ABDULLAH MI SYED, The Flying Rug of Drones, 2009–15, box-cutter knife blades and stainless steel, dimensions variable. Photo by and courtesy Shellie Zhang. 

Beyond Measure: Domesticating Distance

Robert McLaughlin Gallery
Canada Pakistan Bangladesh

Tucked away in Oshawa, Ontario, the Robert McLaughlin Gallery (RMG), in collaboration with SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) presented “Beyond Measure: Domesticating Distance,” an exhibition of five contemporary South Asian artists who examine the voids and brims that entail the life of a diaspora. Oshawa’s predominately white demographic and geography ultimately provided a backdrop that amplified the show’s themes of displacement, migration and duality—and its vivid accounts of living in an in-between space—while making a strong statement on the need for diversity in the changing landscape of Canadian identity.

Two crowd pleasers that utilized a repetition of images were Abdullah MI Syed’s The Flying Rug of Drones (2009–15) and Tazeen Qayyum’s Infiltration (2015). Syed’s work takes the form of an oval-shaped mobile made from box-cutter blades crafted into minimalist drones. Referencing the weapons that were used by the hijackers of the 2001 Twin Tower attacks in New York, while assuming the form of military technology used in retaliation by the United States, the material and shape of the work creates a dialogue of the recent conflict between the Middle East and the West. A perfect rendition of juxtaposed motifs, The Flying Rug of Drones hung precariously close above viewers—as a testament of regional conflict fuelled by fear and violence—and invited those who dared to walk under its looming shadows.

In an unexpected response, the RMG’s carpeted floors elicited viewers to engage with Syed’s work by lying directly underneath it, allowing them to become more comfortable with the unsettling subject matter. Additionally, Syed stated in a panel discussion that children are frequently drawn to this piece due to its recognizable shape, demonstrating the dissemination of the drone in popular culture through video games, delivery services and other recreational forms. The simplistic construction and display of Syed’s drones resemble toy models, adding an innocent quality that conveys the modern, desensitized representation of war as a game—as evidenced in the mechanics of controlling unmanned drones, which is parallel to first person-shooter games. In The Flying Rug of Drones, Syed reinstates the drone’s image as a violent weapon, reminding onlookers of the real-world implications that his simulation draws from. Shifting from fantastical Orientalist stories involving flying carpets, and readdressing the drone as a tool for war, Syed’s rugs conjure the dark realities of Islamophobia and extremism in a post-9/11 world.

Tazeen Qayyum’s Infiltration (2015) features cockroaches, which are a reoccurring motif that is brilliantly executed every time it is reconfigured by the artist. Qayyum’s use of cockroaches initially began as an approach of looking at an entomological method of cataloging death. In the exhibition publication, Qayyum states that the cockroaches initially served as a metaphor for the many who died “like insects” in the “War on Terror.” Recently, her cockroaches have been reanimated. Once portrayed as motionless entities on display, now her cockroaches embody life in large quantities, creating mesmerizing patterns. At the RMG, Qayyum’s insects took on two forms—through a wall drawing and a sculpture of acrylic cutouts. The artist took something undesirable and infectious and repurposed it as a symbol of resilience, while reclaiming the insects from a pejorative concept. Qayyum’s cockroaches literally “take over” the spaces they occupy, acting as a metaphor of confronting notions of racial prejudice and racist fears. Moving past a state of displacement and mourning, Qayyum envisions the diaspora as claiming visibility, presence and solidarity. 

TAZEEN QAYYUM, Infiltration/Inflow (detail), 2015, laser-cut acrylic and paint, d: 12.5 × 240 cm. Photo by Faisal Anwar. Courtesy Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario. 

The process of diasporic communities altering their everyday rituals and codes is a continual search in creating and finding new hybrid cultural forms. Bangladesh-born artist Asma Sultana focuses on the difficult and sometimes traumatic process of assimilation. Located in a corner of the gallery is Sultana’s Wherever The Glimpse of a Free Spirit Exists That Will Be My Home (2015)The installation consists of a white petticoat, blouse and a sheet of fabric long enough for a sari, meticulously embroidered with the artist’s own long, dark stands of hair. As curator Ambereen Siddiqui describes, Sultana utilizes hair as a metaphor for her move from Bangladesh to London to Toronto. The artist describes how her hair thinned as she moved, becoming the physical manifestation of the loss she felt in leaving Dhaka. As a means to archive and mitigate the loss of her hair and home, she began collecting it and creating these autobiographical works. In Wherever The Glimpse of a Free Spirit Exists That Will Be My Home, sewing acts as a method of mediating loss, a process of reflection and a form of personal therapy. Sultana plays an active role as artist, performer and medium as she uses a component of her body as the tools to stitch her work together, the use of a needle acting as a therapeutic form of healing through its ability to unite and bring distinct entities together. In a wonderful transformation and act of repurposing, Sultana converts the hair that she once lost into something new, paying homage to her journey in an effort to regain what has slipped away.

ASMA SULTANAWherever The Glimpse of a Free Spirit Exists That Will Be My Home, 2015, white cloth and artist’s hair, dimensions variable. Photo by Kyle Burton. Courtesy Robert McLaughin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario. 

In tackling the subject of migration and displacement, “Beyond Measure” examined the emotional implications of transitional families. Looking at the effects of relocation through a pen-pal process, Surendra Lawoti and Meera Margaret Singh’s Of Light and Longing (2014–15) documents a photographic correspondence between the two artists over the course of a year. The work is displayed through two projected screens meeting at a perpendicular angle. As an image by Lawoti flashes, so does one by Singh. Unique to the other participants of “Beyond Measure,” the two artists focus largely on their loved ones and friends: Lawoti on his wife, who he is waiting to join him in Toronto; and Singh on her child, who she had just given birth to when their correspondence began. Displayed in a style similar to family slideshows, the photographs document the two artists’ feelings of loneliness and longing, as well as their intimate life moments. Of Light and Longing may be the most literal work in terms of portraying domestic space and distance, but also the most ambiguous. The subjects in these images are sporadic and range in location and layout; though, gradually, reoccurring faces can be made out. The work draws audiences in with a hint of personal history, while also distancing viewers with its highly subjective presentation. In this manner, the work allows for audiences to project memories of people from their own lives onto the detached and fictionalized characters on screen. Lawoti and Singh’s correspondence unites their individual experiences of living in a diaspora as a non-linear process with moments of stillness and unexpectedness.



MEERA MARGARET SINGH, Of Light and Longing #6, 2014–15, projections of photographs, video and text, dimensions variable. Courtesy Robert
McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario. 

Eschewing conventional strategies of portraying diversity by focusing on specific ethnic enclaves, “Beyond Measure” generated a more complex dialogue on what constitutes Canadian art, by focusing on how the exhibited artists negotiate their identities. The city of Oshawa provided an appropriate platform for the exhibition, which as Siddiqui states, challenge[d] ideas of locating oneself within displacement, the nuances of in-between spaces, and the search for the familiar." In defining the diaspora, “Beyond Measure” reached past definitions of identity politics in terms of people coming from a common ancestry, and instead focused on the future that they wish to build for themselves.

“Beyond Measure: Domesticating Distance” was on view at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario, until January 3, 2016.