Mother, 2020 HD film 16:04 mins
Mother, 2020 HD film 16:04 mins
Mother, 2020 HD film 16:04 mins

Asuf Ishaq

with Emily Butler

‘I draw into my family history, mostly storytelling and the passing down of experiences. I use what archive the body carries, as well. It’s like digging for histories or stories which are buried or untold.’

Listen to the full interview here:

I’m Asuf Ishaq and my practice is centred around themes of embodiment, fragmentation and displacement, especially in the migration and post-colonial; and memory, often presented in a physical diasporic body, as in an evolving archive that transmits experience with cultural and political meaning.

What are you showing in The London Open 2022?

I’m showing the film I made in 2020, which is called Mother. It’s trying to foster an understanding of a shared familial history. I address the experience of displacement, reconciling memories and artefacts from lost times and places. In Mother, I digitally restore a personal photograph of my mother when she was young. It’s about 50 years old.

The dialogues are centred around the photograph and revealing histories and retelling of stories. The social history is in a fragmented form.

The film starts with a detail of architecture overlaid with a phrase you say which is, ‘I’m looking at the holes that make a radiant pattern. And it lets the light in.’ It’s like a metaphor for a lot of what your work’s doing. You’re unearthing family histories, histories of displacement, migration, possibly trauma. You’ve talked in the past about having an approach like that of an archaeologist. Can you tell us about this?

I mentioned about how it’s finding these kinds of powerful memory fragments, like how Harun Farocki does with archive and really looking at the work. I draw into my family history, mostly storytelling and the passing down of experiences. I use what archive the body carries. It’s like archeology of histories or stories which are buried or untold.

There’s another beautiful image and central part of the film, which is, as you mentioned, you repairing an old photograph of your mother. You’re using Photoshop to piece it together, so that it looks almost seamless. In parallel, you’re gathering fragments of your mother’s memories for your conversation to build a narrative. But at no point are we offered a complete picture. There’s this idea that repair or completion is potentially impossible, and your work’s really looking at these gaps and holes. Can you tell us about this approach to looking at gaps and memories?

You’ve got that right completely. It’s how memory behaves. There’s nothing certain about it and it’s always fragmented. But then you have different perspectives. I was in Pakistan with her when I was young, so I have these emotional memories as well, where I was too young to understand, but I had my perspective. It’s true; the photograph is incomplete and there’s no final, repaired photograph.

It’s the process I am interested in, and while repairing it in Photoshop, we went into a space where we, as mother and child, normally would not go, talking about art and looking at an image in-depth. That was quite special, that we could interact in a different way.

Speaking of dialogue, not all of your conversation with your mother is translated, so an English-speaking audience might not understand everything, just fragments or words that are translated. There’s a flipping between hearing your narration and your mother’s voice in the work. Can you tell us about your approach to language and narration?

I deliberately wanted to evoke a little bit of discomfort in not understanding, because it’s also the experience of my mother in the beginning, moving to England, and not quite understanding the language. I wanted to bring that element into the work, just to make the viewer a little bit uneasy, trying to make sense of what is being heard, and trying to make sense of the memory.

Work in the exhibition:
Mother, 2020
HD film
16:04 mins

Asuf Ishaq (b. 1969, Mirpur, Pakistan)
2020 MFA Fine Art, Goldsmiths, University of London 1996 MA Graphic Design, Royal College of Art, London
1993 BA Graphic Design, University of Brighton

Selected exhibitions: Image Behaviour, ICA, London (2022); New Contemporaries, South London Gallery, London and Firstsite, Colchester (2021); Groundings, Goldsmiths CCA, London (2021); Inside the Country of the Skin, Stryx, Birmingham (2021); Longshore Drifting, Safehouse 1, London (2021); London Grads, Saatchi Gallery, London (2020); Incarnations, Montez Press Radio, New York (2020); Indernet Festival, Cologne (2020); Members Show, Eastside Projects, Birmingham (2019)

What makes London’s art scene so vibrant? What are the concerns of the next generation of artists? What insight does their work offer in challenging times?

