At Southern Exposure, the Ghosts of Myths and Memories Live on in Virtual Space

Arshia Fatima Haq, 'The Second Coming of Fatima,' 2019; installation with gypsum, gold leaf, velvet, powdered mica and dirt. (Courtesy the artist and Southern Exposure)

The first sound you hear when you enter Southern Exposure’s Where do you want ghosts to reside? is slow but steady dripping, a watery metronome calibrating the audience for the reality that awaits. Curated by multimedia artists Azin Seraj and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the show and corresponding performance thrust viewers into myths and memories as interpreted by six artists from South Asian, Southwest Asian and North African diasporas. The common thread of the show is the Muslim world—though it’s a loose thread, mapped virtually across Egypt, Pakistan, India and Iran, all countries of origin or significance to the participating artists.

Inside the dark and cavernous gallery, Morehshin Allahyari, Anum Awan, Arshia Fatima Haq and Umber Majeed’s pieces flicker and chatter, inviting attention and interaction to their respective corners. Awan’s corner offers a gamified interactive video installation from Pakistan Television Network’s archives. Steps away, Majeed lays out a mathematical feminist speculative imagining of Pakistan’s nuclear force. At the same time, Allahyari’s 3D-modelled jinns absorb current political and personal disruptions into their force fields.

Umber Majeed, 'Untitled,' 2019–20; digital publication interactive installation. (Courtesy the artist and Southern Exposure)

Notably, the curators made a deliberate choice to minimally contextualize the show. There’s no extensive writing on the wall about each country’s geo-political history or relationship to the United States’ current administration. (For the latter, one need only follow the news generated by this country’s mercurial president.) Instead, gallery-goers are thrust inside thousand-year-old myths about Islamic spiritual figures and the artists’ modern interpretations of them. It’s an approach that reframes where a story can start, instead of centering itself on the knowledge, or lack thereof, of American audiences.

The title of the show, Where do you want ghosts to reside?, is borrowed from the first stanza of Lebanese poet and artist Etel Adnan’s short and explosive war elegy, “XLIV” from The Arab Apocalypse. Adnan’s poem speaks of a scattered diaspora whose fate is precarious. The exhibition’s answer to the poem’s question appears to be, in part, a borderless digital space. The heavy use of technological mediums in the show is evidence of how virtual space serves as a safe host for cultural artifacts and memories. Virtual space circumvents geographical borders that have proven dangerous; it encompasses ideas of home that are too slippery to hold.

Anum Awan, 'PTV,' 2020; interactive video installation. (Courtesy the artist and Southern Exposure)

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The evening of Feb. 7 at CounterPulse, Seraj and Bhutto introduced Breaching Towards Other Futures, a performance extension of the exhibition. Featuring Allahyari and Shirin Fahimi, the performance expanded on Aisha Qandisha, a female jinn the former artist introduced at Southern Exposure through a short film. Aisha, one of the most honored and fearsome jinn, is known as “the opener.” She doesn’t take over her hosts but rather opens them up to “an outside storm of incoming jinn and demons; making them a traffic zone of cosmodromic data.”

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Denied entry into the United States just days ahead of the show, Fahimi took the CounterPulse stage via Skype from a gallery in Toronto. The Iranian-Canadian citizen had previously traveled without issue to the U.S. but ahead of her collaboration with Allahyari, U.S. immigration officials in Toronto barred her from boarding her plane. Projected on a fluttering sheet along the back of the stage, she performed the piece in coordination with Allahyari; Seraj stepped in as her physical proxy. The audience’s eyes followed the seamless flow between the three performers: Seraj’s cues and Fahimi’s reactions both underscored Allahyari’s narration. “Catastrophe is political and uneven,” read Allahyari. “Survival is then similarly political and uneven.”

Back in the gallery, that pace-setting metronomic drip comes from Haq’s video installation, made in collaboration with Los Angeles artist Cassils. In the video, Haq gilds a melting ice sculpture of the Buraq, a winged Islamic figure symbolizing physical and spiritual journeys. Haq’s attempt to preserve, and understand, a dissolving form speaks to the millennia-deep examinations threaded throughout Where do you want ghosts to reside? With new technologies—and despite shifting political ground—the artists extend the lives of the ghosts who inhabit myths.

'Where do you want ghosts to reside?' is on view at Southern Exposure through March 14, 2020. Details here.