words ona abelis | images mariam ghani, robert bullivant, rick vogel, & social practice queens
"I've always been really interested in literal and metaphorical border zones, places where different things meet and overlap and intersect each other," Mariam Ghani tells me over lunch at The General Greene, one of her local hangouts in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood.
At the time, her video project, Like Water From a Stone, had just finished its run at the Ryan Lee Gallery in Manhattan, and Mariam was in town only briefly—she's currently the Freund Fellow at the Washington University in St. Louis, where she just finished producing her newest multimedia work, a short film based on the novel The City & the City by China Miéville.
Is there a place that feels like home to you? I ask. "New York is my home," Mariam explains. "It's a microcosm of everywhere. It lets people feel at home in New York who don't feel at home anywhere else." But, she adds, "I take breaks from New York so I continue to love it. I think all New Yorkers do that."
Ghani is a multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker, writer, and teacher who has shown her work at major museums and film festivals around the world, including the 42nd International Film Festival in the Netherlands in 2013 and the Sharjah Biennial 10. A recent New York Times profile focused on her father, who leads Afghanistan, and how her family background has impacted her work, but Mariam wants, and should be, defined on her own merits. When she orders her food, Mariam's voice is measured—not too loud, not too soft, and even-keel like that of person who is used to speaking before crowds of students, artists, politicians, poets, historians, and all manners of academics.
Over lunch Mariam is smiling and affable, as if we were just drinking coffee (me) and tea (her) casually, like two friends. I ask: Is there a work of art that has changed you? "Mona Hatoum's Measures of Distance is probably the reason I became an artist," she says, and hesitates. "She had a retrospective at the New Museum in '97. I saw it multiple times. I had this epiphany where I saw that you could be doing that with videos."
The that, Mariam explains, is a complex relationship between a mother and daughter, in exile, portrayed in several layers of intimacy—images, texts, sounds—with all of the elements engaged fully. In her own work, Mariam has also adopted a multifaceted approach. She's explored natural landscapes in places as far-flung as Kabul, St. Louis, and Norway, with video installations on human memory and photographic examinations of language, loss, and reconstruction.
As the waiter sets down our food, I review my notes for one more question. What does it mean to you to be from different places? Mariam measures her words thoughtfully. She answers:
"It's meant different things to me at different points of my life. It's given me different ways of looking at the world and has affected the position from which I make my work. I never think of myself as a fully entrenched insider when I'm making my work. I make my work from the borderline position—the perpetual diasporic position—as someone from the inside and outside at the same time. It's a productive place. It's a good place for an artist to work from, where you realize both how much you know and don't know."
where do you live — Clinton Hill
luggage — Domke
gadgets — iPhone, iPad, MacBookPro
favorite accessory — A scarf
favorite charity — Women for Afghan Women
favorite hotel — Dwarika’s, Kathmandu (staffed and run by exceptionally lovely people, who are now doing earthquake relief work)
favorite apps — Longform, PlainText, Camera+
favorite airport — Istanbul, for the tea
favorite airline — KLM, for the offbeat film selection
home is… New York, Kabul, and Beirut
where would you like to live? — For residencies, production, or short-term teaching, I often do end up trying out other lives in other places, for limited periods of time. I usually fall a little bit in love with every place where I make a project, but also conclude that I like the homes I have.
where & when were you happiest? — In recent memory, walking in a forest in 2006.
what do you consider your greatest achievement? — Always finding a way to make the work I want to make.
what is your current state of mind? — Happy to be busy.
how many trips do you take a year? — Ten to fifteen
how many of those are vacations? — One or two, if I’m lucky
without traveling, you relax by? — Reading or watching mysteries; crossword puzzles and word games
won’t board the plane without — Borrowing some e-books from the Brooklyn Public Library (which can be done from anywhere, anytime, with Wifi)
indispensable in your carry-on — iPad, headphones, water, shawl
take off routine — Add a layer, get comfortable, cue up a podcast
first thing you do after landing — Reassemble myself
travel is… The way you get to where you want to go; and sometimes also how you figure out where that is.