Umbrella who suggested the potential of it being a touring show in Britain. I felt it was a strong way of taking this story to various locations. From there because of my interest in site specificity, I was intrigued by the different places we could go to map out these alternative narratives. The National Trust and Canal and River Trust were interested in partnering as were Bradford City Council, Hastings Museum and Art Gallery and Phoenix in Leicester. Through the artworks that I was interested in, I began developing an overarching premise and industrialisation was a fitting springboard for opening up this conversation.
HS: Narratives in such artworks like Bani Abidi’s Funland at Osterley House and The Distance from Here at Phoenix respond to similar political issues occurring, or that have occurred, in Britain and overseas, such as censorship and migration. I feel this work plays out more than just the impact of industrialisation, could you expand on what this signifies?
MZ: What Bani Abidi is showing in Funland are the contemporary tensions happening in Karachi today, the cinema is being burnt down… the library is in the middle of hiding its books – a self-censorship, this is social change with political catalysts and implications happening in front of us. This work for me is about how more recently developed industrial societies reconcile their contemporary reality with their traditions and previous ways of being.
Bani Abidi’s other work, The Distance from Here is about the bureaucracy that governs migration. In our current political and economic climate, the free movement of objects is sometimes easier, and encouraged more, than the free movement of people. Again, its brings into focus contemporary challenges faced by people across the world, especially those living in rapidly industrialising societies.
I thought this was an interesting point to be looking back at the history and trajectory that has given rise to free movement of objects, yet we are so behind in the thinking of the movement of people.
At Osterley House the role that the object plays is very different to other sites involved in the project. In this space, the object historically signalled aspiration, class and shows how what was happening in the factories in this exhibition started to impact society and alter behaviours.
HS: This also shares parallels to how museums are today shaping narratives through the very role of the object.
MZ: Changing Places highlights, in some of the tour locations, the role that objects have played in shaping society. By having in the tour both private houses now in the care of the National Trust, alongside institutions such as museum and art galleries, the exhibition invites a reflection on the connections between the contents of once private homes and the contents of intuitions. The discussion about migration and the right to movement, that is present in some of the artworks of course poses a broader question about where the debates about this topic are currently taking place.
HS: How have audiences and tour venues responded to the Changing Places interventions?
MZ: Some members of the audience have expressed that the show has given them an opportunity to reflect on the international nature of a site that otherwise feels very local, given that it is in their hometown. Some people have said that they never considered that their town had this invisible international history. Some people have asked why this show is relevant to the site, while others have said that I have reminded them of something their parent or grandparent once told them about the site.
It is great that the venues we have worked with are supporting this process of re-examining historical significance. For me, the international perspective has been vital, and so far, the feedback I have had has supported a need for this. The history of India was not taught to me at school here, and I am sure I am not alone in wanting to know more about what happened when Britain went to and then left South Asia.
For more information on Changing Places please visit: http://www.fvu.co.uk/projects/fvu-touring-exhibition-changing-places
The featured image is a still from Bani Abidi’s six screen video installation, ‘Funland’, 2014
Researcher and Participatory Engager, currently studying for an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Leeds.