Exhibition essay for Hajra Waheed’s “Asylum in the Sea” at the Darling Foundry, Montreal
I recently had the pleasure of writing an exhibition essay to accompany a new body of work by the Montreal-based artist Hajra Waheed, currently on view at Montreal’s Darling Foundry. “Asylum in the Sea” is a suite of 24 new paintings and collages that depict the moment at which something is lost at sea, swallowed by the waves. Tiny, intimate works presented in a darkened room that evokes a meditative, almost submerged, atmosphere, Waheed’s new series continues to mine the deposits of loss and longing left behind by stories of migration: an ongoing theme in her bigger project, Sea Change. As I write in the essay for the show,
Asylum in the Sea is just one moment within a much larger story, part of an ongoing body of work titled Sea Change (2013–) that Waheed describes as “a visual novel” that will unfold over many years and hundreds of works. At the centre of this novel are its nine protagonists, all missing, presumed lost at sea in the course of migrating to a better life. Each chapter is devoted to a different character, with the visual and textual traces of each figure occupying one room of a gallery, turning the novel into an immersive visual diary.
These intricate, continuously unfurling accounts could be fictional, but they also seem too familiar and too specific to be fabricated. History, and colonial history in particular, with its stories of home, migration, loss and disappearance, is the departure point for Waheed’s work. Her narratives, she writes, “are deeply influenced by my many lived experiences traversing borders, or rather, living among them. So many of us who live along these lines (either by choice or force) do go missing or disappear at times, just to re-emerge later.”
Though I was asked to think about Waheed’s works in the context of colonial photography, I was immediately struck by how her practice works to interrupt photographic meaning, refusing to provide the viewer with any easy or complete narrative. The exhibition is a quiet and dense one that asks the viewer to spend time with it, as do many of her previous works (which are catalogued on her website as well).