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Art amidst chaos: Imaad Majeed on ‘On(line) Healing’

By Chenelle Fernando

In the wake of the unfortunate COVID-19 outbreak, Art Dubai, a leading international art fair, was required to postpone its event this year, similar to every other major event which was scheduled during this time of the year. The event which was to feature an onsite and online programme nevertheless succeeded with the latter with its online exhibit titled “On(line) Healing”, curated by Marina Fokidis. 

The Sunday Morning Brunch was intrigued to find out that this year’s online event also features the creation of a poet and performance artist based in Colombo – none other than Imaad Majeed. Where performance art is concerned, Majeed ventures into identity, language, late-stage capitalism, commodity fetishism, sacred space, xenophobia, and ethnoreligious conflict and healing. Having garnered most exposure whilst embarking upon their journey as a journalist nearing 10 years, Majeed currently works as the Social Media Manager at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka.

On 23 March, Art Dubai opened its digitally modified event, dissecting the usual virtual viewing room experience into three components: an online catalogue of over 500 artworks, a global art forum live-broadcast, and an online performance programme  — On(line) Healing — curated by Athens-based Marina Fokidis. The selected artists who performed were Bahar Noorizadeh (Iran), Angelo Plessas (Greece), Tabita Rezaire (French Guiana), Tiago Sant’Ana (Brazil), and Imaad Majeed (Sri Lanka). 

“REVERY” (2016), conceptual poetry installation, exhibited at Colomboscope: Testing Grounds, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. PHOTO: Ruvin de Silva



We caught up with Majeed for a chat. 

Q: Art Dubai is a large-scale art event which displays the work of individuals from around the world. To begin with, could you let us in on how you were approached by its organisers?

How things like this usually work is that there is a curator and the curator is involved in doing the research and sort of shaping of the show. So if it’s an exhibition or a publication, it is generally the curator who has the responsibility of creating a framework for particular themes and would research on artists who have been exploring those themes within these mediums. 

In the case of this particular event, the curator decided to do their research and select artists who were already doing the kind of work that they were interested in exploring. It was in that process that the curator – Fokidis – decided to reach out to me. Most of the work she was interested in and had selected was already created. However in my case, I felt a particular distance to my work that she was referring to, which was from 2017, because I had grown a bit since then and so didn’t feel comfortable with that particular work being used.

I asked whether I could create new work and then we had a conversation about what that could be. My initial idea was very different but eventually, while doing my research, I thought about this idea of distancing in terms of ironic distancing.

 

Q: What inspired you to create “Please Share My Self Care” (2020), or the tea ritual, which you chose to display at On(line) Healing?

This was inspired by all the WhatsApp messages I was getting from family and WhatsApp groups that shared things you should consume during this time. A lot of them were very well intentioned, but the efficacy or science behind it was dubious. So I thought to actually brew something, but to choose something that has absolutely nothing to do with this. I chose ranawara mal (Cassea- Auriculata) mostly because it’s beautiful.

Still frame of “Please share my self-care” (2020), video performance for On(line) Healing, Art Dubai online performance programme, courtesy the artist

 

Q: Your creation entails a rather unique video encompassing three phases (this is an oversimplification). What was your thought process behind it?

So the ritual was initially against the sound of a Sinhalese man in Wuhan reporting back talking about what it’s like to live there at the time during the lockdown they were facing. In the video, he’s explaining the situation and meanwhile, I’m distancing myself from that and brewing this tea that is not going to help me at all. Even the process of brewing the tea is completely wrong. You are supposed to put it in a pot and add water and bring it to a boil. But it wouldn’t have been beautiful. I’m trying to take this aesthetic approach by putting it in a teacup.

The second time I do it is like a month later, and on the news they talk about individuals coming through and being quarantined. Responding to that, you see how there is a slight difference in how this ritual is helping me.

The third time you hear an inescapable tone; set against that sound, I am engaging in the ritual again. At this point, because the environment has shifted and the threat is so immediate, that distancing starts to falter. The reality of Covid-19 comes in and you see the handshakes; the cup falls over, and there is a sort of climax that happens there. However, I did not anticipate that Covid-19 would become a pandemic-level threat when I initially started the project.

The video in the backdrop upon which the three videos are placed are back-ended by the actual footage of the Covid-19 virus in culture. I wanted to have this very scientific backdrop and in the foreground, you see this very non-scientific approach to coping.

As much as I’m explaining the process behind the work and what it means to me, it is always important to leave it open to interpretation as well. I want people who engage with it to take their own time with it and draw their own reactions, interpretations, impressions, etc. People had read some minute details in very different ways and that was fascinating to me as an artist.

 

Q: You are seen to have incorporated the rather unique concept of ironic distancing into your project. How would you elucidate its dynamics as an artist?

Ironic distance is this way of employing humour; it is very common among those who belong to Generation Z, where you’re doing something but you are doing it ironically and that irony is apparent as well, so you can get away with it. I was wondering why people do that and why they do it so much. Does it help in any way to address an issue where otherwise if you were trying to do it very earnestly, honestly, and in a straightforward manner, you might be making yourself more vulnerable; and that can be not as appealing to people? Ironic distancing garbs you in a way when you are expressing things.


Q: How then does the act of ironic distancing intertwine with that of “healing as an artform”, which is the underlying theme of your online exhibit?

I found that ironic distance was on display a lot in online mediums such as on Twitter and particularly TikTok. I was particularly interested in this meme where mostly young women were using voicemails from their boyfriends or exes and in the voicemail they are shouting at them; it’s very abusive and toxic. But what the women were doing was that they were playing that audio and over that they were dancing, from this complete ironic distance. It created this effect that was really fascinating to me in a way that I perceived that as a form of healing in the online space, that these women were taking part in. There is this toxic abusive thing happening to them and they create this ironic distance and other women join in on that, and that becomes a communal form of healing that happens online. In my proposal, what I argued is that ironic distancing possibly does help people heal, perhaps even more effectively, and that there is something to learn from the way Generation Z is doing that.

 

Q: Whilst TikTok appears to be a medium embraced by a sizeable amount of the world’s population, it is seemingly disregarded by some. So why did you engage with TikTok particularly, and how did you incorporate it to your work?

I proposed that I would immerse myself into TikTok, create a TikTok account, upload videos, and engage with other TikTok users over the course of two to three months. And during that time, I would create certain pieces. Initially what I wanted to do was have my TikTok itself as the artwork, so the account itself would resemble artwork. But as it went on, it became more a part of the process to understand TikTok better. There were around five different pieces and one of them was this tea ritual. And then I decided to focus on the tea ritual and frame it in the way TikTok videos are framed; that’s why they are all portrait oriented. 

“RUMASSALAM” (2017), meditative soundscape installation for documenta 14 in Dornberg, Germany. PHOTO: Angelo Plessas