Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art: Farah Mohammad
BY Audrey Deng, September 25, 2020
Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art is a bi-weekly series and a play on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. We interview artists about their art and 'getting art'.
Printmaking is a constant collaboration between your print and the printing press, says Visual Arts student Farah Mohammad ’21. Mohammad, who previously worked as a social worker, describes it as a collaboration in the way that neither force can work independently; the pressure of the press and the design of the print meet together at one surface, leaving both items changed in some way.
Where Mohammad once worked as a social worker in underserved New York neighborhoods, she now returns to as an artist and educator. She created a school program during quarantine that allowed students to exchange artwork with each other through the mail. In her roles as a presence in the neighborhood and an observer of it, Mohammad’s interactions with these communities have left both herself and those communities changed, readjusted a little, pointed toward something else.
In this interview, we talk about the fall semester, “woolgathering,” and printmaking during a lockdown.
So you’re in Amherst right now? What’s that like?
FM: Yes, I’m here with my sister. I thought I was coming for spring break, so I came with four outfits in my suitcase. It’s lucky we’re the same size.
You’re a rising second-year, how are you feeling about the upcoming semester?
Farah Mohammad: I don’t know what visual arts would look like online, but my classmates and I are planning on saving our studio, more physical courses for a later semester, and focus right now on taking courses that have value online. So this upcoming semester I’m taking a political science class, a philosophy class, and my core visual arts classes.
I’ve wanted to take ceramics with JJ Peet—I see he’s very special to our program—but I can’t imagine doing ceramics online, so I think I might have to do it in the spring or summer.
Have you taken ceramics before?
FH: I haven’t, but I am learning that it is a medium that can be translated over many different ideas. Peet is also someone my classmates and professors speak of as having many valuable resources in our department. Last semester, I visited a ceramics studio by Jessica Hutchins. She had this exhibition in a gallery in SoHo, and when I saw how she translates abstract ideas into these vessels, and how they have a third life—the ceramics are worn by performance artists—it helped me think of the medium of ceramics very differently.
For some reason I thought about it in similar terms as I think about woodcuts—I’m a printmaker—and just by seeing Hutchins work with ceramics, I knew I needed to get my hands on some clay. I decided I needed to do this in school before I leave.
Tell me about printmaking. I have a vague idea of it, something about printing images on images... (Laughs).
FM: (Laughs). There are different methods of printmaking. I started with woodcuts, which is when you carve into a block of wood. The parts you carve out remain white in the print, and you roll ink over the wood and put paper on it, then roll it over a press. The parts that aren’t carved out appear. What I do now, mostly, is the other forms—one of them is monotyping. You paint onto plexiglass and then you put paper on top of the plexiglass, which transfers the image to the paper. I also do intaglio; here, you use a copper plate, you draw on a copper plate and roll on some ground onto a copper plate, take something sharp—an etching stylus, to draw on it—and you roll ink onto it, then I wipe off the ink so that the parts where I’ve made marks hold the ink. You place wet paper on top, place pressure on it, and the wet paper will pick up the ink.
There are different ways to do intaglio. I did it this way because I didn’t have access to a print shop, so I sort of invented this home printing technique. If I were in a print shop, I would roll ground onto a plate, draw it, and put it into an acid bath; the acid would eat out the hard parts and that’s how you can control how dark your drawing is, depending on how long you leave the plate in the acid bath. I do some screen printing on tote bags as well.
It sounds like you’ve really explored the various ways of printmaking.
FM: When you have an idea, printmaking helps you sit with the idea and develop it in layers, and each time you roll it through the press you get a little bit more. But you have to wait to get the results. Also, the press collaborates with your marks, in a way. Printmaking is a collaboration between your printing techniques and the pressure of the press that gives you a certain feeling in the work.
What I find really stressful about printmaking is how colors are applied indirectly, it seems.
FM: Certainly for monotypes, but if you’re making an etching, you’re using the same plate and you usually make a lot of paint to use for later iterations.
What do you like most about the medium of printmaking?
FM: How you can build on an idea in layers; printmaking is a really cool way to collage memories, and collage them in a way that feels aesthetically good to me.
I also like printmaking because it helps me disseminate quick and fun ideas. I was thinking a lot about my childhood and negotiating my identity. I was thinking about how I don’t use Urdu language a lot in my life, because it hasn’t been empowering to be good at Urdu. In high school, because of colonialism, we studied English. Being good at Urdu had no value. Now I’m thinking about how I don’t have access to all the sophisticated literature and texts that might help me feel empowered as a Pakistani woman. So I started this project in collaboration with my sister called “Tote Wali,” where we select different Urdu idioms and I make a visual literally depicting the idiom and she does the typography. I like printmaking because it’s a way of expressing an idea and then getting it out into your community, having conversations--through this project I started a reading club with my Urdu-speaking friends in Brooklyn. It felt good to me that this language was being seen and worn by people in the streets.
You recently had work in the show Give Me Space, which was named after your piece. Tell me about that piece.
