By SUSAN VAN SCOY, November 2021
Throughout her new book, Home. In my heart, beating far away, artist Lali Khalid weaves her journey of becoming a new mother into her experiences navigating Western culture while seeking to maintain her authentic South Asian heritage and family roots. Imbued with notes of transition, identity and belonging throughout, the work is visually striking in its rendition and profound, if occasionally elusive, in its treatment of these complex themes. The book is prefaced with an introductory essay and foreword written by Professors Allen Frame and Jaspal Kaur Singh and divided into three chapters of 20-23 color photographs each. Khalid, who was born in Pakistan and came to the U.S. to study, immigrated here in 2011, and now teaches photography at Ithaca College.
In the first few pages of Home, we glimpse the artist seated in shadow, backlit by a window, in an impersonal, wooden-paneled bedroom. Clues identify the space as temporary—personal objects on the nightstand and a suitcase open on the bed. Entitled On the last day, her face is shrouded in darkness but her upright posture denotes that she is keenly surveying the situation. She is going on a journey, but we don’t know where. This intuitive sense of “being while traveling” permeates her book. Khalid achieves this in part through her use of the dupatta, a cloth traditionally used as a sign of modesty and for prayer but now worn as more of an accessory in contemporary Pakistani dress. The word dupatta is derived from Sanskrit meaning du-for two, and paṭṭā -for strip of cloth, as it was usually doubled around the head; however, Khalid uses the dupatta to symbolize her homeland of Pakistan and her mother as well as the dual nature of acclimating to a new culture while leaving another one behind. In Khalid’s works, the dupatta appears in many forms throughout the work as a shapeshifter—it can be floating and translucent or dark and looming, indicating the protective yet sometimes burdensome nature of a dual identity.
Home. In my heart, beating far away is significant in many ways, including its return of sorts to the photo book. Similar to songs on a CD or album, these photographs can all stand on their own, but when viewed collectively show a narrative progression that yields richer meditations on the intersection of diaspora, acculturation, and motherhood. Like Robert Frank’s use of gesture in The Americans, Khalid uses various forms of cloth—shirts, blankets, dupattas, baby slings, hijabs, sheets, blindfolds, underwear—as transitional objects pulling the viewer from one image to the next. Her works bear some resemblance to works featured in The Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking 1991 exhibition Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, which was one of the first to feature photographers who focused on the home; however, at 30 years old and featuring mostly white photographers, the subject gets a much-needed update from Khalid. Khalid uses the genre of self-portraiture to explore the role of motherhood following along the lines of Diane Arbus, Renee Cox, Catherine Opie, and Annie Wang, among others.
Taken over the course of ten years, the photographs are presented chronologically. Chapter one begins with self-portraits of Khalid alone in domestic and public settings emerging out of barriers and darkness with patches of interstitial light. Towards the end of the chapter, her pregnancy becomes apparent as her upper torso is wrapped in a scarf as she is standing in the ocean with her back to the waves. Later, her son appears, playing under a scarf or sitting on a blanket and her photographs capture the joyous moments of motherhood tempered with the exhausting, long, sometimes lonely, days filled with walks to the park and kiddie pools.
Chapter two is largely derived from Khalid’s series Being Between, where the dupatta is featured heavily. Using a timer, Khalid inserts herself underneath dupattas in a wide array of colors and weights, attaining various heights and forms against a multitude of locales in the U.S. and Pakistan such as a beach, tire yard, park, Pakistani street, abandoned gas station, and fields. Based on their color and positioning, the dupattas take on different effects. One of the more visually arresting works from this series, Facing south, Khalid, dressed in all black, walks in profile view in a forest through knee-high wildflowers with a poppy red dupatta soaring overhead, triumphantly flag-like. In Seconds before leaving, Khalid packs a diaper bag with her son on her hip, the white duppata a floating specter above both of their heads. Remarking on dupattas in her work, Khalid said, “It’s protecting me, but it’s also following me. It’s hovering. It’s impressions of a culture that I’m adapting to, which is American culture, but it's also the culture I’m forgetting.”
The third and final chapter deals more with the issues of “otherness” that Khalid faces as a Pakistani citizen living in the United States and dealing with the bureaucratic nightmares of citizenship applications and the family court law system. In The sun will go down, Khalid sits in the middle of an institutional folding table clutching her passport. The angle is slightly tilted to the left to reveal a white man cropped just enough to see his professional attire, wristwatch, and Pakistani passport. In A number, not a name, Khalid sits in a courthouse bench wearing a green head scarf, her foreign status juxtaposed against a blurred-out portrait of a white man in the background. These angst-ridden scenes are peppered with the more banal scenes of domesticity such as urine-stained sheets and her son’s face made up with her stolen lipstick. The book ends with images of her son encircled in the light, suggesting that his experience in this country will be similar to hers. In one of the final images, his face sticks out from under her shirt (toddlers don’t understand personal space), the cloth acting as the umbilical cord described by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, connecting mother and son together for eternity. Khalid’s wry combination of real world “big” problems and the daily tribulations of dealing with a toddler deeply resonate with mothers and caregivers. The book ends with an image where she exhaustedly falls fully clothed on top of her made bed at the conclusion of a long day. A symbolic reaction of constantly being dragged into courts to retain, prove and establish her identity. WM
Lali Khalid 'Home. In my heart, beating far away.'
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Dr. Susan Van Scoy is an Associate Professor of Art History at St. Joseph’s College, New York. Her research interests include female photographers and place. She received her Ph.D. from SUNY Stony Brook. She is a mother of three young children.view all articles from this author