Refined Executions, Sri Lankan Jungle, the Aesthetics of Cancer, and Tamarind Cocktails!

Mariah Lookman
Mariah Lookman

My mother is a very good amateur painter. Growing up in Karachi, we always had paints, brushes, and all sorts of studio set-up. She taught me how to paint with watercolours first, and let me use her very best brushes. She would just tell us to be careful, and show us how to use her material. Those tools made me!

If you make art, you must show it. I lived in Oxford for my PhD, from 2008 to 2014. I am inspired by all sorts of artists and teachers, and one of them is Richard Wentworth. He used to be the Ruskin Master (Head of School), of the Ruskin School of Art, in Oxford. His teaching style and way of running the school meant that we were constantly making exhibitions. We were all encouraged to collaborate, it was not only about making work in the studio, it was about putting it out there too. Also, we had to figure everything out by ourselves, how to drill, scrub floors, build walls etc.

I started curating thanks to a series of happy accidents. When I ended my PhD—getting another sort of feather on my academic cap—I got pulled into projects. More and more people came to me, and it just grew from there, writing and being asked for advice. I am also married to an artist, Muhanned Cader, and I was helping him, writing and talking to his curators. We work great together.

My artistic practice nourishes my curatorial practice. It helps me understand artists and how things are made better. It’s not always easy to know how an artist has done something, but it is easier if you had an artistic training.

Very seldom did I include my own work in a show I curated. I think it’s problematic. When you curate, it is also a position of power. In many ways, you find opportunities and means, for other people to showcase. And so to insert yourself within, I find it conflicting.

One of my biggest opportunities was to curate the Lahore Biennale in 2018. I used to work and live in Lahore, as an art student. They said I could work in the old city, and showed me a list of places. One, I thought, was the nicest space, but nobody wanted to work with it, because it is tricky. It’s the Mubarak Haveli, in the walled city of Lahore. This site belongs to this amazing and very old family. They are philanthropists, industrialists, collectors, and they set up academic institutions. It’s their ancestral home, it was built in 1863, and it was full of things! The architecture is in the old mansion style, the rooms are small, the ceilings are really high. You need to be careful when you drill and when you modify the space. In Pakistan, we have many good artists, but we don’t have that expertise and that attention to details required in hanging a show. One of the other things I asked for, was an assistant who specifically came from the art school I went to, the National College of Arts, in Lahore. That became Haseebullah Zafar’s first job, and he was brilliant! (Since, he did a curatorial MA at the Royal College of Art). I also applied for a grant through Pro Helvetia, and I got this incredible artist, Daniel Hunziker, who also worked many, many years, doing museum installations. Once I had the right people, it was easy. We deinstalled every light and every fixture. Daniel came up with a very good system of labelling. We stripped the house into a minimal space, packed it away, and later we put it back again. I like mixing contemporary with the old, I like extreme attention to details, I like high design in terms of display. If people have a signature style, that experience gave me that opportunity.

Setting up at Mubarak Haveli for the Lahore Biennale, artist Daniel Hunziker with team eating kulfi. 2018
Setting up at Mubarak Haveli for the Lahore Biennale, artist Daniel Hunziker with team eating kulfi. 2018

Students need a degree show. Last February, I was working as a consultant in Batticaloa, at the Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies on the East Coast of Sri Lanka. It’s a young school, my primary mission was to restructure the programme. So we had the first degree show, and I became the person teaching them how to measure, centre, and hang; how to work with a space and not fight with the building. If you get the building wrong, you get the work wrong. It was about getting these students to actually believe in themselves. There were about 55 of them, and we selected 3-4 pieces per artist. It was a massive show. We had a lot of publicity, a lot of the students sold their work, a group of works traveled to Ireland, and a group of students had a later show in Colombo. It was a first for me, for the students, and the faculty. It was very rewarding.

