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Hasna Khan: Artist of the Week

This week we will be talking to interdisciplinary artist Hasna Khan who is currently working across sound, film, video and photography. Khan creates work exploring (the) atmosphere, her surroundings & its people and Birmingham's urban landscape via nostalgia and culture. Her practice is specifically in relation to her South Asian background, understanding her personal connections and belonging to culture as part of the diaspora. Here she will be discussing some of her past projects, her influences as well as what she is currently working on.

Image description: a landscape poster depicting a film photograph outside of Birmingham New Street Station, depicting a number of commuters sat on wooden benches. Bold white text in the centre reads Hasna Khan, underneath in a smaller font reads @khnhsna.

Can you give us a brief introduction to yourself and the artwork you make?

My name is Hasna Khan and I am an interdisciplinary artist from Birmingham, England. I am of South Asian descent and a lot of my work has been in relation to that, understanding connection and disconnections to it and inspired by essences of personal nostalgia and childhood memories. My work delves into my atmosphere, surroundings and the city of Birmingham. Intrigued by spontaneous moments, visuals and conversations I encounter, I use the mediums of sound, photography, film/video and sometimes collage and painting to investigate and interpret.

What inspired you to explore Birmingham's urban landscape?

I think I have always found it interesting how Birmingham is so multicultural, vast and currently ever-changing. Since it is the place where I was born and have grown up, I understand Birmingham has been mislabelled, misunderstood and underappreciated from an external perspective despite it being one of the second most populous cities. I am quite interested in the pockets of culturally significant areas, such as Handsworth and Balsall Heath especially in regards to their British South Asian and Black demographic and histories. Birmingham's urban landscape is very visually obvious from its industrial period, colonial influences, 80s and 90s buildings still withstanding to its current rapidly-built tower office buildings. I believe gentrification is a very important topic and to document these places and people in them could encourage residents to support the areas, people and stores that have been existing since early migrants' arrival to Britain. Not only this, but I am always interested in the everyday moments that occur around me, usually in these urban spaces and this is mostly inspired by cinema. A lot of drifting car rides as a child around and out the city, without any aim or result, may have sparked my interest in this too.

What drew you to creating work exploring sound and its connection to nostalgia?

During COVID-19 and the initial lockdown in a small space and lack of resources, I wondered what resource to use and sound became the most accessible. At the time, I was engaging in meditation more to ease stress and continue with a practice that would help me. I think these two practices sparked a realisation to the sounds outside - it was far quieter than the usual landscape especially being in a city and due to lockdown. I noticed more birds (and different kinds) in the atmosphere and even could hear pots & pans in kitchens in preparation for dinner, family conversations and Happy Birthday singing. It felt like the most audible human connection at the time in the outside world. Regarding nostalgia, I'd often hear my father's music, mostly an Asian selection, played downstairs and my neighbour's Jamaican radio and music through the walls. They're both so reminiscent of my childhood and like the aforementioned car rides, the same music and cassettes were played then. So it seems to be a full circle experience!

Hasna Khan, Devotion Disintegrated, video, 3:25 min, 2021

Video description: this minimal film displays an evolving line drawing on a black background depicting the slow and repetitive motion of a figure spinning which is overlaid with a repetitive and atmospheric sound piece.

You have described how your practice is in relation to your South Asian background. How has this shaped the kind of artwork you create?

I was born and brought up in the UK, so as part of the diaspora like many others I can feel disconnected with my background sometimes. I try not to fall into the trap of stereotypical images, representation or symbolisms but also because I mostly do not really relate or fit that. So instead, I am exploring my personal experiences and the experience of dualism. I definitely explore connection and disconnection a lot including being interested in manipulating mediums to reach a sense of abstraction and that's due to my experiences with this background which I'm not sure I would have explored in this way otherwise.

Your film May Nazia Hassan Rest In Peace combines sound within public space. Can you tell us more about your influences and process for this piece?

