Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz ’08 in Varanasi, India, fall 2017

Uncovering the Heritage Silhouette: Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz '08

BY Brittany Nguyen, March 1, 2021

Uncovering the Heritage Silhouette is a bi-weekly series diving into how tradition influences the creation of art. We interview artists heavily influenced by their heritage. 

 

Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz ’08 is a Muslim American artist and educator whose work explores contemplative practice in relation to the creative process. Since earning her MFA from Columbia in 2008, Mumtaz has traveled extensively working as an artist, educator and researcher. Her art projects have circulated internationally, including solo and group presentations in the US, Pakistan, India, UAE and Europe. She has participated in exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum; the University of Buffalo Art Galleries; KMAC, Louisville; the Weatherspoon Art Museum; White Columns and IPCNY, as well as art fairs including Miami Art Basel, Art Dubai and the India Art Fair. Her work has been supported by grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Artist's Resource Trust, MASS MoCA, the Kittredge Fund, LIAEP, the Mid Atlantic Art Foundation and NYFA. She has taught widely in university art programs in the US and Pakistan and has participated in artist residencies in the US, India, Ireland and Spain. She currently lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, artist, art historian, and fellow alumnus Murad Khan Mumtaz ’10, and their two children, Hadi and Jahanara. 

04-07 - Traveler (Shadow Embroidery) installation view, 2015, Shadow projections from paper collage mounted on handloom silk textile, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz ’08

What does ‘cultural heritage’ mean to you? 

 

Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz: Something that has been bequethed to you and you value enough to share it with other people. For some that comes through a family channel, but it can be broader than that also. It can be everything you exteriorize, everything you share with the world. As an artist I think our job in some ways is to make sense of the world around us with what we have been given. ‘Cultural heritage’ is a lens through which we view the world. 

 

While very often it is a birth right, it can also be something that you discover. This can be through personal experience, relationships that you form, and paths that you take that are completely unexpected. For me that second component has been life changing, changing all the ways I live in the world but also the things that I make as a result. 

 

 

You mentioned someone consciously obtaining cultural heritage through lived experience. What is your experience in this?

 

APM: I grew up on a small farm in rural Maryland. I identify with a working-class/ aspirational middle-class sense of place and a protestant work ethic, an American local ruralism. My mother at an early age became interested in early American craft and that is something that she exposed me to. Seeing my mom teach herself crafts, ones that are quite archaic, such as textiles and cottage industry type things, I strangely could not stay away from craft, especially after becoming a mother myself. When I think about what my heritage is, I associate it with a rural, do-it-yourself ethic. 

 

From college until the large life-changing event where my art and life took a diversion, I lost touch with that part of myself. I started to think about my Americanness and middle-class whiteness as a sort of void, as I didn’t grow up with any religious or communal environment. This void was a large crisis for me when I met my husband, who is from Pakistan. His experience of religious, communal, and family culture was so monumentally clear and defined that I was attracted to those things but found myself to be this void in relation to that. 

 

Love and friendship eventually propelled me in a very different direction which brought about a tremendous opening to a larger world, and a new way of thinking philosophically about these things. This also precipitated a lot of fear about what it meant to come from one world and enter into another. But it was also a crisis that was ultimately productive for me and helped me get to know myself better. There is a lot that proceeded from there, but that is where my opening onto Pakistan, my experiences in Pakistan, and an embrace to a sort of Indo-Muslim traditional/progressive sensibilities started to crystalize. It became something that I first married into, and later sought very hard to understand from the inside and to participate in.

 

 

What is the life-changing event you mentioned? 

 

APM: In early 2010, I went to Pakistan for the first time. It was for the purpose of meeting my now husband's family, in the city of Lahore, and our engagement. I did not go with any exact intentions to but while I was there, I was moved to enter Islam in the context of the Sufi shrine located near my husband’s home. It is a very beautiful place, intoxicating yet peaceful. I think being in that space opened a door for me that was providential. 

 

I want to be clear that there was never any obligation or expectation that I would convert. There is a familiar saying that “there is no compulsion in religion” and this is actually taken from the Quran. The idea that a person would be coerced or pressured into religious conversion is completely non-traditional and not a part of this world view. So, this was something I did freely of my own volition, and it was a transformative thing, as religious conversion typically is. This certainly did create complexity in my life, but it was an amazing transformation. 

