ST. LOUIS — Freund Fellow artist Mariam Ghani is known for her video and photographic installations that explore the layered and complicated histories found in specific built and natural landscapes. Past projects have examined Kabul, Afghanistan; Kassel, Germany; Rogaland, Norway; and now St. Louis, Mo.
Ghani adopts an unusually multifaceted approach to enlivening those histories. Spoken narrative, musical score and dance performance are all crucial to her process. She embraces seductive imagery and poetic language, encouraging her viewers to reflect on challenging issues through multiple layers of meaning that unfold over time.
F0r Currents 110: Mariam Ghani, opening Wednesday, April 8 at the St. Louis Art Museum, Ghani presents her newest multi-media work, The City & the City, which was produced in St. Louis specifically for the exhibition. The work includes a video set, spoken narrative and photography of the city.
“When I started exploring St. Louis during my residency last fall, the novel, which I’d read a few years before, came back into my head,” Ghani said. “The City & the City is, of course, an allegory for the way many cities function — which is as different cities for different people. Kabul in the 2000s for example, was one city for expatriates, and a completely different city for Afghans. St. Louis is also a divided city, and as with the cities in Mieville’s novel, the division is not quite so simple as North Side/South Side, or City/County. As in the book, there are areas that are total, and areas that are cross-hatched.”
Ghani is particularly interested in forgotten or little-seen “border zones” in the city that have arisen from deindustrialization, population shifts, and other socio-economic changes. For example, she filmed in Kinloch, Missouri’s oldest incorporated African-American community, now largely depopulated because of its proximity to Lambert airport. She also was drawn to the gutted Cotton Belt Freight Depot, once a hub of commerce along the Mississippi River. Ghani uses insights gained from her longtime collaborator, Erin Ellen Kelly, a choreographer and a native to St. Louis, to produce new kinds of understandings about the way cities are experienced.
“My fascination is these kind of spaces that are in between becoming something new and that’s what I wanted to show Mariam a lot of, so conversation sprang up from that — how these spaces kind of represent and define the divisions in St. Louis,” Kelly said.
Upon entering the exhibition, one will immediately be greeted by voices coming from speakers set up in the middle of the darkened room — darkened due to the video set looping on the wall. These voices are voices belonging to the people of St. Louis, from all different ages, races, genders and different parts of the city.
“As an artist, of course I am interested in how I see things, but I am also very interested in how others see things,” Ghani said. “And I also strongly believe in the importance of listening to other people, which is why I wanted to make this sound piece and just listen to the people who live here – how they think and feel – about the city. When people talk about how they see their city in the sound installation, some people definitely spoke about [St. Louis] as a divided city, as a segregated city, as a city where it’s different cities for different people.”
Ghani and Kelly arrived in St. Louis shortly after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Ghani said this is when she knew she had to do the installation.
“I think coming here to make a project in the media aftermath of Ferguson was a very large responsibility and something that we definitely felt the burden of,” Ghani said. “And we definitely felt the necessity to make something that would be not precisely a response to Ferguson itself, but would not ignore the conditions that made Ferguson possible. And I think that’s really what the project is about – not Ferguson itself, but the deep structures that made it possible, because that’s what we’re interested in is these deeper histories and deeper structures.”
Currents 110 will also include the recent video Like Water From a Sone (2014), which is set on the southern coast of Norway. In it, performers move interpretively through the Norweigian landscape to evoke bodily experiences of the water and stone, and the distinctive light found in that environment. Ghani sets Norway’s tranquil beauty against reminders of the German occupation during World War II and the perils of the present-day petroleum industry.
Ghani will discuss the exhibition at a free lecture in the Museum’s Farrell Auditorium Tuesday, April 7 at 6:30 p.m. Currents 110: Mariam Ghani opens to the public Wednesday, April 8 at the St. Louis Art Museum in Galleries 250 and 301.
Born in 1978 in New York, Ghani received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York. She currently is a visiting scholar at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. Her work has been featured at major museums and film festivals, including the 42nd International Film Festival, Rotterdam, Netherlands (2013); dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany (2012); the Sharjah Biennial 10, United Arab Emirates (2011); and the Modern Mondays series at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011).
Ghani is the 2014-2015 Henry L. and Natalie E. Freund Fellow. This fellowship includes a residency at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University and a Currents exhibition at the Museum.
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