“That’s Andy Warhol’s Rolls Royce,” says a man at the entrance, pointing to the burgundy 1974 Rolls Royce with a New York license plate reading “WARHOL” that greets visitors upon entering the Revolver gallery in Santa Monica. As we talk, I learn that I’m talking to Ron Rivlin an entrepreneur who owns the gallery, the Rolls, as well as all the Warhol prints and sculptures at the Warhol Revisited exhibition.
Invited by fellow parent and filmmaker John Heinsen, René, Minal, my mother and I are with John, his wife Lisa Quon and their children, viewing the Warhol Revisited exhibition. The touring show opened a few days ago, “coinciding with the 30th anniversary of Andy’s untimely death.” The show is free, but in order to attend, one must make an online appointment.
Inside the gallery, spaces are filled with Warhol’s soup prints, Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Mohammad Ali and Chairman Mao series alongside more prints and some sculpture. The gallery also offers a store and a room to view a documentary about Warhol.
“The Rolls Royce was first purchased by a man at Sotheby’s,” Rivlin tells me. “When he heard of my collection, he sold the car to me with a special discount.”
Upon learning that I recently relocated from Houston to Los Angeles, Rivlin says: “I’d love to tour the show in Houston. But I don’t want to work with museums. I’d rather rent a space where I can control what I do. For example, this is a free show, the way Andy would have wanted. It’s accessible to all. And I want to sell the art.” He points at the walls: “All this work is for sale. I have more upstairs…”
Later on in the evening, René and I head out again, this time with our friend Shaista Parveen to Viva Cantina in Burbank for a concert by rock icon Alejandro Escovedo; René has known Alejandro since René’s Austin days more than twenty-five years ago.
Since this is a blog post where I try to post minimal text, I won’t share details about other highlights of the day: ramen noodles in Little Tokyo, dessert in Santa Monica’s Sweet Lady Jane café, and the double rainbow on our drive back from Santa Monica.
Some days are just more full than others.
A selfie with Alejandro and René at Viva Cantina
18 Feb 2017 · 11:47:10 PM
Today, before heading out to Karachi Literature Festival at the Beach Luxury Hotel, filmmaker Tehmina Ahmed and I carve out time to visit Khajoor Bazaar. Located in old Karachi, the bazaar offers walking lanes lined with open stalls selling dates from around Pakistan as well as imported from the Middle East, alongside cloth, spices, and other household goods.
Here, many years ago, I discovered beads made with nutmeg, cardamom, clove, and other spices; A shopkeeper tells me the garlands are used in parts of Sindh as gifts for brides; the garlands also served as inspiration for “Reclaiming Home,” an art installation I created in 2013.
Today, I visit the bazaar to replenish my stock since the necklaces I bought years ago have lost fragrance. I find the dangling beads in one shop but upon closer examination, I notice that the cloves have been replaced by black plastic pellets.
“Too expensive to use real spice,” the shopkeeper tells me. “I can make better ones for you if you can pick them up in a few days.”
Tehmina and I wander further down the lane stop at another shop where spice-beads dangle, again with black plastic pellets. The shopkeeper invites us inside the stall and holds up 15 necklaces that are made with real clove, priced at Rs.150 ($1.50) each, more than ten times the price of garlands with plastic. I purchase the full set of 15 beads.
“That’s all I have,” he tells me. “No one buys real necklaces anymore,” He, too, offers to make me more if I pre-order.
The conversation reminds me of my 2010 trip to Mauripur where artists create truck art. Back then, I was looking for a buraq sticker and was told the same thing: No one buys the buraq stickers any more. That spring, I had more time and was able to pre-order images for the art car I was co-creating in Houston. Since the buraq image is considered pagan, religious reasons were driving market changes. However, I felt hopeful when I picked up my stickers and the shopkeeper told me: “I ordered 100 more buraq stickers because of you. Maybe more people will buy and the sticker will become popular again…”
But this trip is short. I don’t have time to order additional garlands. I leave, wondering what sad changes I’ll encounter the next time I venture into Khajoor Bazaar.