Birdwatching. At times I can spot things that other people don’t see, and make you see them. It is very intuitive, and it is weird to say, but if you achieve a certain quietness, then your awareness of your environment and everything around you is heightened. Then you can notice movements, animals reacting to each other, and be part of the rhythm of the environment. My father used to take us birdwatching. There is a lake outside of Karachi called Haleji Lake, it used to attract migratory birds in the winter. In Pakistan, they call them murghabi, a term that encompasses a variety of ducks and it also had others, such as moorhens, flamingos, and Siberian birds. It was a big lake, a lot of birds would spend their winter there. Later when I married my husband, he’s Sri Lankan, and a nature enthusiast also, I got back into birdwatching. Sri Lanka is home to a large variety of birds, with several endemic species. It is great fun to spot a blue magpie or a frogmouth—that’s a rare one.

When I am not in the art world, you can find me in the jungle. About 3 years ago, we decided very consciously to divide our time between London and a quiet village on the South coast of Sri Lanka called Hapugala. No museums, no galleries, no universities where they teach art. We got this old house, built in 1910, and we started to live this, what some may call, bohemian—house in the jungle—life, and contrasting it with London. Unfortunately, we had to move houses after the Easter Sunday attacks, in 2019, and settle to the nearest small town called Galle, still near to nature. (Sometimes things can get difficult when one is slightly different, may it be religion, colour, or lifestyle). We love going to the wildlife jungle. When you start looking at nature, at patterns on birds’ feathers, and combinations, all these things do something to you, to the way you organise space, and the way you imagine the world we live in. As soon as I get back to London though, I am like this starved person who has to go see every gallery and every show.

Pandemic and cancer diagnose, kind of happened at the same time this year. I could do all of my work, with some adjustments, but in terms of movement, as the virus spread rapidly in Sri Lanka, it had a big impact. And as a cancer patient, you are at the frontline. It is tough to hear about surgeries canceled and other things, but we are lucky that Sri Lanka has stand-alone cancer hospitals. Galle has its own, and my surgeon is very dedicated to the community, and very responsive.

Curators Mariah Lookman and Haseebullah Zafer
Curators Mariah Lookman and Haseebullah Zafer

Scotland and Robert Loader. In 2008, I did this amazing artist residency on the island of Hoy, with the Triangle Arts Trust, in Orkney, Scotland. I still have many friends in the most remote parts of Scotland out of that. There was this very influential man, he’s unfortunately no longer with us, the philanthropist Robert Loader. Robert was instrumental in forming the Triangle Arts Trust, but also these other artists residencies, like Khoj, in India; Theertha, in Sri Lanka; Vasl, in Pakistan; and Gasworks, in London. These residencies were the catalyst in bringing the so-called South to the attention of the ‘centre’, just like the Triangle Arts Trust brings the world to a remote Scottish island. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that I have cancer—in my case, some rare gene is responsible, it seems. Last time it was when I had the opportunity to join the residency, and I was undergoing immunotherapy treatments. You can only reach the island by ferry. With the train and bus, it’s a 12 hours journey from London. I was good, but my hospital schedule didn’t allow me the travel time. The residency graciously let me fly, and I ended up journeying with Robert, from London to Glasgow, and so on. He was already in his late seventies then. I really got to appreciate his passion and love for artists and art. I also found out he had been to Pakistan. He was a really important opportunity-maker for a lot of famous artists from South Asia working today.

The spirit of Sontag. I have been sick for the last 6 months, and although I had planed on reading a lot of fiction, it didn’t seem to work. But then I started to read this Pakistani short-stories writer and playwright, Sadaat Hussan Manto, in Urdu, because the stories are short. I also have been interested for a while in the work of one of my teachers, Lala Rukh. She was a feminist-activist, and this incredible artist. I have been thinking about her work through photography, so I have been rereading John Berger, Vilem Flusser, and Susan Sontag. For Sontag, I am reading this really small book called “Illness as Metaphor” (1978). She writes about cancer and TB, and their vocabularies. I have been thinking about the aesthetics of cancer quite a bit, in terms of, what does it look like, what does it mean? It is a little existential. There is something about the spirit of Sontag which talks to me.

