Interview: Sunara Begum
Luca Curci talks with Sunara Begum during CONTEMPORARY VENICE 2019 at Palazzo Ca’ Zanardi.
Sunara Begum is a visual-anthro-mythologist who uses video, performance, printmaking and props to question how cultures inform identities and notions of self. Her layered art forms are studies for exploring personal cultural histories that stitch together personally relevant imagery sourced from her dreams, the natural world, historical texts, ancient manuscripts, digital space, music and art history. Begum was born to Bangladeshi parents and raised in London, UK. She received her BA and MA in Fine Art from Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design. As an artist her journey has been unconventional, trained as a filmmaker her path took her through multiple disciplines, including poetry, theatre and photography before leading her to her current place of focus and purpose in the visual arts. Begum’s work is at once a personal journey through the discovery of identity, and a journey in redefining the politics of place. At the core of her, work Begum explores multiplicitous identities, personal memory, fictional family histories and the transference of ancestral knowledge through matrilineal social structures. Begum’s work incorporates narratives of history and culture, truth and fiction, addressing notions of presence and absence, place and identity, permanence and transition using a wide variety of media, such as installation, photography, etchings and video. Drawing on Eastern traditions, Begum is particularly interested in the relationship between time and memory, emphasizing the temporary nature of matter and experience. Her work is part of a new generation of artists whose work reflects upon the cross-cultural and historical dimensions of contemporaneity.
Luca Curci – What’s your background? What is the experience that has influenced your work the most?
Sunara Begum – Growing up in a household of women I believe had a profound impact on my personal and artistic journey. I have four sisters and one brother and being one of the youngest, there was always something more to learn, more to know, more to understand. As a child I remember always wanting to go beyond, to know what was on the other side. There was always a possibility for more… My father passed away when I was seven years old, this was the same age my mother was when she too lost her father. Looking back, I feel that this was an unspoken-silent bond between us. Something we both shared but never spoke about. I don’t have many memories of my father, just that when he left I had to grow up a little bit faster than I otherwise would have. For the first time, I saw my mother create and cultivate a new version of herself. Her perspective shifted as she formed into a stronger, more assertive at times, weak but ultimately a complicated being, and all of this, I was a witness to. Before anything else it was critical for her, that each of her children had a strong sense of self; this was nurtured through stories, songs, chants, and memories of her homeland. When my father passed away, my mother would often say it was like having to learn to walk all over again. She turned our home into a shrine, it was for her a mini Bangladesh in the middle of London where we lived. If she couldn’t go to Bangladesh she felt she had to express it right where she was. Growing up we would have to speak our native Bengali in the house, wear salwar kameez (traditional Bengali dress), remove our shoes upon entering the house, eat in silence and with our hands, sit on the floor and study… Some of these formative rituals/rules and practices within the house have remained with me to this day and are a very strong part of my own identity as a person. Growing up I would observe my mother who would pray several times a day and often I would sit by her side and read books as a child. My first novel was Don Quixote which I never left from my side. The small red paperback book was torn to pieces but I would read it over and over again… the story resonated with me, that sense of a journey, a warrior, the unknown, change, movement… I felt that seeing my mother pray and transport herself to another place that I too had to do the same sitting there beside her; mine just took the form of reading and hers the form of praying. In a way I was growing with her, or rather, she felt she was growing with me again. It was these timeless moments with my mother where she would transport herself to her homeland: Bangladesh, to her dormant self, to her pain, to her comfort, that in time became a composite of her truest most honest version of herself. It was in these moments I first experienced the power of the image, word, chant and song. I don’t think it has left me.
LC – What are you currently working on?
SB – I am currently working on a site-responsive performance installation that engages with symbolic and animistic practices through the use of elemental materials. It is an interdisciplinary piece about forging processes of transformation that are intuitively informed by close observation of the intelligence of nature and the non-human as systems of navigation. This ongoing fascination extends to the embodied principles of movement while bringing together many disciplines in one space. Using film, sound, movement and text the piece interpret traditional forms of movement, ritual, ancient texts and manuscripts to inform and illuminate current concerns and crisis’ in ecology and community.
LC – Are your artworks focused on a specific theme?
SB – Living and existing between two cultures I am often preoccupied with questions of identity and the plurality of our existence. In all my work I try to tell the story of our forever evolving identities. My work confronts themes of consciousness and ancestry, the ethereal nature of the cosmos and the complexities of the individual. The germinative nucleus of my work often explores the relationships between nature and culture, body and space, outer and inner, presence and absence, belonging and displacement. I am interested in personal cultural histories that stitch together personally relevant imagery sourced from dreams, the natural world, historical texts, ancient manuscripts, digital space, music and art history.
LC – What is the most challenging part about creating your artworks?
SB – I would say that moment between tapping into an idea especially and most often the initial inspiration is from the dream state and the process of manifesting that idea, into the material plane, making it tangible. For me, there are three stages for creating artworks: inspiration is conceived through the subconscious state; that inspiration turns into an idea through the conscious state and is then manifested/birthed through the material plane. I often journey with this process for a time, sometimes this could be just a few minutes and sometimes a few months. I am not able to dictate the timeframe but often find myself navigating with multiplicitous ideas, each with a different and varying birth time.
LC – What is the role the artist plays in society? and in contemporary art?
SB – Art is the artists’ only vocabulary to give the chaos of life a name and to make sense of the world. The artist uses art as a totem to give voice to the voiceless, to say what isn’t said, to see what isn’t seen and to feel what isn’t felt. The artist’s role in society and in contemporary art is one and the same; to be a seeker of truth, recreate, reinterpret, reconstitute and reinvent new paradigms. I sincerely feel an immense sense of joy at the realization that artists do have their role to play while the state of the world so often sabotages their sense of purpose.
LC – What do you think about the concept of this festival? In which way did it inspire you?
SB – I was drawn to the concept of the festival for its broad scope of artists, disciplines, themes and the various capacities to which art can be experienced across different venues in and around Venice. As an artist, this initial inspiration gave me a chance to explore my own practice in a myriad of ways which was both challenging and exciting.
LC – Do you agree with our vision of art and what do you think about the theme of the festival?
SB – The theme of the festival resonated with the concerns of my own practice and this is what I gravitated to as an artist. I was struck by the continuity of concerns explored by ITSLIQUID over the years and this provoked me to create from a new place.
LC – What do you think about the organization of our event? do you think ITSLIQUID group can represent opportunities for artists?
SB – Attending and being a part of an exhibition with various artists from disparate backgrounds, disciplines, interests and concerns but connected through one central theme gave the overall event a strong thread to experience each work. In the future, it would be great for the artists to hold panel discussions, talks and q&a’s for members of the public during the exhibition period. This could in turn create lasting relationships between curators and artists and also maintain links between Venice and the artist’s visiting countries, creating and establishing global connections through art.
LC – What are your suggestions about our services? Is there something more we can provide to artists?
SB – In the future, it would be great if the artists involved in the group exhibitions could stay/share accommodation and studio spaces with each other to create an artist community. It might also be nice for artists coming from different countries to also have studio space to create some site-specific work as well as the work created for the show. This could be an enriching way of experiencing not only the work but the artist themselves and their worldview and process of creating.