FM: I made this print referencing imagery around the house that my family has lived in my whole life in Karachi. I’ve watched my neighborhood transform all these years. We had a tight community, and suddenly a construction project started that caused most of my neighbors to leave. Construction has been ongoing for 8 years. Every time I return home I see the scaffolding caving closer to my house. If I’m standing next to the window, I can no longer see the sky that is blocked by a building that keeps growing taller. I wanted this work to capture the negotiation of space around the house that has stayed the same from the inside, while the outside is transforming.
Where were you visiting home from?
FM: I came here eight years ago to study at Bennington College in Vermont. I studied social sciences and printmaking, but my major subject was social sciences.
What was college like?
FM: I did a study abroad semester in Istanbul, Turkey, and while I was studying there I came upon this dam development project, which recently flooded and forced residents to evacuate. The Turkish government was building a series of dams in Southeastern Turkey that were eradicating villages and small towns that had deep cultural significance for the Kurdish communities, and this erasure was feeding into this conflict that the Kurdish community was facing. I made a print while I was studying that project—of one of the dam projects, called the Ilisu Dam in Hasankeyf— because my art was my way of expressing my research, using my photographs as research.
Once I graduated from Bennington College, I realized I didn’t want to study anthropology anymore because I felt a little uncomfortable talking about countries and politics without being a person who directly experiences its impacts; I realized what I really loved doing was field research and working with people.
How did you find your way into Art school?
FM: After college I started working as a social worker for Power of 2. I worked with families where children had experienced a lot of early adversity and I provided a 10-week-long caregiver support program to my clients. At the same time I was renting space and working in a printshop called the Shoestring Press in Brooklyn. After doing that work for three years, I recognized that I needed an art practice to go along with anything else I did. I also began to wonder if there was a way in which I could use visual art for community building and for working with less visible communities to tell their stories. Instead of coming in from the outside and providing an intervention, I was curious to see if art might be a more empowering tool. That’s why I started this MFA program; I wanted to see if I could express my ideas more clearly through art,, and if I could be a more useful resource for other people in this way too.
How do you title prints? Woolgathering, for instance?
FM: I made this print in January and titled it in March. I read this book, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and the protagonist was thinking about a love interest while her friend was trying to talk to her. This friend was not a native English speaker; she told the narrator, the protagonist, to “stop woolgathering.” I looked up this word and it means to obsessively think about things that aren’t important, indulging in a useless thought, and I thought it was funny that a non-native English speaker would think to use this word.
What’s going on in Woolgathering?
FM: It’s an etching with a silkscreen print over it. Here, two figures are walking through an old historical neighborhood in Karachi that I photographed. My mother often accompanies me when I photograph - this has become our way of connecting.The print is a combination of a scene in Karachi and a structure in my neighborhood in Harlem.
I notice you use the word “negotiate” a lot. I’m curious what this word means to you. What does it mean to negotiate?
FM: I think I’m trying to figure out where to exist. I think about negotiating my presence when I’m in Karachi; I have not contributed to society, politics or economy as much as I wish I did, and yet that is my home. What does that mean? I think a lot about negotiating my presence here in the States, too, because although I spent my whole adult life serving communities and feeling proud of that here, and learning about its politics, my rights here are limited. I’m figuring out where I fit and where I want to put my work into. I don’t know the answers yet, but I’m following where my interests take me in my immediate life.
How has art been empowering for you during this time?
FM: When I started graduate school I was thinking about how art can be a form of empowerment. This summer I acquired the Lucas T. Carlson grant and designed a project where I would use the money to mail postage stamps and art supplies to students. I partnered with a Bed-Stuy based arts organization called Alpha Arts Alliance that connected me with students from a charter school in Bed-Stuy who were never offered an arts class in their curriculum even though they are passionate about learning art. So I found my students, I got my grant. I mailed them a lot of cool art supplies and postage stamps. We meet twice a week for six weeks, and we make drawings daily, exchanging them in the mail. It’s funny because a lot of young people -- my students are 11-18 -- don’t all know how to send mail. I’m doing demonstrations on Zoom on how to label envelopes, where to put stamps.
I think the coolest part about this course is that I’ve hired other artists to teach part of it with me. I’ve been teaching some sessions by myself, but I have invited a songwriter, a poet, a painter, a collage artist-- who have skills that I don’t have but which I feel are good for communicating ideas. They come in with their lesson plans, we provide brief and occasional art history lessons. From September 28 to October 8, we will exhibit the drawings online in an auction, which will provide an opportunity for these students’ artwork to be out in the world.
FM: For one particular assignment, I asked students to draw what they saw through their window, and looking at their drawings really transported me back to my days as a social worker working in Bed-Stuy. It’s so interesting to return to this space, but in a different way of working with the same people and same communities.
Excited for the new semester? What classes are you taking?
FM: The classes I’m taking next semester are Probability and Decision Theory; something I think about a lot is how people of color--I’m speaking just for myself--sometimes I feel powerless in our current society because there are so many constraints you have to work with. You have to work within the constraints that come with your status; you can’t do anything you want in this social structure, so you have to be a DREAMer, you have to do things that are unprecedented, and all of this comes with a lot of anxiety and managing your position and I think with my art, something I strive to do is to describe my narratives clearly. I’m also taking a political science class that talks about the structure of politics in post-colonial South Asia. In the past, I’ve used classes to inform what I want to make in my art, so I will take these classes--and I will go from there.