Virtual studio visit with Hamza Beg
by Juli Cordray
I visited Hamza Beg’s virtual studio at Vital Capacities residency space – and you can too.
Over the course of his residency, Hamza, a self-taught multimedia artist and researcher, has been expanding on and conducting research around a previously initiated project, “Mark of My Departure” (MOMD). This central work is a seven-minute video collage that brings together found footage with original compositions and poetic text to consider questions around technology, mobility, colonialism, gender, and place-making, drawing on hip-hop music as a site of cross-cultural exchange in the context of the South Asian diaspora.
Scrolling through the columns of multimedia posts that compose his studio space, you’ll find this work, as well as additional collaged images and short video sketches that expand on its themes. What also caught my eye were the snippets of process-oriented commentary and notes composed by Hamza, which discuss the works themselves as well as his thoughts, experiences and encounters along the way.
We sat down to talk (also virtually – I in my Berlin apartment and Hamza in Tallinn, where he is currently taking part in The Art of Being Good residency program). We chatted about the work in his studio and his practice more broadly, delving into topics like the importance of humor, what he’s learned during his time with Vital Capacities, and Pedestrianism as platform-building.
“Mark of My Departure” (Preview) by Hamza Beg
“Mark of My Departure” (MOMD) is enlivened by a steady current of images and sound that merge with and overlay one another. This current carries references to transport, labor and production, place and food, community and spirituality. There’s dancing, flowing bodies of water, words weaving with rhythms. It’s tactile in its layering – different moving images simultaneously frame and reframe one another or pop up inside of other images.
Hamza Beg: I always see my work in two streams: one is writing, which is a mix of poetic writing and academic writing, a lot of which tackles themes that I learned about through academic work – colonialism, for example, which is probably the key. And then there is audio and video work. This project was an opportunity for me to try to bring those two things together.
I turn up to video work as a newcomer to the medium, using the techniques that I learned from producing and making hip-hop music. The programs that are used are also quite similar, so I work with those same methods. That’s why the video work uses layers, chops and samples.
Hamza notes that hip-hop music has been a pervasive cultural influence in his work, as he has been studying and working with it from a young age – though not necessarily in the form of visual work. For him, a key part of this project has been investigating how this influence comes through and what it means in terms of cross-cultural exchange – between African-American and South Asian diasporic communities.
Within the scope of this project, MOMD – its starting point – is also accompanied by some new works Hamza has been producing, including a series of images of chopped tree trunks (seen from above) spliced together with family photos, which either fill the center or extend around the outer rim. These reference the tabla – a pair of South Asian hand drums with a circle of black tuning paste applied on the head – while also resembling vinyl records, embedding music in the image.
Though there is a seriousness to the subject matter and themes, the body of work is not without playfulness. There are also short video sketches among the works that Hamza has created around MOMD. In one, titled “I can flow with the feeling of the water”, multiple clips of flowing water in shifting constellations give way to a tree-trunk tabla filled with two old family photos, continuously rotating, all set to a classic Lollywood tune. In his post, Hamza points out that “it is meant to be funny”.
HB: Humor is really important. It cuts through everything; it cuts through the intellect, through the feeling, through the disappointment or frustration. The thing that I find difficult is that I’m giving people permission to find it funny, while also being serious at the same time. I feel the idea of humor has to be expanded for us to think about things that are untoward, odd or strange, or that make us do a double take.
For example, there are a few clips of running water out in nature and then it cuts to the high drama of a Lollywood classic. When I watch it, or even while I’m making it, I’m cracking up, because I think it’s absurd. Throughout MOMD especially, there are quite a few moments where I have chosen clips that I think are funny. I would like to leave people with the sense that it’s OK to laugh, it’s OK to find the work funny and for that to be part of their enjoyment. I want it to be serious where it has to be and I think that means creating something for that seriousness to bounce off of.
“I can flow with the feeling of the water”, video sketch by Hamza Beg (Read video description)
Elsewhere, in the introduction to his studio, Hamza writes: “When you step into my studio, you should smell my auntie’s homemade garam masala slowly infusing into fried onions on the stovetop.” Here, the smells and textures of food – the texture of roti is also the background image of the opening liner notes for MOMD – are drawn on to evoke feeling, emotion and memory and to create an immersive, tangible experience of the work in the digital space. I asked him about the role of food in his work, which he described as having multiple layers, like Paratha.
HB: Food is a key part of my vision of the work going forward. It’s been a really important part of my imagined connection and my reconnection with my culture and heritage. Using it as a motif is a way of reaching out and holding the hands of people from my own community. But it also hints at the larger role that South Asian cultures play in British culture. Part of me feels a little bit disempowered by the role that Indian and Pakistani food have played in the rise of British culinary culture. Because, with the acceptance of the food, a parallel process has not taken place in society. An othering has continued to take place towards people, while food has become lauded as accepted culture. So it feels important – it feels political to talk about it.
How does he see this potentially taking shape within the space of this work?
HB: One large aspect will be performance and performative curry making. My plan is to bring the big pot onto the small stove and to cook in the space while people are there to see the rest of the body of work. I also have this running perception that a big and beautiful curry can only be made if it has the right ingredients, and the right ingredients also include gossip. So it’s imperative for my participants to come up to me and gossip over the curry in a curry-confessional style. They bring their small pieces of gossip and they put them in the curry – with their words – and it adds to the flavor of the spice. Someone said to me, “oh, you don’t make it with love?” No, you don’t make it with love. If you’ve been to the kitchen and you’re hanging out with the aunties, they’re not making it with love. The gossip is what makes it spicy.
