With an interest in how geopoltical affairs and social systems affect the formation and interpretation of personal and collective identities, Nairobi-born artist Tahir Karmali uses collage, photography, and papermaking to unpack micro and macro level issues related to these themes. By making a connection between concepts and the materiality of his chosen mediums, he questions and brings to light narratives around contemporary identities. His personal narrative as an artist from Nairobi who travels often and is now based in New York, forms the foundation of how his work is conceptualised and presented.
In his series PAPER:work he explores the gradation of validity and legitimacy and how these are achieved through working with paper. This touches on the complexities around nationality, authenticity, documentation and the creation of borders, particularly in Africa. With debates about refugees, specifically refugees of colour, on a pendulum that often swings towards a negative reaction, the use of paper as a medium is quite fitting. Paper provides access to visas, refugee status, citizenship, and property in a world that is determined to keep the idea of the nation-state alive. Karmali unpacks the limits that are enforced through one’s possession of particular documents, or in most cases, the lack thereof.
This unfolds through Karmali’s process of papermaking, where paper is embedded with photographs, patterns, thread, and quotes from identity documents used during colonial and post-independent Kenya. In the write up about PAPER:work Karmali states that, “Papermaking involves filtration of the pulp from the water and therefore mirrors how documents are used in border separation. A metaphor used to trigger questioning around the notions of authenticity, nationality, borders, colonialism, and history.”
His previous work Displaced addresses directly the issues around migration and belonging. He photographs people who have migrated to America, mostly for economic reasons. This series presented a moment for Karmali to reflect on his own experiences, and to be able to connect with people who have gone through similar identity shifts, frustrations and longing for home. Each image is titled with a quote which is a concise, momentary invite into the world from their point of view. Participants are photographed in what looks like a living room. However, the room is covered in a semi translucent plastic sheet. This signifies their feelings living in-between.
Visit Tahir Karmali’s website to see more of his work.