The Immigrant Artist Biennial, In Dialogue

Sanié Bokhari and Umber Majeed Discuss the Forbidden

Sanié Bokhari. It’s 11.49 pm here, 2022. 36 x 48 in. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

As part of The Immigrant Artists Biennial: Contact Zone, Sanié Bokhari, and Umber Majeed present their work in the Enmeshed: Dreams of Water group exhibition. As artists of Pakistani descent currently residing in the US, both Bokhari and Majeed tap into the changing landscape of globalization and the unstable experience of international migrants’ identity formation. Evoking water as a symbol of fluidity and change, Bokhari’s painting and Majeed’s video deploy a metaphoric framing that is beautiful and complex. In this conversation with Jenny Wang, they critically reflect on the geopolitics of belonging and identity.

How do you engage with the forbidden in your work?

SB: From my perspective, encountering the forbidden seems almost inevitable for every Pakistani. This is a tendency woven into the cultural fabric, which, I believe, largely stems from ultra-fundamentalist religious notions. Within my creative process, I strive to depict realities exactly as they were and are, only to be complicated by additional dimensions: a shroud of silence, a veneer of concealment, and a stratum of leading a dual existence.

Frequently, I introduce doppelgängers of myself in my paintings, symbolizing the different facets of my identity: on the one hand, I present “the proper me” to society and my parents; on the other hand, there’s another facet of me that struggles to align with these societal norms.

UM: As an interdisciplinary artist, I use subversive fiction and body politics to highlight the narratives outside of the patriarchal nation-state. What is considered forbidden for one may be socially emancipating for others.

As participating artists of The Immigrant Artist Biennial, both of you are part of the group exhibition Enmeshed, Dreams of Water. What is the significance of water in your work?

SB: For me, water symbolizes transition, offering a fluid passage that connects cultures, countries, and locales. It consistently emerges within my creative expressions as a vortex or a realm devoid of boundaries and limitations. Water embodies the boundless expanse of the ocean, unclaimed by any nation or individual. It serves as both a sanctuary and a conduit for movement to distant realms—a poignant emblem of migration. It encapsulates the essence of an intermediary domain, deeply entwined with the diasporic experience.

Contemplating my journeys in Lahore and New York City, I envision amalgamating these different experiences on a canvas or in a thematic series. The presence of water in my work is rooted in the notion that while you may not firmly belong anywhere, you can still feel a profound sense of connection to multiple places simultaneously.

UM: In my video, Body of Water (2023), water is presented as a nostalgic dream that the performers enact through their movements and placements. The stock image of water, retrieved online, is so blue that it’s almost unreal. The illusion of swimming, enacted by performers of different generations, shows how these generations can uphold one singular vision.

Umber Majeed. Body of Water, 2015. Single-channel animation. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

What are your feelings toward your Pakistani identity? In what ways are you Pakistani? In what ways do you deviate from this identity, if at all? When does the notion of Pakistani identity become important?

UM: As a child of immigrants, I am a Pakistani-American and studied in Pakistan during my formative years. I have witnessed how people grapple with the idea of homeland through my family lineage, immigrant parents in America, and my complex first-hand experience as an art student for about eight years. I come from a family lineage that was part of the Muslim League, the party that founded what we call Pakistan today. Through my work, there is a renegotiation of how community building happens beyond nation-states and patriarchy.

SB: Pakistan is my birthplace. It’s where I was raised and my parents and siblings still reside. This strong connection binds me closely to it, and at times, I wish I could effortlessly bring my family members together with a simple snap of my fingers. Therefore, Pakistan is, and always will be, my cherished home.

I hold a deep affection for the genuine warmth, hospitality, strong community bonds, and the profound sense of belonging ingrained within my culture. I aspire to safeguard these qualities, even as I live in the US, where the fast-paced capitalist society often emphasizes individualism. My time here has, however, also empowered me with a sense of agency and an unrelenting drive to overcome challenges, thus driving my personal growth. My sense of self lies within this dichotomy, intertwined with the crucial contemplation of identity.

Amid all these thoughts, the ever-changing political atmosphere in Pakistan adds another layer of complexity to how I understand the idea of belonging. Sitting halfway across the world, there are times when a feeling of hopelessness seeps into my perception of home. The constant censorship that hangs over various creative outlets—be it movies or even social media—feels like a burden on my shoulders as I navigate the complexities of who I am.

Before moving to the United States, these lingering questions were part of my everyday thinking. Mainly, I grappled with my place as a woman within Pakistan’s intricate societal web, shaped by the interplay of cultural norms and the political landscape. However, my move to the US intensified the complexity of these inquiries. It led me on a journey that delved into various dimensions, exploring the subtleties of my womanhood from a Pakistani viewpoint and the intricate facets of my identity as someone starting anew in a different land.

About the writer: Xuezhu Jenny Wang is a Chinese writer and translator specializing in postwar and contemporary visual culture and design. Currently, she is working on a research project that focuses on mid-century interior design and mechanization. Wang has previously served as copy editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator, editor of the Columbia Undergraduate Journal of Art History, and producer of The Conversation Art Podcast. Her art criticism has been published in ArteFuse, Art Spiel, and Cultbytes. She has held project-based positions at Barro, Aicon Gallery, and Cai Studio and is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in History and Theory of Architecture at Columbia University.

Sanié Bokhari and Umber Majeed are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Find the full program here

For more information about the 2023 edition of the Immigrant Artist Biennial: Contact Zone, please find the program here. Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this review series is published as part of TIAB’s writer’s residency generously supported by Lesley Bodzy Studio and Fraser Birrell Grier, Esq.