11 Feb 2017 · 07:34:10 PM
Even though my time in Karachi is brief, I’m able to carve out time to accept
Asif Farrukhi’s long-standing invitation to visit Habib University, a liberal arts school that opened less than three years ago. Over an informal lunch, I listen to students share about their poetry slam initiative, their competition in India and their interest in revisiting Partition issues through their family lens. I also talk to students and staff about VBB, my work and the Borderlines project.
During a short tour, I visit the outdoor theater that has one wall painted with truck art (below), a bulletin board that contains Urdu newspaper clippings from August 1947, and the “smoking lounge,” an outdoor space, where students gather to chat and some play music (above).
9 Feb 2017 · 08:22:16 PM
Empty airplane seats on my 16-hour journey from LAX to KHI, where I’m heading for just six days to participate in the annual Karachi Literature Festival, which will attract more than 100,000 attendees.
The Emirates airline representative at LAX airport says that flights have been running empty for a week since the executive order banning refugees from seven predominately Muslim countries and the cancellation of more than 100,000 US visas.
“Starting next week,” she tells me, “we’re going to run smaller aircraft between the US and Dubai.”
But for today, I have four seats to myself. I spend most of the journey sleeping.
author Kate DiCamillo with Minal
Ever since Minal learns that she won first place in the Scholastic Reader’s Raymie Nightingale contest, she has been waiting for Kate DiCamillo’s visit to her school, Blair Middle and High School.
The two months slip away in the midst of political unraveling around us, and this morning, when I drop Minal to school, the day feels like any other. But a few hours later, once I return to campus to join the middle school assembly, there is celebration in the air with balloons, posters and middle school students gathered in the gymnasium. Minal and her English teacher, Christine McLaughlin sit in front of a cheering audience while Kate shares slides and talked about her journey as a writer.
Afterwards, Kate walks between students, answering questions (“What’s your favorite book?” “Are you married?” and “Do you still write two pages every day?”). Once the public session ends, Minal and her teacher escort Kate to Minal’s class, where Kate signs books for Minal’s classmates, who receive t-shirts, a copy of Kate’s Raymie Nightingale, and pizza (funded by the Scholastic Reader).
“It was wonderful to see Minal stand up there and take in all the applause with poise,” Kate tells me after she finished signing books. “I know she’s going to be a writer!”
Postscript: A few days later, Kate adds a note on her FB page – click here to read.
03 Feb 2017 · 04:54:43 PM
Now more than ever it’s important to push past rising walls. In about a month, Voices Breaking Boundaries’ latest publication, Borderlines Volume Three, will be available. The publication, containing writings and art from Bangladesh, Canada, India, Mexico, Pakistan, the US-Mexico border and Houston, is a labor of love driven by a team including: co-editors, Margot Backus PhD, Maria Gonzalez PhD, who donate their brilliance for the sheer joy of creating memorable publications; Joshua Turner, who has been designing all Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) books even as he moves between jobs in New York and Houston; and Anna Saikin PhD, who juggles emails from the editors, contributors, readers and me and keeps track of all deadlines. As VBB’s Artistic Director, I’m involved in all levels of the publication.
Borderlines Volume Three is VBB’s final Borderlines publication and features art and writings by: Julia Villaseñor Bell, Britto Arts Trust, Jimmy Castillo, Oui Chatwara S. Duran, Claudia Cerrucha Espinosa, Sonya Fatah, Os Galindo, Victoria Paige Gonzalez, Paul Hester, Gelson Lemus, Sayantan Boka Maitra, Kabir Mokamel/Peace Street, Carolina Monsivais, Delilah Montoya, Veer Munshi, Minerva Reynosa, Bruno Rios, Stephanie Saint Sanchez, Sehba Sarwar, Mikaela Selley, Masooma Syed, Sukhada Tatke, Roberto Tejada, Charisse Weston, Sebastian Varghese, Stalina Villarreal, Gemini Wahhaj, Ilona Yusuf and Pablo Gimenez Zapiola.
The cover image is a photograph by Veer Munshi (whose interview by Sukhada Tatke is available in the book) and cover is designed by Angela Martinez, who has been working with VBB and me for almost a decade.
