Rarely have I met an artist as expressive and articulate as Samina Mansuri. In fact, I sincerely hope that anyone interested in her work gets the chance that I did to look into her piercing black eyes as she recounts her conceptual passions. In her work, After Images: Cedibidaee Reconstruction, which is currently on display in the MOCCA: Empire of Dreams exhibition, the sprawling urban diorama could be easily misinterpreted as “fun” or “cute.” In order to see the work, the viewer must first step up onto a raised platform to take a look at the uniformly silver-coated miniature buildings. This Lilliputian municipality evokes a sci-fi futurism which is amplified by random over-head film
projections that keep the miniature metropolis in a ceaseless state of shift between nearly complete darkness and a searching, masked, light. It’s impossible to escape the dark brood of trauma hovering over this adorable little city. This is the future as depicted in Blade-runner or Brazil. It may be silver, but this is not a sterling utopia.
When a chance stroke of light allows a good look at the landscape, one begins to notice elements that obviously do not belong. A Super 8 camera sits where one imagines a building to be and a reel of film is in place of a bridge. In this way, the work seems playful. Arguably however, the only game is the one that Mansuri, in her desire to inspire varied understandings of her work rather than preaching the familiarly didactic sermon of over politicized art, is playing with us. At once she has convinced the viewer that they are looking at a landscape, while purposefully and simultaneously creating strong reasons for them to doubt that very notion.
Mansuri, a Pakistani born, internationally trained, Toronto based artist, keeps herself in a constant state of questioning the world around her by maintaining a perpetual state of culture shock caused by living between Toronto and Pakistan. The distance between her two homes allows her perception of each place to be a complex blend of her lived experiences combined with the portrayals of east vs. west she sees in the media.
The role of the media in her perception was highlighted for her shortly after her move to Toronto in May 2001, when the 911 attacks destroyed the Twin Towers in NYC. Having completed her BFA at Pratt Institute in New York and her MFA at Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh, the attacks resonated with that part of Mansuri that had spent so many creative years there. In the years following, her previously uncelebrated hometown of Karachi, Pakistan came into worldview as a politically terror-traumatized danger zone.
Her intimate knowledge of these locales gave her the objectivity to comprehend a process of a sort of ethnographic rewriting, or maybe more accurately described as a process of cultural erasing, that was taking place in war torn vistas such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. As the public’s appetite for images of suffering and destruction are satisfied with an endless supply of graphic decimation imagery, it is Mansuri’s philosophy that a media-generated memory- tertiary memory as she refers to it- of these places is formed in the imaginations of the global public.
Through the focused gaze of the hungry lens of world-news, the acknowledgements of the extant civilizations in these unfortunate areas of CNN-celebrity essentially vanish as they are paved with all-pervasive ideas of demolition. To the people living in these areas however, as any Toronto resident during 2003’s SARS scandal can attest to, life continues with a surprising degree of normalcy. After Images: Cedibidaee Reconstruction is the last work from a 3 year long series of miniature constructions mimicking the kinds of tortured worlds we imagine from glimpses of photos that might appear in a Google search for Islamabad. In previous works, although the set was constructed, it was only revealed to the onlooker in the form of photos.
In both the photos and this current installation, it is the accidental intrusion of her errant bits of unusable technology that offer us the truth about these locations Mansuri has invited us to look upon. That is that they, like the entire countries we imagine enveloped in thick blankets of on-going explosions, are constructions, existing only in the minds willing to believe the media’s prolific imagination.
Samina Mansuri’s installation After Images: Cedibidaee Reconstruction is showing at MOCCA: Empire of Dreams, until August 15.