Some months ago I was approached by the designer Ammar Belal who wanted to see if I would be open to a collaboration with him. Ammar had attended a panel discussion with me, Saadia Toor, and Sarah Belal (his sister), at the Open Society in New York and seen the portraits I had made of the families of the prisoners being held at Bagram Detention Center in Bagram. Ammar was moved by the arguments we made, and affected by the stories of the families themselves. In a discussion we had soon afterwards it was clear that he had been shaken out of his world of high fashion and design and compelled to turn his attention to an injustice that he had been aware of, thanks to his sister’s work, but until then had remained unconcerned about.
I of course had my doubts when he first spoke to me about it – an ingrained scepticism of all this related to the fashion industry that I have to admit are today more knee-jerk than informed. But Ammar’s seriousness of thought and conviction were very evident when we first sat down. And over the course of some weeks I was able to see a young man engaging intellectually and emotionally around an issue that was clearly becoming more and more personal and more and more urgent. Ammar and I spent many hours discussion the intricacies of the issues involved – the legal, political, cultural and social questions that arose as a result of discussing the conflicts in the region, the role of imperialism, the continuing legacies of colonial cultural and political assumptions, the Pakistani state and its priorities and so on and so forth. Ammar was digging into the questions, challenging my perspectives, and working to develop his own, independent stand on the so-called ‘war against terror’ and its consequences for the lives of those being crushed under its priorities.
Eventually we agreed to collaborate – Ammar’s preliminary concepts for how to incorporate my images into his textile and couture work were intriguing. But what won me over was his seriousness, and his willingness to engage an entirely new community. The world of fashion is insular, and largely opposed to taking on serious political issues. But Ammar was determined to thrust these questions of law and justice, war and imperialism, colonialism and political arrogance into this world, and it seemed that his approach was working. People were at least speaking and questioning and wondering where all this was coming from. His initial sketches for how to incorporate the portraits into design were also fascinating and I was intrigued by how a work, as traditional, and classical as the portraits are, could be gently but effectively transformed into a new medium without really distorting its original classicism and intent.
Ammar Belal’s work is now on display at Parsons The New School of Design’s annual show and his incorporation of my work into this final works can be seen from May 14th through May 23rd.
The work includes images from my earlier forays into Pakistan’s tribal areas to see the impact of the war on the communities in South Waziristan. It also utilise text, statistics and writings by other writers to inform and elaborate on Ammar’s perspectives on what is taking place under the ‘war against terror’ umbrella and how lives are being affected by it. The portraits have been woven (no pun intended!) into his final works – as embroideries, as patterns, and as ideas. During this time Ammar has been actively speaking to and arguing political views with his advisors, professors and colleagues at the school. I believe, given the scale and scope of this week, the work from Bagram, and the stories of the suffering and injustices inflicted on the men being held there, and their families, will be presented and seen by an entirely new community, one that I would have not been able to reach on my own.
Working with Ammar reminded me yet again that the projects I produce are meant for a public, and never for a publication. That the goal is to reach those who would otherwise not be willing or interested, and to seek means and collaborations that make this possible. And do so in a format that provokes a debate, a discussion and a curiosity. This exhibition at Parsons is perhaps the most unusual collaboration that I have been involved in, and I suspect that the audience that will come and see the work, and read the arguments, and experience the stories, will be one of the most unique I have had the possibility of presenting my work to.