2 Feb 2017 · 07:30:11 PM
Woman waiting to catch Metro waves a banner designed by Stephen Fairey for The Amplifier Foundation’s We The People project
I wake up to hear the radio spitting stories about the wall that will be built no matter what, the continuation of the Dakota Access pipeline, rejection of refugees, removal of funding for international NGOs that cover fertility rights, reduction of taxes for corporations, eliminating healthcare for all. This is a short list.
Remembering Saturday’s excitement when Minal and I crammed into Los Angeles’s Metro with Elline Lipkin and her friend toward the Women’s March in Pershing Square, I search for hope, telling myself that these days will pass, that artists will be the ones to undo damage from this era. I am reminded of the destruction wreaked in 1977 after General Zia launched his military coup, kicking off laws that spiraled Pakistan into the middle ages. And I am inspired when I remember participating in Women’s Action Forum marches in the heart of Karachi.
When Minal grows older, she, too, will recall her first march with 750,000 children, women and men in downtown LA. She will save the photos she shared with friends who also marched with their mothers and fathers 1,500 miles away in Houston, twelve year-old girls pushed into political consciousness by a president whose actions will change the world they know.
Left: Woman holds up Stephen Fairey’s poster designed for the Amplifier Foundation’s We The People Project; Right: Image of Munira Ahmed in Fairey’s poster, also designed as part of Amplifier Foundation’s We the People project
24 Jan 2017 · 04:09:49 PM
“I’m at 10:21 seconds,” calls out Minal.
“I need to catch up—I’m at 10:24 seconds!” Minal’s friend’s voice ricochets from Minal’s video phone that’s propped up in front of our television screen.
“I’ll pause,” replies Minal.
Minal and her friend are participating in a “virtual playdate,” through which the girls—one in Pasadena, California and other in Houston, Texas—are watching the same Amazon Prime TV show. Speaking on video-phones with their I-pads projecting the show onto larger screens, the girls have timed their viewing so they can experience each episode at the same pace. Last night was a practice session, but tonight is a marathon.
During a break, I ask if they would call their virtual visit a “playdate” or a “hangout.”
Minal’s friend pauses and then responds: “A playdate!”
“Yeah,” agrees Minal. “I’d feel weird saying ‘hangout.’
“We’re not there yet,” her eleven-year-old friend explains.
14 Jan 2017 · 09:38:08 PM
This week, poet, performance artist and educator Christa Forster, who I met in Houston more than two decades ago and have remained friends with ever since, visited her hometown San Juan Capistrano, where her mother still resides. Undaunted by the sixty miles between Pasadena and Orange County, René, Minal and I head south, so we can spend some time with Christa and her family. After catch-up conversations, Christa gives us a tour of Mission San Juan Capistrano, a site that one of Christa’s California friends tells me I must visit with Christa.
The mission, which was founded in 1776 by Spaniards, was largely successful in its goals to convert members of the indigenous community, and remained active until 1821 when Mexico gained independence from Spain. Once the mission system was dissolved by the Mexican government, Mission San Juan Capistrano—like other missions around California—was abandoned, changing owners several times.
In 1844, the Mission property was purchased at a public auction by Christa’s ancestor, Englishman John (Don Juan) Forster, brother-in-law of California’s governor, Pio Pico. Using the Mission as a ranch, John (Don Juan) Forster and his family resided in the building for twenty years until 1864 when Abraham Lincoln reclaimed the property and returned the site to the Catholic Church. (Today, Mission San Juan Capistrano operates as a non-profit organization, offering tours and exhibitions and running a chapel.) Inside the Mission property, a room is dedicated to Christa’s family, showcasing photographs of John (Don Juan) Forster, his wife Ysidora Pico and California governor Pio Pico. After our Mission tour, Christa walks us to the O’Neill Museum where a plaque honors her father, Tomas “Tony” Forster.
Though Christa has conducted research and created a performance piece about her ancestor Ysidora Pico—which I experienced several years ago—I didn’t comprehend her background until I witnessed how deeply her family roots are intertwined with San Juan Capistrano’s history. Given my own family’s movement from India to Pakistan—and now to different parts of the world—I’m especially appreciative of how Christa’s family history is preserved in one region.