This triennial exhibition showcases a cross-section of the most dynamic artistic talent from across the capital. Established in 1932, this much-celebrated open submission show features 46 London-based artists working across painting, sculpture, moving image, installation and performance.

Since the last London Open in 2018, the city has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, demonstrations demanding racial and climate justice, and widespread questioning of institutions and their structures.

The London Open 2022 traces the ways in which artists have witnessed and responded to these events with resilience and heart. In times of hardship and crisis, and when exhibitions were cancelled and moved online, these artists experimented with new sites of production and means of dissemination, from the kitchen table to the back garden.

The exhibition is loosely structured as a journey from the personal to the social, moving from individual to collective concerns, the cathartic to the poetic, the political and the environmental.

The artists were selected from over 2,600 entries by a panel of experts including collector Maria Bukhtoyarova, artist Shezad Dawood, curator and art historian Christine Eyene, gallerist Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja, with Whitechapel Gallery curators Emily Butler, lnês Costa and Wells Fray-Smith.

Gallery 1, Downstairs

The relationship between our bodies and the material world kickstarts the exhibition. Rafał Zajko‘s wall-based reliefs appear like hybrid beings, processing the gluten found in wheat and barley flour, leaving us unsure if this is for machine or human consumption.Likewise, Madeleine Pledge‘s stretched fabrics and ceramic boots imply absent bodies and their physical role in manufacturing.

Materiality and belief systems intersect in Candida Powell-Williams’ handmade objects. A unicorn and swing inspired by medieval tapestries are fenced off by a trellis, prompting questions about the divisions between what is mythical and real. Alicia Reyes McNamara‘s paintings feature non-binary, shapeshifting figures drawn from various mythologies, from Meso-America to Ancient Egypt, to consider alternative notions of time and embodiment.

Gallery 9, Upstairs

This gallery features works that delve into the impact of technology, algorithms and quantification on our lives. In his series The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free  2019, Ben Yau looks at the parallel rise of Neoliberalism and the CIA’s role in sabotaging the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, bringing together both economic data and declassified documents.

Set in a parallel present reminiscent of sci-fi films such as Blade Runner 2049, The Underlying by Ami Clarke considers the implicit role of capitalism in environmental disaster.

Meanwhile, Rory Cahill and George Mackness offer a walk through a dystopian, corrupted digital landscape of the future, with an immersive soundtrack. They consider: what does a digital wasteland look like, what happens there and what is its afterlife?

Gallery 8, Upstairs

The artworks in this gallery reflect on family, identity and community. Seema Khalique travelled to Bangladesh to photograph two communities of transgender people called hijras. In this behind-the-scenes series, she questions the prejudices they face, revealing the economic hardships they endure alongside the strong network of mentorship and care they create.

Pioneering photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta took photographs of his neighbourhood on Walworth Road during lockdown. This work celebrates the increased relevance of our localities during the pandemic, as well as reflecting on the processes involved in created photographic images.

On three vintage TV monitors, Hussina Raja‘s short narrative films look at the subject of migration to the UK from post-Partition India, tracing the continued experiences of displacement and exploring nuanced notions of identity.

The works in the last part of the show focus on our relationship to and impact on the environment. In Agrilogistics (2022), Gerard Ortin Castellvi films in an automated greenhouse, in which the growth of tomatoes, tulips and chrysanthemums is controlled by cameras and sensors, in order to question the future of food production.

Having spent lockdown excavating her back garden, Maria Roy Deulofeu meticulously records each layer of soil like an archaeologist, collecting artefacts and ecofacts, before assembling a kiln to fire hand-thrown urns with the different layers of clay. The process is recorded in a video shown alongside the objects. Finally, a flock of parakeets cast in lead are scattered on the ground in Patrick Goddard‘s Blue Sky Thinking (2019).The parakeet exemplifies a non-native species increasingly common in London parks and hints at a mass extinction event, highlighting mankind’s role in the impending climate disaster.

See the full list of works here.

An illustrated catalogue is available to purchase from the bookshop.

Artists have generously made limited editions to coincide with the exhibition to support the Gallery’s education programme.