 

Interestingly it took me a while to fully enter practice because you must learn so much. It took several years to be fully in the Sharia. It affected my previous relationships, my view of things, my interests, my philosophical framework, and even my values shifted. For a long time, I was underground as I did not feel fully comfortable communicating myself. I was a stranger in a strange land, trying to maintain my links to my professional life back in New York and in the US. I truly felt like I didn’t belong to either place and I didn’t know how to communicate any of this. It was only after years quietly practicing my religion and finding a sense of equilibrium and security that I felt like I could disclose myself publicly. 

04-07 - Traveler (Shadow Embroidery) installation view, 2015 (left) & 11 - Traveler (Departure) installation view, 2014, Indigo dyed handmade paper collage mounted on silk (right)

One of the earliest projects you started after converting to Islam was Robes for Travelers in 2014. You can say this is a sort of comeback to your art. What exactly were these works? How did this journey begin? 

 

APM: The project started in 2014 and it is still alive in my mind. This was one of the first projects in which I was being honest towards what I really loved, believed in, and was interested in. Those robes are inspired by traditional Islamic robe textiles that are extremely beautiful. They are embroidered and made with handmade silks. The project was more symbolic than material focused though. I was interested in thinking of these robes as garments almost in apparition form. I was thinking about the idea that they were fragmentary symbols. If you look closely at them you will see tiny references to lots of floral motifs and semi-figurative motifs, in the very symbolic language of that textile tradition, specifically in South Asia. It references the idea of a garden of paradise, a sort of favorite image of Indo-Muslim culture and in particular mysticism. 

 

 

What is the significance behind using the garment, robes, and the subject, travelers?

 

APM: The “travelers” that I reference are those in the Sufi sense, not a physical traveler. In Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, the symbolic robe is for someone who is on a spiritual path. Someone who is embarking on a journey, which has nothing to do with temporal life. I thought of those robes as a symbolic manifestation of an inward state, which leans in the direction of beauty and paradise but is in fact fragmentary and sometimes restless. It needs growth to become whole. Their hovering quality represents someone who is both absent and present at the same time. 

 

This was a central part of those works. I wanted people to be in a certain mood when viewing those pieces such as to have a sense of uprightness. The robes kind of command an upright verticality both in the way you look at them and think about them, but also with the person wearing it as they are transformed. 

Studio view: Fourness (Design for a star quilt), 2020, Pencil on paper, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz ’08

Can I hear about the techniques and materials used in the project? What is the process like? 

 

APM: They are made on handwoven silk because I love the materiality and it also makes reference to some of the textile forms that inspired me to go down this road. They are made up of these tiny paper cutouts. This is a very labor intensive process where I make thousands of these tiny shapes that I appliqué onto the surface of silk. The choice of silk was about putting the viewer into a certain mood of the material sensitivity and sensuality, but it was also a practical decision. 

 

This process of making these collages on silk allowed me to transport the artworks as textiles, which is much easier than transporting a large drawing. My art life before moving to Pakistan was defined by these enormous, fragile, horribly difficult to ship pieces. When I moved overseas, I realized that if I wanted to continue creating art on such a large scale images that make you think of the body with a certain materiality that I love, I needed a more nomadic strategy. The silk system I developed allowed me to easily send things. As my work continued and became more international, textiles gave me a way forward.

 

The textile traditions that inspired me have always been nomadic also. Whether that is carpets, garments, or materials, they traveled everywhere, whether that is through the Silk Road or the networks of South Asia. So, I followed that way of thinking and stepped away from the modern fetishization of impractical materials. 

 

 

You often utilize artisanal materials such as handmade traditional papers, indigo, silk, gold, and more. How do you gather materials? 

 

APM: I am a scavenger. I do utilize the internet because why not, however, I try to incorporate things gathered through my experiences and my travels as much as possible. Right now, I can’t travel due to the pandemic, however something very interesting that has happened in my weaving practice is that things have started to just come. I have found this in different stages in my life. You make a strong intention and things sort of land in your lap. For example, I am working on this large, upright, archaic tapestry loom where the tools that I use are specialized and particular. You can always buy commercial tools, but it’s nicer to have old tools because they are tried and true, and they are also more diverse as they are handmade. A set of beautiful and quite perfect old tools were bequeathed to me by a close friend who had learned to weave in this manner some forty years ago. Some of the yarn even that I am using now are the ones that my mother had spun some thirty-five years ago. There are many other things that have similarly come to me. Others I seek out based on what I want to learn. For one of my upcoming projects, I collected some handspun natural indigo dye from Northern Scotland. Indigo is a running theme for me aesthetically. The urge to learn things has always guided a lot of my material decisions. 

