Zalika Azim

Zalika Azim on memory, migration, and totemic gestures

Zalika Azim, If you get there before I do (Space Traders), 2018, pigment print, 22.5 x 17.5".

In Zalika Azim’s recent work, layering is less an act of concealment than one of exposure. Her first solo exhibition, “In case you should forget to sweep before sunset,” features images that are physically placed atop one another or are superimposed to unlock manifold associations. Broader themes of dispersion, kinship, and survival are interleaved with intimate family histories. Below, the artist discusses images in the home and the limits and leverages of storytelling through photography. The show is on view at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York through April 13, 2019.

I READ SPECULATIVE FICTION as a way to consider our country’s current and ongoing role in how we understand ideas around nationhood and belonging. My newer works, such as If you get there before I do (Space Traders), think through gentrification while referencing ancestral knowledges that offer up methods for protecting the home and maintaining safe spaces. The title references “The Space Traders,” a science fiction short story written in the early ’90s by civil rights activist and lawyer Derrick Bell. The narrative is told through the perspective of an affluent black economics professor who is asked to sit in on the President of the United States’s cabinet after a colony of extraterrestrials arrive on US soil offering resources to rid the country of its economic, environmental, and health plights in exchange for all black citizens. On the seventeenth day—ironically Martin Luther King Day—the country, through a national referendum, elects to accept this offer. In the story’s final scene, millions of black citizens are escorted to the beach shores to be collected by hundreds of spaceships—leaving, as the main character Golightly reflects, “as their forebears had arrived.” That vision for me speaks so much to notions around gentrification and dispossession. The narrative echoes, as I’m certain it did twenty-seven years ago, the events taking place across the global African diaspora right now. I hope that my work begins conversations about these topics.

Reflecting on families who used quilting, floriography, and oral storytelling to both retain and transfer information—I think about how these narratives often are embedded and charged with intelligence that might not be as obvious—especially information that helped African Americans navigate the Black Belt and other regions of the American landscape. Recent migratory shifts from Northern and Western cities, and my ongoing visits to South Carolina where my paternal family is from, inform and is the setting for much of my latest work.

This work is also concerned with protection of the home as a physical structure as well as a spiritual composition. The show’s title derives from a Southern saying that suggests one should not sweep the house past sunset, because our ancestors who may provide protection are most susceptible at that time of day. It is received as a superstition, but I’m really interested in gesturing toward these totemic ways of thinking about the spaces we occupy. I am currently working on several projects that consider code and language, and in returning to analog photography, sometimes glitches occur during processing. I am exploring what these images broken down or stripped to code might offer. I’m thinking of these relationships also in close proximity to the everyday objects that occupy the home—flowers, wallpaper, chairs.

The dresser mirror also comes up quite a bit for me, and how images are placed in the home. The photographs that were placed on the wall in pride, and the images that are not taken, discussed or shared with visitors. I recall living with my grandmother as a teenager and preparing for school—and how in the mornings while regarding my own reflection, I would often be pulled into the inserts of past moments that lined the margins of the mirror’s frame. Looking at that, I found myself faced both with my own reflection while having these other instants interjected into what I was seeing. I’m always thinking about what’s being revealed and what’s being withheld and how this shapes our understanding of what we behold. Overall, I am learning to sit with and learn from the unknown.

Until recently, I thought I scanned all of my grandmother’s negatives. Some new images I’ve been working with are several rolls of double-exposed images that she likely made unintentionally. I’ve included one in the show which makes up a component of an installation I titled Totem (these many things are discussed over and over). Photography is supposed to retain one instant, but what happens when the shutter invites another moment to impress itself into the initial one? I consider double exposure a part of this gray zone, one where an initial depiction may be reentered and altered.