Whether displaying archival photographs to bring out their hidden significance, juxtaposing them with denunciatory texts or using sitcom-style dialogues to highlight the subtexts of video footage, Maryam Jafri upends the conventions of the documentary image. In so doing, she turns it into a springboard for her own meticulously researched politico-economic critique. As the writer Patricia Reed once observed, the Pakistani-born American artist works through, around and against documentary photography and film.
Take Jafri’s photographic series ‘Independence Day 1934–1975’ (2009–ongoing), shown at Bétonsalon in Paris earlier this year. Here, Jafri grouped found images depicting the run up to independence of former colonies across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. She arranged the images according to the type of event, whether parades, celebrations or addresses to the nation. Although the protagonists differ, the photos in each category are remarkably similar. We see how African and Asian leaders adopted their departing colonizers’ rituals and gestures, suggesting how quickly these fledgling nations assimilated European models. These similarities, however, can also be interpreted as a form of mimicry – an act that, as Homi K. Bhabha has pointed out, is close to mockery and has the potential to undermine power.
Likewise exposing the turmoil and uncertainty hidden in seemingly celebratory historical documents, Getty vs. Ghana (2012) – a photo/text work on display at Jafri’s recent solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel – features two nearly identical photographs of a Ghanaian independence ceremony in 1957. Jafri’s terse accompanying caption points out that the left-hand photo belongs to the Ghana Ministry of Information, while the right-hand one has been copyrighted by Getty Images and bears a caption that highlights the presence of the Duchess of Kent. The juxtaposition suggests how the types of access to an image can affect its meaning, while highlighting the risks of allowing private interests to wield control over a nation’s photographic heritage. As in the series ‘Independence Day’, the documentary image becomes a battleground for conflicting interests.
Also on view at Kunsthalle Basel, ‘Product Recall: An Index of Innovation’ (2014–15) tackles issues of manipulation and abuse of power, this time in relation to recalled or unsuccessful consumer products. The series features actual samples of a range of failed items, with accompanying texts and still-life images Jafri sourced from the archives of people in the food industry and branding consultants. One such product – a baby bottle bearing a Diet Pepsi logo – attempted to sensitize newborns to Pepsi (while encouraging their mothers to give them a completely inappropriate beverage). Jafri’s accompanying caption reveals the name of a significant minority stakeholder in the venture – the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan – suggesting that, whether or not the teachers knew how their pension funds were invested, they were in some sense complicit in the product’s development, albeit to a lesser degree than the manufacturers.
In stark contrast to the colourful, branded items of ‘Product Recall’, Jafri’s most recent work, ‘Generic Corner’ (2015–ongoing), comprises stark, minimal images and examples of the generic household and food products that appeared in us supermarkets in the late 1970s. These white packages, whose contents were identified in plain black type, eschewed design and marketing and were, consequently, significantly cheaper than those of competitor brands. Yet, consumers associated them with low-income budgets or suspected them of being of dubious quality, testifying to the importance of marketing in stoking consumer desire. Whereas pop art explored the coloured, branded imagery of the Campbell’s Soup can, the ominously anonymous white items in ‘Generic Corner’ constitute what Jafri calls ‘monochrome pop’.
Pop is just one of the references in Jafri’s work. Her practice also recalls conceptual combinations of images and text – from Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) to Hans Haacke’s Manet-projekt ’74 (1974) and Taryn Simon’s images of ‘Contraband’ (2010). As for Jafri’s videos, they sit within a rather different lineage that includes Rainer Werner Fassbinder-style melodrama, Henrik Ibsen’s realistic dramas and even us tv sitcoms, while pursuing similar themes as her photographic works. The subject of food production is central to Jafri’s video Mouthfeel (2014), a melodrama set in the near future. The piece features a fictitious couple, who work for the same multinational food company, arguing in the back of a luxury car over the potential health risks of their new product. The wife, a food technologist (played by Jafri), symbolizes an emerging multi-ethnic professional class, who adhere to the capitalist system and are as entangled in it as their white counterparts. The artist interrupts the drama with found TV advertisements that show how a regional West African company and a large multinational corporation use the same marketing techniques.
Jafri explores other forms of production and consumption in her video Avalon (2011), which contains footage of a facility somewhere in Asia that manufactures fetish wear. The images are interspersed with staged scenes based on interviews with end-users, one of whom, in a surprising twist, sees himself not as a passive consumer but as a sexual activist. Here, as in many of her works, Jafri shows how the documentary image can be a space for the expression of liberatory aspirations and desires as much as it can confine them.
Maryam Jafri is an artist based in New York, USA. Her solo exhibition ‘Generic Corner’ is on view at Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland, until 1 November. Her work is also included in the Belgian pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Italy, and the Gothenburg Biennial, Sweden, until 22 November.
First published in Issue 175