The sea of my young self is calm. Yet, the purpose of depicting the sea in art and literature, it seems to me, has always been to illustrate its destructive power. As I devour the cultural gifts nature inspires, I find it endlessly evokes Turner’s interpretation of slavery boats, or the pedestal for mighty ships from the Dutch golden age flexing their naval power. Only recently have the overflowing boats of migrants adrift on top of the sea surface fleeing conflicts from the Middle East forced me to avert my gaze. These images of the sea have entered the subconscious narrative of animosity towards Muslim immigrants, and I cannot help but feel uncomfortable. Perception of the sea is transformed. I ask myself if it can ever be reclaimed.
This is a question that also preoccupies the artist Hajra Waheed. What light could she, known for addressing cultural identity formation in relation to political history, popular imagination and the impact of colonial power, throw on the question? A mixed-media artist and 2014 winner of the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award, she generates existential questions imbued with complexities. The opening chapter of her visual novel, which exhibited in London in Spring 2016, encapsulates this talent perfectly. Waheed is no stranger to tackling intricate issues on high-profile platforms. Her work is well received internationally and she has featured prominently in numerous permanent collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the British Museum in London, the Burger Collection in Zurich and the Devi Art Foundation in New Delhi. Born in Canada, she travelled to New York to study before returning to the country of her birth. Her previous works oscillate between loss and identity, including one that, for me, continues to resonate: the Anouchian Passport Portrait Series (2010–). An ongoing project, this study in charcoal of Lebanese men and women is taken from photographs of the Tripoli-based Armenian photographer Antranik Anouchian and held by Beirut’s Arab Image Foundation. Waheed’s series The Missed (2012) is also pertinent, comprising subjects devoid of identities. What we see before us are forgotten people, and the viewer is invited to write the story behind the image. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that she has been described as creating an ‘index of the unidentifiable’.