 

 

You often reference complex objects that incite the engagement within ritual acts. Lots of the imagery I assume is devised from Indo-Muslim South Asia such as the wasli paper. I read that in 2016, a Kittredge Fund grant allowed you to travel and research for a year. What were your goals, your discoveries, and the overall experience of your travels?

 

APM: My first trip to India was for an exhibition and it was a very eye-opening experience where everything I experienced seemed so familiar yet so far away from my life in Pakistan. It was an exploratory trip. On the second and third trip I went to the city of Varanasi, sometimes called Banaras or Benares, which is one of the most important pilgrimage centers in the whole world. There is a very old pilgrimage culture associated with the sacred city. I went there not really knowing what on earth I was going to do there but desperately wanting to make contact with this place. The grant was sort of designed to put me in touch with the handweaving community because there is a tradition of high-level silk weaving there. It is made in a very humble way but is a sought-after heritage fabric. The weavers are predominantly Muslim, with some Hindus amongst them, as the craft came from Indo-Muslim clans. So, I got contact with that community and by accident I discovered this important site, the ashram of the Kabir-Panth.

 

The actual practical element of the weaving was not very successful because in that weaving tradition, only men do it and it’s an elaborate loom. The majority of the weavers have been weaving since a young age. Entering into that milieu is almost impossible for a western woman. So, I observed only as an outsider. 

 

 

I did see the work you were creating responds to the literary tradition of Kabir. Who is this and why was his existence important to your experience there? 

 

APM: Kabir was a saint of India who was a fascinating antinomian figure claimed both by Muslims and Hindus. He said he was neither, he was very iconoclastic, a mystic who was also of humble origins. He was born a weaver and died a weaver, but he was also one of the great literary figures of medieval India. He left an extraordinary well of spiritual literature in the form of poems and ecstatic utterances which are preserved through both textual and oral traditions.

 

Kabir's hagiography  is interwoven with many of the sites in the city of Varanasi. This became a lens for me to experience this place and meditate on Kabir’s use of weaving as an elaborate extended metaphor for spiritual experience. That was how the weaving started to make sense to me. 

Janamaz (work in progress), Prayer Rug, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz ’08

And now you are weaving! Do these approaches still continue with you today? What are you working on now? 

 

APM: It is still very much animated by what I have learned from Kabir, the mystic, however it is flowing through a different channel and practical form now. I am working on a tapestry loom now with the help of a grant I got some months ago. I have been occupied with teaching myself how to use it. 

 

I’m also consumed with making prayer carpets. The space of prayer must be purified and sanctified. These tiny prayer carpets, in Urdu called janamaz,function as a portable mihrab, which is the niche portion of a mosque that delineates the direction for prayer. So, the idea of the prayer carpet is as poignant to me as it is a humble, portable textile mihrab. Many are extremely beautiful, but do not exclusively have to be. The carpets represent intention. 

 

How did you come to make prayer rugs?

 

APM: I thought to myself that if I am going to weave that I want to do it in a form that is not just decorative or about fashion. The Varanasi weavers make extraordinary things, but they are incredibly expensive fashion objects. I came to the realization that I greatly appreciate what they do and their incredible knowledge, design sense, and ingenuity, but I do not belong there. It is not the dimension of textile practice that ultimately is moving to me. The existential project of making a textile that is a tool of prayer is far more poignant and meaningful to me. It’s an evolution I’ve had over the time since. 

 

These rugs are almost a direct result of the pandemic. The limitations of travel have been tremendously difficult for me and my family. However, in a strange way it has created an opening for me. For the first time in almost twelve years I have been able to stay in one place for a long period of time and do the things one can do while sedentary. I have completely focused on things that are very much in the domestic space and have reevaluated my practice. I think about how the only real direct audience of my work is my family. I think about what it means to my children that I am doing these things. I have been shifting my focus towards making things that have meaning value, specifically use value for my family, things that my children can use and want to have beyond my presence in their life. Heritage objects are really what drives my practice at this moment. It won’t be the only thing I’m doing, but right now I’m thinking about what I can make that will not be a burden for them, but rather a part of their everyday life. I hope it becomes a material prolongation of me as a person who had a series of intentions and wishes and prayers for their future. Creating living heritage that is in particular sensitive to the very layered, multivalent kind of life my children will have. They are both Pakistani and American, and they have a complex network in their heritage. I want them to be proud of those parts of themselves. 

Talismanic Shirt (work in progress), two-sided collage construction composed of studio remnants collected 2014 to the present, by Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz ’08