In another way, language and speaking come up as a key ingredient in MOMD too. Words are spoken over the sound of the tabla as the video opens, for example – something Hamza describes as liberating, as he draws a connection between speaking and place-making. How have his thoughts on or experience of place-making, through such acts as speaking, shifted while working on the project?
HB: One of the big influences in my life, in my writing and reading, has been Stuart Hall – the founder of cultural studies, as well as a writer and theorist. He brings forward this idea that, in the diaspora, there’s this process of imaginative rediscovery that takes place. He talks about how there are stories, histories and myths that were lost and we cannot reclaim or reproduce them. We have to make them anew. Initially, I felt that I was producing something that was a reflection of my growing closeness to my culture. But when I think about it now, I think that it actually ends up reflecting the comfort with which I’m able to use and tessellate images and sounds.
Because I’m also severed by language, which is a very emotionally charged lack, or absence, I find it difficult in many aspects – with this split heritage – to call myself Pakistani, or to call myself Mauritian. This work has allowed me to make some of those things cohesive and to use images and sounds as material in my hands. And that has been really empowering.
“Since we here no innocence”, video sketch by Hamza Beg (Read video description)
In terms of the process and production of the work, as Hamza has been developing this project while in residency with Vital Capacities – an online residency focused on digital accessibility for artists and audiences – another shift has occurred.
HB: I have been working really closely these last weeks with Michael and Sarah (Pickthall) on accessibility streams and making the work accessible to partially-sighted and Deaf people. It’s been such an amazing process. I’ve reproduced the video as an audio-only piece with descriptions of the visuals that come in first and then the sound of the music that comes in after. It has offered me such a great opportunity for reflection. I’m also trying to do it in this many-voiced way. I don’t want to do it as a dry description of what the video is; I want to be able to offer something of the personality of the work.
Then, at the same time, there are also questions like: how can you make accessibility part of your process? For me, that’s longer lasting. It shifts the way that I think about making a work.
As for what he’s been up to in Estonia? Hamza’s organizing a series of experimental workshops on Pedestrianism.
HB: The work is completely different and, at the same time, a very natural continuation for me. “Mark of My Departure” is this hyper-specific, image-focused, kinetic-static work that’s all about place and place-making and the sadness of not having access to place as a natural or organic thing. Pedestrianism comes from questions like: how do we create place as citizens?
I have this loose set of ideas about what a pedestrian future looks like. Those ideas are set out in a document that is at times absurdist and ridiculous, at times political and hard-nose, and at other times soft and spiritual. My plan is to set up four workshops with people from Tallinn and later this year in Lagos. Over the course of those four workshops, we will take what I know about this movement so far and fill it in together using the information that participants give me about the city they live in. Then we will come together at the end for a final presentation – the shape of which is also to be defined by participants.
Though distinct from MOMD, the role of rhythm and language, not just in place-making but also in collectivity, is considered here through the movement of bodies in public space. In one workshop, for example, participants take walks in trios, where a new role is taken up every time a corner is turned. The idea is to allow participants to experience three distinct moments within a clear hierarchy: receiving power, giving power, and observing the transfer of power from one person to another. On the whole, the workshops raise questions about how power is wielded, how ideology and public space are constructed, and how the relationship between individual and whole is negotiated.
HB: My assertion is that if we want people to be more radical, we shouldn’t tell them to be more radical. We should tell them that they’re already doing it. One thing that’s really immobilizing is that people feel that they are behind and not doing enough. The Pedestrianism movement basically tells you that you’re already doing it – you are radical already. Just by walking, you are being radical. So that’s what the work is: it’s platform building.
Hamza imagines eventually bringing the workshop participants together in an international Pedestrianism conference. But how this will be organized, as well as how the documentation from the workshops will be presented, are open questions – likely to be determined along with participants and collaborators, in line with the decentralized nature of the movement.
Video descriptions by Hamza Beg via Vital Capacities:
I can flow with the feeling of the water: set to a classic Lollywood tune this video juxtaposes different images of flowing water in different shaped frames. The frames are sometimes overlapping, sometimes slowly elongating and are synchronised to reflect moments in the musical journey. The water is flowing from a small stream across grey-brown rocks flanked by some greenery and soft moss. The water is clear and the flow is strong.
As the beat drops and the tabla comes into full swing, two circular images are seen rotating on the screen. The two images are in the same style and both created in the same way. On the left is an image of my grandfather, reading a newspaper, looking away from the camera. His image is framed by a circular photograph of a chopped tree trunk. Using the same method, the image on the right has the chopped tree trunk frame with an image of my father and his brothers in it, all sporting the wild 1970s style of facial and head hair. The two images rotate continuously in the style of old vinyl before slowly fading out.
Since we here no innocence: set to another Lollywood classic, this short clip splits the screen into two separate panels. Each one follows the camera movement from dead roots laid in the grass upward to a living tree and then up again to the blue sky – the movement is from grey decay to lush green and blue life. As the intro to the song finishes and the first vocal is about to drop in, the image pauses for a brief moment…two tabla-like images appear side to side. Both are rotating circles with an inner circle of a blackened wood texture, made to appear like the syahi, the central point of the tabla skin. Both rotating circles give the sense of vinyl records being played, with the outer ring on both circles featuring two distinct family images. One is of my two grandfathers sternly sizing each other up. The other is of my grandmother and her best friend sizing up the camera. As the song continues and fades out, the images are taken away by a burning line across the screen.