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Jum’ah at the Tate: Interview With Artist Abbas Zahedi

by in Identity on 18th January, 2018

How do you feel about praying Jum’ah at the Tate?

London based artist Abbas Zahedi is organising just that as an installation, part of the annual Tate Exchange programme taking place this week at the Tate Modern. Completing his MA in Contemporary Photography; Practices and Philosophies at London’s Central Saint Martins (UAL), Zahedi’s current work is strongly influenced by his concept of ‘Neo-Diaspora’ which he describes as the exploration of “the imaginal quality of being a second generation migrant in a hyper-connected world.” We spoke to Abbas about faith, the white gaze, and his inspirations.

Why did you specifically choose to share the experience of Jum’ah prayer as a part of your work?

I wanted to present a work that could re-imagine the idea of a contemporary art space for Central Saint Martins Studio Complex with Tate Exchange. By choosing to host a Friday prayer I am making a statement which raises a number of questions. One of which is neo-diaspora getting the support they need from public and communal spaces to pursue artistic practice; for example, could a mosque host an artist’s studio? Especially when many of them are empty except on a Friday afternoon. The other issue is thinking about how contemporary galleries and arts institutions can become more accessible to diasporic bodies of flesh and praxis.

My idea came from looking at technical images of the Tate Modern and noticing that it shares some structural features with a typical idea of a mosque. Around the same time, I was also reading texts by a philosopher of new media called Vilém Flusser. Flusser talks a lot about how our modern approach to images contains this quality of replacing our sense of reality. So taking the structure of the Tate Modern, all I had to do was add a small dome onto the Switch House and extend the chimney into a minaret to create this new idea of a Tate ‘Mosque’ Modern. It was whilst doing this that it occurred to me to juxtapose a ‘mosque-activity’ with an ‘art-activity’ within the space itself.

The fact that I am utilising a Jum’ah (Friday) Prayer to make this Flusserian intervention, in what is considered to be a ‘temple of images’, is also really interesting to me. Especially as you know, amongst Muslims there is this age-old debate about the permissibility of image depictions. It’s also worth noting that the Friday congregation was the first form of media in Islam, in terms of mass communication, and this adds another layer in relation to Flusser and new media paradigms.

With respect to the prayer itself though, there is this quality of dissolving the individual into a communal fold which I am really interested in. For many people this may be the only encounter of this kind they have on a regular basis, but it’s still not accessible to everyone and there can be issues in the way that it’s structured in some places. So by hosting it in a gallery it helps to open up the whole thing. I think that prayer is a deeply personal and sacred practice, which has this communal frame of congregation in Islam. I believe that these two can come together to form the basis of a creative ritual process, which can activate latent potential in a space like the Tate.

Juma’h is not only the Arabic word for Friday, but it’s a literal reference to the act of establishing a gathering.


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The work encourages engagement with Muslims whilst being exhibited in a public space, what are your thoughts on Muslim culture being viewed under the ‘white gaze’?

It’s fair to say that Muslims are seen as a primary category of Other in Europe today and maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel like a public gallery is a relevant space in which to pray. I just want to move away from the category becoming this antagonistic signifier; to quote Rasheed Araeen “Being on the periphery does not necessarily mean the condition of surrogatory and submission. Periphery must have its own dynamic..”

There have been white and European Muslims from well before this age, so the racial thing is not my point. Although I think it has become easier to essentialise oneself based on the labels that we receive from around us. If someone finds it troublesome to pray in a gallery, I’m really curious to know why they feel that way and what is the process to unpack the underlying assumptions in there? There was a really important text released two years ago called What is Islam? written by the late Shahab Ahmed. This book tries to grapple with the question it poses and presents an argument for an understanding of Islam, where variety and contradiction are at the heart of faith. So with my choice to do a Jum’ah at the Tate, I am trying to situate something as part of that dialogue, where there are these structures at play, but we don’t know what that they mean anymore.

On the issue of ‘white gaze’, I think it’s an important point to consider, but I don’t feel I can do it justice in the context of this interview. There are colleagues of mine such as OOMK zine, Hamja Ahsan and The White Pube, who work around this theme, adding to a vital discourse that is still emerging and processing its position. Furthermore, there are new artists coming forward who are Muslim and operate openly without any apology for their faith. One recent example that comes to mind is @muslimsisterhood, who are challenging perceptions through their activity on Instagram. Nevertheless, I feel it would be both naïve and undesirable to try and frame my own practice in relation to a ‘white gaze’ – it just doesn’t come from that place. Although I do feel it is pertinent to ask such questions as part of a broader discourse relating to spheres of power and ever-changing hegemonic structures.

With the Studio Jum’ah there is an open choice of participation and I will also include a discursive offer of co-authorship, so as to expand the opportunity further.

What’s in store for 2018?

Last year I was part of a show called the Diaspora Pavilion, which took place during the Venice Art Biennale. It was a really important intervention in that context and activated many of the points I have touched upon above. A new version of the show will be on at Wolverhampton Art Gallery from 10th February this year, so I encourage people to check that out.

Apart from that, I will be working on some collaborations and a podcast idea which will allow me to spend time in the studios of beautiful souls like Meryem Meg. I have never studied art before, so now that I am at Saint Martins I just want to immerse myself in the course and make the most of the opportunity I have there to develop my ideas with the support of my tutors and peers.

Lamisa Khan

Lamisa Khan

Lamisa is an International Relations graduate. She enjoys eating cake, drinking lemonade and ranting about important things.