The Mission courtyard
29 Dec 2016 · 10:08:14 PM
Note added on 16 Jan, 2017 When I tell my cousin Samina Hasan, who used to live in Dana Point (a beachtown close to San Juan Capistrano), about our visit, she sends me an email: OMG! Zoha [my daughter] went to Marco Forster Middle School, probably named after a relative of your friend.
And sure enough, a few hours later, Christa confirms by email: Marco Forster MS is named for my grandfather (my dad’s dad).
I’ve spent most of my life protesting. As a teenager, I marched on Karachi streets in support of women’s rights, after which I went on to college to join divestment rallies in support of an Apartheid–free South Africa and Take Back the Night marches in New York. While based in Houston, I created art productions that focused on race and gender equity.
This month, though, I’m adjusting to being based in a part of the US that’s led by a progressive government where ”lawmakers announced bills that would provide attorneys to immigrants in the country illegally, refuse assistance to any proposed registry of Muslim immigrants and require any wall built along the Mexican border to first be approved by California voters.”
14 Dec 2016 · 04:49:12 PM
At ten thirty this morning, I receive an email from Minal’s English teacher with a subject line: We WON THE GRAND PRIZE!!!!!!!!!!!
Over the course of the day, details unravel and we learn that Minal’s essay, “A Friendship Created by a Sequin,” won first place in a national writing competition in which Minal’s English teacher, Ms. McLaughlin, submitted essays produced by her students.
As a result of Minal’s first place win, author Kate DiCamillo is scheduled to visit Minal’s classroom in February 2017.
06 Dec 2016 · 10:35:58 PM
Pink graffiti on a rock along my path as I hike in Eaton Canyon.
28 Nov 2016 · 06:33:02 PM
After spending five days in Houston, Minal flies with me to Washington DC where I’m invited to attend a National Endowment for the Arts convening. With a free day before the conference, I ask Minal what she wants to do on her first trip to DC.
“Visit the White House,” she tells me.
Once we reach the white-pillared building, I notice that construction for the January inauguration has already begun. There are no protests on this warm, sunny afternoon.
Pushing back sadness, we turn toward the Mall, where we sight the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, which opened in September 2016. Though the museum is free, I’ve heard that the earliest tickets aren’t available until late spring 2017.
Taking a chance, I wander up the guard at the entrance and ask if there’s a chance for entry.
Without a change of expression, he says: “I have extra tickets today. How many?”
For a moment, both Minal and I think that the guard might be trying to scam us, but he reaches into his pocket and pulls out two tickets, which he then punches and drops into a bin. Gesturing for us to enter the steel framed four-story building, he steps aside.
Taking a deep breath, I hold Minal’s hand and we walk into the open space. We spend the four hours wandering through the different levels, starting from the lowest basement wings, as the docent recommends, to examine exhibits about slavery and the emancipation movement. When we emerge and take the elevator to the fourth floor to move through the arts and culture section, our minds are already soaked with images and ideas. The sun has dropped and is piercing through the steel. I know that I will return to spend more time in this space.
The next morning, the energy at the NEA convening is low; no one knows what to expect, how arts funding will change with the start of a new US administration, and how the backlash will affect progressive forces.
Today, our Uber driver who takes us to DC’s National airport is from Afghanistan, though technically he is Pakistani, since he was born in a refugee camp in Abbottabad.
“The Pakistani government won’t give our people citizenship,” he tells me as we chat in Urdu. “They are sending my people back to Afghanistan, even though many of us were born on Pakistani soil.” He shakes his head. “And now my family is in the US…but we don’t know how we long we will be here once the new US President is inaugurated.”
National Museum of African American History & Culture basement levels
20 Nov 2016 · 10:26:52 PM
Minal and I spend five days in Houston, where she couch-surfs at her friends’ homes, while I find refuge at my friend Jacsun’s house as I prepare for VBB’s November 14 archive celebration, Responding to Our World, at the University of Houston’s Library.
The day after the archives celebration, our friend Oskar drives Minal and me to the east Houston so we can revisit the house where Minal spent majority of her life. René and I recently sold the property after recognizing that the home required more upkeep than we could undertake at this time.
The construction workers allow us to enter the house, which was purchased to be “flipped”. The inside is unrecognizable: the kitchen and bathrooms have been torn up with toilets, sinks and tubs removed. The walls of our master bedroom are gone, so we can gaze out at the bougainvillea in the backyard, and the garage has been flattened.