May Nazia Hassan Rest In Peace was the result of a continuation of working with my family's cassette tape collection. As with the interest of hearing sound through walls, I wanted to replicate that experience - or as though you are hearing sound at a distance. I would take a lot of iPhone recordings on my walks and admired the drifting sound from one end of a place to the other - of a preacher's preaching, for example. I had a particular recording that began with Beyonce's 'Sweet Dreams' playing in a store then transitioning to an Islamic call for prayer. This piece and my other audio works are certainly inspired musically too, such as ambient and minimal artists (like Steve Reich, Four Tet, Huerco S. and Ana Roxanne etc). I did not want to ruin the physical tape of the cassettes - as they're more difficult to find and are family possessions - so I converted the tapes digitally and used a digital audio workstation to replicate the distance and echo. I wanted to expand my work by utilising space for a piece and understanding the importance of how something can exist in a space so I chose the foyer area of the old School of Art building that I attended. It has a brilliant reverb and the structure of the building is very much like a church; sound bouncing off the walls down below and into the ceiling. The structure is Victorian Gothic. My intention is for an audience to walk into the building and to be introduced to this sound - unaware of its location but a sheer audible sound in the atmosphere. More specifically, the piece is about my experience in the school as a minority - this booming voice and sound comes from a female Pakistani singer, Nazia Hassan, and I found it interesting to swap the role of authority in the building. Experiential artworks that include an audience's interactions - like Olafur Eliasson and Ryoji Ikeda - had influenced me also.

Hasna Khan, May Nazia Hassan Rest In Peace, video, 3:20 min, 2021

Video description: the film focuses on an amp and connected speaker placed on a mosaic tiled floor. A warbling heavy reverb recording issues from the speakers and echoes around the large building as people regularly walk through the frame.

How do you approach creating a new film or sound piece?

I will sometimes note and mind map my ideas and any connections or inspirations then dive into further research. However, some of these pieces began from a casual action of beginning a sound recording on my phone on any day or taking a photograph of an encounter. I then look back at these and figure how to manifest them into physicality. There are also times when ideas have been sparked by conversations and walks with friends - sometimes with collaboration. A lot of the time, inspiration comes from film - especially minimalist, world and arthouse cinema.

A large part of your practice is concentrated on 35mm film photography. Why do you choose this medium to work with?

My family has plenty of family photo albums and childhood photographs. Many of the photos and home videos were taken from my uncle who always had a camera on hand, as well as my own parents. I'd say photography is my first (concentrated) medium, because I have been taking photos since I was rather young and owned my first compact camera aged 10. 35mm is my favourite choice because it holds such an authentic quality and feel, in the colours and grain - something that is lost in digital photography. I also recognise the colours that different film stocks produce and it can impact a look or feel to a scene or portrait. Every photo taken on 35mm is unique and the development process to achieve the images is exciting and worthwhile! Again, the instant digital photo taking experience isn't as exciting for me always, and 35mm is evocative of my childhood photographs.

Hasna Khan, Mother's work (2019), 35mm film

Image description: a close up film photograph of someone working at a kitchen counter peeling onions.

In your film Diasporic (Dis)connection: Archiving Cassettes you have created an archive of your parents’ cassettes. Was this a very moving experience and how does it feel to have something personal accessible to the public?

This piece was the first time I got access to the cassettes and to play with them. To look through them and hear them was a very sweet experience, like having these objects to be able to connect again. I have always wanted to check out the cassettes as they were gathering dust so I am glad I took this chance. It was a moving experience when I recognised some of the tracks because they were the exact ones played as a child. Though this was personal, vulnerability can be good and I don't feel uncomfortable as a few people had commented that they too had recognised the tapes - it became an interaction about nostalgia. Quite a few of these tapes are well known, so it is not as vulnerable as, say, showing family photographs to the public.

Hasna Khan, Diasporic (Dis)connection: Archiving Cassettes, 2020

Video description: the film depicts a number of cassette tapes and cases placed on a white backdrop, as the songs play many archived images of store fronts as well as music videos appear overlaid.

What are you working on right now?

Right now, I am in a transitory period to understand my practice and grow as an artist. I am taking time to note down my ideas and intentions with creating - 'What are my intentions?' and 'How can my work be important?'. I am also researching artists, continuing to photograph my surroundings and immerse myself with other artists/friends. I may be collaborating with friends soon on audio & music, and I am intending to plan paintings in mind that will extend from home videos and family photographs. I am particularly excited for this as painting has been one of my favourite first mediums too.

Thank you Oddball Space for the feature and Q&A! My website is currently being updated but you can find my work on Instagram @khnhsna.

If you are interested in being featured as an Artist of the Week you can fill out a short application form here.

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