.Close ‘Encounters’

ArtsleadLocal artist Andrew Purchin and Pakistan’s controversial Mohsin Shafi open cross-cultural conversation at the Radius Gallery

Mohsin Shafi arrived in the United States for the first time a little over two weeks ago, but it took a six-hour interrogation by four Homeland Security agents before he was allowed to leave the San Francisco airport. Shafi was flying from his home in Lahore, Pakistan, and though the agents denied that that was why he had been detained, they asked him over and over again how he got a visa, and why he was in the U.S.

Shafi told them he was on his way to Santa Cruz for the “Encounters on the Frontier: Upsidedownland” exhibit at the Tannery’s Radius Gallery. And considering that this is exactly the type of experience that fuels the creative fervor of both himself and Santa Cruz expressionist artist Andrew Purchin, his “Encounters” collaborator, there may be a love letter to Homeland Security on the horizon included in the show.

“Our airport security people have the best art exhibit. They get everybody engaged—everybody taking their clothes off, putting them back on,” quips Purchin. “They’re radical artists.”

secure document shredding

It isn’t the first time Shafi has experienced controversy around his cultural heritage. Last April, Shafi opened his project “Sada-ism,” to the public in Karachi. It included comments on Dadaism (a pre-WWI European art movement that critiqued the political status quo), and pieces like a portrait of England’s Queen Victoria with Benazir Bhutto’s face superimposed onto it and a parody caricature “Jesus Charlie.” The project took a year and a half to complete and was taken down within two hours. Shafi received death threats.

In Pakistan, illustrative art in general is fairly rare, says Shafi, because Islam is an aniconic religion. For him, pushing the limits of what society allows—like toying with politics and religion in a Muslim nation—hasn’t exactly gotten him into the country’s art mainstream.

Both Shafi and Purchin strive to bring the audience into their work—some is meant to be held, smushed, or crinkled—and it’s informed by day-to-day living, which is why neither fully know what will be at the exhibit’s opening on Aug. 7.

Taken separately, their styles are quite different: Purchin does large-canvas oil paintings, while Shafi has come full circle to making digital and paper collages. But together, they critique, mix and meddle in collaborations of paint, paper, canvas, videos, collage cut-outs and tense, sometimes playful, imagery.

Purchin’s a Jew and Shafi’s a Muslim, so cross-cultural conversations are kind of their bread and butter. They’ve been bouncing artistic ideals off each other since they met through social media in 2010. In 2014, they opened part one of “Encounters on the Frontier” in Lahore, and this month’s installation will feature pieces from that exhibit as well as new ones.

For their collaboration in Pakistan, Purchin put together a wooden-framed game called “Crustopoly” with old fashioned-cans, toy horses, dirt and twigs from Santa Cruz and Lahore. Players roll dice marked “Muslim,” “Jew,” “East,” “West,” “Brother,” “Sister.”

“That’s it—it’s odds. We’re just born into the family or gender that we’re born into,” says Purchin. “It’s a role of the dice, whether it’s upside down or right side up.”

When Purchin was planning to travel to Lahore for the exhibit, says Shafi, he was very worried about the security situation in Pakistan, partially because of how Western media has portrayed the country. In the beginning, Shafi had a hard time taking his anxiety seriously.

“For me, I live there and that’s my life and I don’t feel insecure. But I realized that Americans see Pakistanis, maybe particularly after 9/11, as mainly terrorists,” says Shafi. “It was funny and sad; I didn’t know how to respond.”

The sad irony, says Purchin, was that while in Lahore, Santa Barbara suffered through the Isla Vista killings and Pakistan was comparatively quiet. And at the Tannery, where the Santa Cruz installation of “Explorations on the Frontier” will open, Shafi and Purchin led a workshop just hours before 8-year-old Madyson Middleton went missing.

“We think of the world as so dangerous and of our land as so safe,” says Purchin. “It’s ‘upsidedownland’—it can happen anywhere.”

“As artists we’re lucky that that we can share these experiences with other people,” says Shafi. “I’m sure that other people are experiencing these things—meeting new people going to new places—but not everyone is a writer, performer or painter. That’s where I feel the blessing of being an artist, of experiencing and telling other people in your own creative way.”

Info: First Friday Reception, 6-9 p.m. Aug. 7, Radius Gallery, 1050 River St. #127, Santa Cruz. Exhibit runs Aug. 7-16. DICING ODDS Artists Mohsin Shafi (left) and Andrew Purchin (right), play “Crustopoly,” a game they made for a collaborative exhibit in Lahore, Pakistan. Players roll dice to find out if they play as “Muslim,” “Jew,” “East,” “West,” “Brother,” or “Sister.” PHOTO: KEANA PARKER



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