Umber Majeed: In the Name of Hypersurface of the Presentby Julie Nelson
RUBBER FACTORY | OCTOBER 17 – NOVEMBER 11, 2018
In her show at the Rubber Factory, In the Name of Hypersurface of the Present, Umber Majeed employs a deft mixture of sly humor and wry critique to imagine a revisionist, feminist version of Pakistan’s development as a nuclear power. Her works in various media engage with the tangle of interrelated ideologies buttressing patriarchal power in Pakistan, as viewed through the specific lens of her chosen subject: the religiously-fueled history of Pakistan’s nuclear nationalism. Majeed was born in 1989 in New York, completed her undergraduate degree in Lahore, Pakistan, and then earned her MFA back in New York at Parsons in 2016. Having lived in both cultures, she uses this double consciousness to deploy an astute, insider-outsider point of view in her work.
The exhibition includes works on paper and one sculpture, however, Majeed’s three animations are the most riveting pieces in the show: Hypersurface of the Present and two chapters of her multipart series, Atomi Daamaki Wali Mohabbat (The Atomically Explosive Love). Each of the videos presented has the same structural form: a series of lo-fi, animated vignettes collaged from archival photographs and video, pseudo-scientific diagrams, advertising, and pop culture images, among other sources. The audio component of the videos is similarly collaged: the resonant voice of a singsong female narrator contrasts with passages of text read aloud by a monotone computer-generated, text-to-speech male voice—robotic in its lack of affect and comic in its occasional mispronunciations. Short sections of lively, entrancingly rhythmic tabla drums break up and punctuate the spoken word segments.
Though there is no linear narrative, the snippets of content loosely cohere to underscore and interrogate ideological commonalities and shared agendas between the state, science, religion and popular culture in Pakistan. To bring her big, unwieldy subject of nuclear nationalism down to size, and in order to guide us (albeit, obliquely) into the subject, Majeed has invented a character whose voice-overs provide another layer of context for the imagery in the videos. Described by the artist as a “fictional, populist, Urdu poet-narrator,” this character personifies the religio-cultural ideologies being scrutinized, and spouts idealized sentiments (that also have a creepy, cultish undercurrent) about the interrelationship between nature, science, the state, the people, and the divine.
Visual motifs recur among all three videos, linking them thematically as chapters in the overall project; but it takes repeated viewings to begin connecting the conceptual dots between them all since references are dense, and too fleeting to decipher in a single run-through. To mention a few major motifs: first, a divine green light (consistent with the green of the Pakistani flag) is woven throughout as a sort of nature-based, spiritually potent life-force that’s both benevolent and destructive. The narrator posits vague, unsubstantiated statements as self-evident facts, using uncited sources to support the power of “the green.” For example: “Compared to others, people who wear green clothes can quickly understand the feelings of other people. For this reason, people who wear green clothes make good psychologists.” Pseudo-scientific schematics of plant biology and human anatomy are also enlisted to illustrate how green light therapy can supposedly restore balance to the body and “generate loyalty.”
In Majeed’s constructed, animated world, the green light represents spiritual illumination, but in a sinister twist, the narrator also links it explicitly to the blinding energy and light released during a nuclear blast, asserting, “Our retinas are searching for his [God’s] green through the blast.” The suspect nature of these fevered pronouncements is made abundantly apparent by Majeed’s knowing tone, which conveys her disdain for actual Pakistani propaganda that seeks to link nuclear proliferation to nature or divinity.
Majeed’s second repeated motif makes an analogy between the blooming of flowers, and the booming of a nuclear blast. The bloom and the boom are praised by the poet-narrator as conceptually similar—both equally natural, beautiful, and divinely-ordained. (The words “bloom” and “boom” are repeated to reinforce the connection between motifs.) This excerpt from the narrator’s poem makes the connections clear: “The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission reminds us of our mission… The planting of the plants to bring the energy, light to the people… O the planting of the nuclear plant to the bodies emulating the synthesizing light… From the bloom comes the boom… From the boom comes the bloom.” To round out the parade of floral associations, Majeed includes kitschy floral pop culture imagery as a background in one scene, while another shows rose petals falling, like snow, over footage of a nuclear blast and a third scene features an archival snapshot of the artist’s grandfather holding a framed, amateur naturalist photograph of a flower he presumably took himself.
The third major motif running through the animation series is Chaghi Monument Hill, the military monument erected by the state to commemorate—and enthusiastically celebrate—the site of Pakistan’s first successful underground nuclear blast in a remote, mountainous region in 1998. The monument itself is a miniaturized, scaled-down sculptural version that echoes Chaghi Hill’s contours. For Majeed, the structure of the Chaghi Monument Hill condenses the complexities of religious, state, and scientific ideologies into one compact, comprehensive signifier. Each year on May 28th, Pakistan celebrates a national holiday called Youm-e-Takbeer (“The Day of God’s Greatness”), in commemoration of Pakistan’s becoming the seventh nuclear power—and the first Muslim one. During male-dominated Youm-e-Takbeer celebrations, men gather at the roughly twenty-foot-high replica and climb up onto it like children on a jungle gym. In pictures of past celebrations, the monument is seen festooned with balloons and draped with colorful banners, as if it were an inanimate saint.
Layered over these images, Majeed’s fictional poet intones phrases such as “Chaghi, the symbol of the people. Chaghi, the symbol of the devotees of God.” The poet’s voice liberates Chaghi from being merely a geographic site or a monument to scientific achievement, and elevates it to a unifying, inspirational, religious populist abstraction, unbound by time or space. Chaghi (the symbol of technological nuclear power) is linked back to, and fused with, the previously mentioned spiritual green light. Religion and science unabashedly share an agenda: “Let the green light from the blast shine upon us… It is present within the screen, the believer’s body, and our pure land. It runs through the physical to the abstract, and vice versa.”
Images consistent with those in the videos hang as prints on the gallery walls, revisiting the motifs mentioned above. They resemble flyer advertisements for the animations, and, through no fault of their own, lack the power of their moving-image and sound versions The single sculpture on display refers back to a short segment in one of the videos. It depicts the lower half of a female body, one leg missing, emerging from a 3D topographical rendering of green hills (presumably those around Chaghi itself). In the video, the schematic landscape is rotated, swells upward, and morphs into the one-legged dismembered female body. The sequence suggests that the female body politic, conflated with the curvaceous, “feminine” hills of Pakistani land, has been blasted and debilitated by a patriarchal nuclear agenda, just as Chaghi Hill was by the blast in 1998.
Though it requires some time and dedicated attention, deciphering Majeed’s project is very much worth the investment. It is a smart and cheeky exposé of the mechanisms by which the ideologies of religiosity, nationalism, science, and culture blend and blur into entangled systems of belief—and are reified into a nexus of inherited notions that ultimately limits freedom of thought.
JULIE NELSON is an artist and writer based in New York.