Certainly the most audience- pleasing but also one of the most thematically revealing works in Hajra Waheed’s “Hold Everything Dear” is You Are Everywhere (a variation), 2012–19, an immersive installation inviting audiences to lie on a wooden floor, which is lit to resemble a starry sky. Merging earth and sky, the installation allows visitors to experience an almost psychedelic twist of reality. Having a starry night sky collapsed so that you do not have to stare up at it suggests that hope, as symbolized by this celestial ideal, lies with us amidst the chaos of earthliness. Such hopefulness is one of the significant exhibition themes, a theme equally reflected by the narrator of the video projection Untitled, 2019, calling for “remaining undefeated against despair.” These two works form the conceptual guideposts of a sprawling exhibition of 110 works including painting, collage, video installation and sculpture. A muchanticipated exhibition for its sheer ambition, it also draws attention by running concurrent with Waheed’s inclusion in the inaugural 2019 Toronto Biennial and for its serving as a comprehensive follow-up to her participation in the central “Viva Arte Viva” exhibition of the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017.
Those anticipating the furtherance of Waheed’s prior themes of corporate and state surveillance (the artist spent her early years in Dhahran, a heavily secured gated community where employees of the state-owned Saudi Arabian Oil Company, Aramco, reside) will be surprised—at least at first blush. Hints of such themes do arise in this exhibition, following close scrutiny, yet its overt politics focus on colonial violence and racism in the context of a poetics of hope.
Simultaneously, this exhibition loosely riffs off, and is accordingly named after, a 2007 collection of essays by John Berger called Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. Waheed’s 2017 performance at the SVA Theater in New York for Asia Contemporary Art Week was named after them, too. Waheed played a sound recording that reads a letter from her sister reflecting on the 2015 Paris attacks while projecting “stars”—pinholes of light against a “sky” of light-blocking black cinefoil. Star-filled skies are crucial to this exhibition, too.
Take, for instance, Studies for a Starry Night 1–94, 2019, in which 94 plates of glazed porcelain and stoneware reveal fragments of starry skyscapes. Each piece is deliberately crudely cut, most forming off-rectangles. They appear as archaeological discoveries, fragmented shards of pottery, an impression stressed by the artist’s mounting them on shelves in six rows, as if museologically archived and exhibited. Dug up from the earth but representing the sky, they echo and reinforce that leitmotif. Broken into individual pieces but displayed together, the plates suggest that while individuals hold particular hopes and dreams, a collective vision of a celestial ideal exists alongside them. And, of course, the work by title references van Gogh and his attendant essentialism and expressionism. The viewer is left to determine if that reference is a postmodern critique or a contrarian homage. Here, where meanings are inexplicit, where her implications, as she says, “leave room for interpretation, hint at incompleteness, and allow readers to fill in the blanks,” Waheed is at her strongest.
In contrast is the more straightforward Letters 1–8, 2019, a series of eight pairs of ink-on-paper drawings with text: on the left, rewritten letters penned by community activists recount their resistance to exploitative palm oil companies in Central and West Africa, and on the right, ink drawings of palm fronds and branches. The activists speak of a garden where traders brought saplings from Africa to Southeast Asia to start plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. They discuss how in Africa (and implied in Southeast Asia), generations of enslaved labourers suffer from poverty, malnutrition and the physical toll of the labour itself. Some text—“a lush colonial garden lives between two horrors”—stresses the polarities of human cruelty and natural beauty. Nature as a balm for human despair carries on thematically elsewhere but without didacticism.
For example, Untitled, 2019, her video projection, reinforces some of the exhibition’s philosophical underpinnings more abstractly by incorporating poetic prose. Her voice-over ruminates on the spiral (an inspiration for the exhibition not elucidated elsewhere), witnessed in nature, as, say, “a rooted blade of grass surrounding itself.” This and other nature references (the video’s visuals show close-ups of palm fronds) mark nature as symbolic of the transcendence of a struggle with despair, or, as the narrator encourages us, “keeping an open heart in face of a broken one.” Language here and elsewhere in “Hold Everything Dear” is a wayfinder for the viewer’s open-ended journey from John Berger’s populist Marxism to a spiritual, if not essentialist, perspective of nature as a source of renewal and hope. ❚
“Hajra Waheed: Hold Everything Dear” by Guest Curator: Nabila Abdel Nabi was exhibited at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, from September 21, 2019, to January 5, 2020.
Earl Miller is an independent art writer and curator based in Toronto.