Death from the Skies: Meet 2017 Guggenheim Fellow / KSU Associate Professor Mahwish Chishty
Killing is an old story, but military drones are doing what they can to update it. Since 2004 the CIA, operating under the past two administrations, has waged what amounts to a futuristic, robotic aerial war against alleged terrorists organizing along Pakistan’s northwest border, killing thousands of people. Some died because they were targeted, others because they were too close to the action, or because mistakes were made, intelligence was misconstrued. Many of the names are known, many are not, but it’s certain that, along with potential enemy combatants, innocent men, women, and children were also killed, ordinary people who looked up at the blue sky too late.
Kent State University artist and associate professor Mahwish Chishty has been recognized this year with a Guggenheim Fellowship for her mixed-media works, mainly paintings on panel, that re-imagine and comment on these horrific practices, the digital surveillance era’s supposed improvement on carpet bombing.
Her colleague at KSU, Professor Emeritus and sculptor Paul O’Keefe, was also named a Guggenheim Fellow this year.
Raised in Saudi Arabia, Chishty was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and later schooled in the ancient Persian and Mughal techniques of miniature painting in that northeastern city. During a recent visit she found herself surrounded by discussions and protests regarding drones and began to look for her own ways to comment on the helplessness, rage, and almost intolerable strangeness of such warfare. It was easy enough to base a series of studies on photographs of the drones themselves, familiar to most people who follow the news. The military designations for these machines are darkly aggressive – Taranis, Predator, Reaper, Shadow, Raven, Barracuda. But their physical profiles aren’t nearly so intimidating. They look like unpainted model airplanes, or insects. Interestingly, some are literally designed to be hard to see, stealth craft configured to confound radar profiles.
Chishty realized she could use their bland exterior surfaces and contours as shaped canvases of a kind — they cried out for decoration. At some point also while she was mulling over her ideas, an exhibition detailing the history of battleship camouflage techniques and the so called “dazzle” ships of World Wars I & II at the Imperial War Museum in London came to her attention. It occurred to her that while the artists of WWI and WWII (modernist painters Norman Wilkerson, Edward Wadsworth, Abbot Handerson Thayer, and zoologist John Graham Kerr, among others, created masterpieces of Vorticism and misdirection on the hulls of the British fleet — at least when the Admiralty would permit it) needed to disguise the shape and heading of super-large machines, her own project was to make the anonymous trajectories of quite small machines more visible – literally, but also in cultural terms. And she realized she didn’t need to look very far for a suitable decorative mode.
It happens that besides the buzzing but nearly invisible drones, another notable species of traveler through the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan is the independently-owned fleet of commercial trucks. And unlike their counterparts in America, these are anything but boring or anonymous. Truck owners vie to create the most colorful, densely decorated vehicles possible. For more than half a century the streets and highways of Pakistan have hosted an ever-more colorful, over-the-top travelling art exhibit painted and otherwise built onto and into these trucks, and a host of other vehicles. The phenomenon of Pakistan’s truck art, along with related traditions in other Southeast Asian countries, has become widely celebrated since it exploded as a further dimension of Pop Art beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps drones could join the psychedelic, populist traffic jam.
Working on panel with tea-stain and gouache plus occasional areas of photo-transfer, her renditions of drones became spectacularly complex visual objects, frozen in conceptual flight above the sun-drenched, deep-dyed sepias of Pakistan’s barren mountain regions. Chishty depicts them almost as emblems rather than objects in space, viewed with static precision either from the front or the side, or the top. Their profiles stretch across and measure the available space of Chishty’s horizontal surfaces, dividing and dominating the visual field. But like a celestial vision, their actual substance is a mystery, their purposes subsumed in complex patterns, narratives and persons adopted from traditions and events around the globe. There are no portraits of Bruce Lee or Princess Diana (or Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as far as that goes, who called on President Obama to end the drone strikes in 2013) to be found on Chishty’s exquisitely rendered drones, as are often seen nestled among the motifs on Pakistan’s trucks. But some do have painted eyes, like the eyes of Pharaohs, or of mystic Sufi poets, speaking of the terrors of power and the disturbing indifference of the gods. On at least one Reaper-style drone she paints a skull and crossbones. There are carnation and arrow patterns everywhere, in red and white and blue (though also black and pale green), and sometimes the encompassing color-field of tea-brown is spangled with gold leaf. A few of these depictions are shaped like the drones they portray – Cheshty recreates the outline of one UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) used by the military that looks like a traditional Samurai helmet, and another that resembles a flying wing. Elsewhere she builds a painting surface that projects from the wall like two sides of a box, across which a drone is fixed like a lock, a closure or seal reaching from one dimension to the next.
Her next project, conducted in the wake of her recent recognition from the Guggenheim Foundation, will be a work of sound art, part of a residency and exhibit later this year at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, in Nebraska City. As a participant in the Naming the Dead Project, conducted by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (a not-for-profit research organization based in London, England), Cheshty plans to find local volunteers in Nebraska who will read aloud and record the names of persons killed in Pakistan drone strikes.
Cheshty’s oddly seductive, yet still murderous UAV’s, as motionless as ideal forms traced in mathematical space, yet traveling through the mind at ballistic speeds, are themselves a mode of transport, “trucks” unlocking distances between life and death, despicable function and the highest aspirations of art and loving kindness.