The aesthetics of cancer. I have been highly inspired by my doctors, including one surgeon here in Sri Lanka, Chrysantha Perera, who told me about his various projects with cancer patients. I am now committed to do 3 shows with a group of international artists I worked with in the past. The first one will be next year between two venues, the Barefoot Gallery in Colombo, and the Galle Fort Art Gallery, in Galle. All the benefits will go to a cancer benefits fund. I have been very lucky with the kind of responses I had, especially since I told every artist: “this is not your sorry charity show with works lying around in your studio that you don’t want, this is going to be something else”. My interrogation is in aesthetics. When you are told that you might possibly die, and you are undergoing all these difficult treatments, how do you intellectualise it? One may have spiritual avenues, but I am kind of in between, so I needed to do something which I know how to do well. How do I monetise this, and create something else? I am thinking of Sontag, how she says that everything about cancer is a death sentence, but TB is described in this glorious language in literature: rosy skin because of the fever, a fever that brings extreme creativity. Cancer never had anything nice written about it. For me, it’s a language I am trying to work out through the show and the conversations with the artists. How do you represent something which is in all of us? We know that we are going to die, but 95% of the time we are not thinking about it. Once you become a cancer patient, at least for the first year, and if you are lucky to know that you are going to make it in a reasonable amount of time, it is quite existential. How do you flip that? How do you empower yourself from there? It’s my challenge.

Students degree show opening. Mariah Lookman, Muhanned Cader, and Dr Dharmavasan, at SVIAS, Eastern University, Batticaloa. Sri Lanka. 2019
Students degree show opening. Mariah Lookman, artist Muhanned Cader, and local patron Dr Dharmavasan, at SVIAS, Eastern University, Batticaloa. Sri Lanka. 2019

When I do a show, I do a lot of research, and I talk a lot with the artists. I ask them how they imagine to hang their work, what is their favourite piece, what is their vision. An artist knows best whether the work should be in a dimly lit room or a bright one, whether a drawing should be on a table, the floor or the wall, framed or unframed. If you have a better idea you can suggest it to them, and it can be that the relationship between the curator and the artist is a mutually productive one.

Solo shows or group shows? That is a tricky question. I like variety, and so, if it’s an artist who is versatile, then that is something that I would really enjoy. Wondering how things fit together, and how to make dialogues. And if they work in a single medium, but they have depth to their practice, then it’s amazing also. But otherwise, I prefer to curate group shows.

I like cooking with a glass of wine. I like making pickles and jams. My grandmother used to make pickles. An easy one to do is the tamarind chutney. Tamarind is this amazing fruit which is very sour and full of antioxidants, but mostly it’s very yummy. You soak it in hot water on the stove, and you add cumin, salt, red chillies, and sugar. You can add a couple of dates if you wish. You must control the sweetness, so it’s not too much. And then you can use it as a base to marinate, cook, and even make cocktails. I am very good at making cocktails—think tamarind margaritas!

I love cycling, and I used to do fencing. In my daily existence, I need a little cosmopolitanism, thanks to Skype and zoom, I can make collaborations and partnerships around the world. I have taken up meditation, a combination of yogi and Sufi, for at least one hour everyday. That keeps me sane.

If I wasn’t curating I think I would have worked harder and focused more on academia.

Mariah Lookman

Independent curator, educationalist, and artist

Galle, Sri Lanka


Mariah Lookman is an artist, educationalist and curator specialising in studio and process centred research based practice combined with teaching methods that thrive on the crossovers between making and writing. Most recently Mariah was Academic Consultant and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Visual and Technological Arts, SVIAS, Eastern University, Sri Lanka (2017-2019). She was awarded the Lahore Biennale Foundation Fellowship with Asma Jahangir Award for Cultural Contribution Towards Social Justice (2018-19) to research on the work of Lala Rukh and held Adjunct Researcher post at Tate Modern in London (2018). As an educationalist she works on institution building, curricula innovation and staff and teaching methods development. She is especially interested in areas of post-conflict rebuilding through the arts. Mariah Lookman has a BA from National College of Arts, Lahore, MA from the Slade School of Fine Art and D.Phil. from the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford in 2015.

Art critic and writer.

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