We drive away wondering what the space will look like in a few months. Though the electric and plumbing systems will be modernized, I’m glad that the overall structure will be maintained as will the wood floors.
“My old room is the only one that looks the same,” Minal says in a low voice.
As we drive away, I remember how Minal’s green bedroom was the space I transformed in remembrance of my father, Dr. Mohammad Sarwar, for Voices Breaking Boundaries’ fall 2009 living room art production, Honoring Dissent/Descent in which I introduced my father to Houston. More than 400 people wandered through our home that night, experiencing installations, watching videos, meeting new people and eating fresh food. Audience members left with a better understanding of my father’s work. Thanks to filmmakers Yunuen Perez Vertti and photographers Eric Hester and Ben Soto, the work is documented and can be revisited, even though the house no longer belongs to René, Minal and me.
Above:image from 2009 Honoring Dissent / Descent in our backyard under the garage; Below: Flattened garage
15 Nov 2016 · 08:42:28 PM
I wake up with a hangover this morning even though last night, I drank only water. But I watched television for a long stretch.
In the morning, I drink more water peppered with coffee. On our drive to school, Minal and I discuss the outcome of last night’s US elections, and she confesses that she was texting her Pasadena school friends until ten o’clock at night. By then, she and her friends knew who was going to win. Her Houston friends don’t learn the news until they awaken.
Afterwards, on my daily hike, I process how we are living in a country where our neighbors, our police officers, our grocery store cashiers, our mechanics could well be part of the 47 percent of the US population that clicked a button to vote for a man who has been charged with sexual assault by 12 women, who wishes to create a wall between this country and another nation, and who has expressed a desire to deport a group of people who practice one religion. This is just a short list about the victor.
I want to raise my daughter in a world where women leaders serve as majority of those leading nations, even though I understand that like their male counterparts, some women will be progressive while others will be reactionary. According to Pew Research Center, 63 out of 142 nations around the world have had women leaders, but few governed for long periods. (A list of women leaders can be found on Wikipedia.)
Still, I am grateful that Minal learned about the possibility of women leaders when Minal was just three years old even though the circumstances were devastating.
09 Nov 2016 · 03:45:39 PM
Today, on my hike to Eaton Waterfall, right as I duck into the shaded trail, I notice a silver-haired man ahead of me, who keeps turning around to look at me. Because we are the only ones on the trail, I feel nervous. But after I take a turn, I don’t see the man any more, so I continue to the end of trail. On my hike back to the parking lot, I pass two park guards on the main trail. I mention the man to them.
“He has long hair, right?” they ask.
“He’s harmless,” one of the guard responds. “He lives in the cement hut that was part of a bridge leading to the waterfall. He’s never hurt anyone. …”
They continue rambling upward as I descend. Even though park hours are from sunrise to sunset, they seem unconcerned that someone is residing at the park. Houston security guards were never so relaxed when learning about people using public space for their housing.
Currently, according to the LA Times, Los Angeles has the largest number of people living on streets. Many live in Skid Row, others place tents below freeway bridges, while still more camp out in parks. In another LA Times article, the reporter points out that women comprise one third of the city’s homeless community.
As I read the story, I think about the shopping cart laden with blankets and plastic bags that I pass whenever I walk around Victory Park. The cart rests behind the baseball field net, just a few yards from where the weekly Farmer’s Market is held. On a Saturday morning just a few weeks ago, I notice a woman reposing on a chair beside the cart, her body wrapped in green blankets. We exchange glances, and then, she looks away, her blank gaze resting on the US Marine headquarters behind me.
As I get familiar with the landscape around me, I begin to notice that beside the double-storied houses and tree-lined streets, beneath the mountain ranges, and in the canyons reside men and women who sleep on pavements and in crevices. Once, at the entrance of a grocery store parking lot, a man greets me. He stands against the wall with his wife and two children, holding a sign: hungry – please help. Another time, a woman walks up to me with her six-year old daughter by her side, and asks for money—an encounter that remind me of women and children thronging Karachi streets.
04 Nov 2016 · 04:32:20 PM
I step out to our street today and freeze at the sidewalk. In front of me rests a red Honda Civic Hatchback, identical to the first new car I bought in 1993. I drove my hatchback up until 2010, after which Eric Hester and I created an art car together, Digital Meets Pakistani Truck Art.
With nine screens, a microphone stand, truck art stickers and reflectors from markets in Karachi, the car won an Art Car Parade award. The car was dedicated to artists that inspire me: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Patti Smith, Iqbal Bano and Liz Alexander, who had just passed away.
In 2013, just as I parked the car at Ken Crimmins’ The Silo – “a resting spot for art cars” – my hatchback’s timing belt broke. I have not seen the car since then.
25 Oct 2016 · 04:51:17 PM
A couple of months ago, when we first landed in Pasadena, California, I began my days with neighborhood walks, but lately, now that the weather has cooled off, I’ve begun hiking in Eaton Canyon instead. Located just a mile from where we live, the park is a “190-acre zoological, botanical, and geological nature preserve” at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.
And though just twenty minutes from downtown Los Angeles, hikes in the canyon are a quiet escape. My walks are punctuated by the crunch of gravel as my shoes and those of others move across the trails, the rustle of dry branches as squirrels and deer hide from humans, and the whistle of bluejays, thrushes and other birds I don’t recognize. I hike alone, but some walk in teams, and languages such as Armenian, Chinese, Spanish are part of the ambient sound. Sometimes, all other noises are drowned by the hum of a helicopter that we never see.
Often instead of taking the uphill hike, I choose a two-mile trail to Eaton Waterfall, a shady hike along a path where a stream once flowed, and one that ends at a shallow pond that’s shadowed by rocks and a “waterfall.” The cleft in the rocks and the rug of green moss indicate how strong the water surge once was, but now, with California’s drought in its third year, there is only a soft trickle of water.
Today, when I return to the main trail, I start a chat with a hiker, also a writer and mother, who informs me that she was unable to park her car where she usually does because the street entrance was closed. “There was a sign informing people that a man was attacked by a bear,” she tells me.
12 Oct 2016 03:40:10 PM
Our friend Oskar visits from Houston for just five days, and in the short amount of time that he is with us, we manage to visit a range of spaces including: Griffith Observatory, the Getty Center, where we view a short-term exhibition London Calling; WiSpa, a 24-hour Korean body spa in downtown Los Angeles; Matador Beach along Highway 101; and Watts Towers. We also dip into a Sikh-owned grocery store, where we purchase the best mithai I’ve tasted on this side of the Atlantic—or the Pacific, for that matter.
04 Oct 2016 · 07:44:17 PM
Last Wednesday, Minal turned twelve. I surprised her at her all-girls after-school choir practice with a chocolate cake and candles. Her choir group sang happy birthday, and her teacher allowed me to light candles so Minal could make a wish.
Even though twelve years have passed since Minal’s arrival, her early birth feels as if it happened recently. I spent a week in the hospital waiting for her, and thanks to my friend Michael Woodson, who showed up with a recorder the day before she was born, we can still listen to her heartbeat as it was transmitted from my stomach to speakers.
Minal’s birth and the recording of her heartbeat served as inspiration for new art that I created. In Fall 2008, when Minal was just four, Eric Hester who’s always up for adventure, found a way to help me obtain underwater footage. Using zip-lock bags and sand to protect the camcorder, he captured images of Minal and a friend’s daughter swimming. Using the underwater footage and Minal’s heartbeat as backgrounds, I created a short video collage, Seeking Solidarity interspersed with a conversation about race between Robert Pruitt, Ivette Roman and myself.
Also in 2008, my essay, “Heartbeat” was published in Calalloo, in which I wrote about the only time I was ever escorted to a police car. In the essay, I reflect on Minal’s future in a divided world.
Unintentionally, both my essay and video are about race and belonging. And today, twelve years since her birth, borders, race and ethnicity remain intertwined with varying scales of repression and violence; in Kashmir, the death toll rises, while Palestine remains isolated and in struggle, even as the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement escalates.
Sadly, these are just some struggles of our times. What will the list look like by the time Minal circles around another dozen years?
28 Sep 2016 12:23:47 PM