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Issue 239

Hajra Waheed Unites Voices of Resistance

The artist speaks about how poetry and song can bridge social movements, connecting people in the face of adversity

BY Hajra Waheed AND Wassan Al-Khudhairi in Interviews | 15 DEC 23

Wassan Al-Khudhairi This September saw the opening of ‘A Solo Exhibition’ at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, featuring new and recent works including video, sculpture, painting and works on paper. Central to the exhibition is a new iteration of Hum [2020]a multi-channel musical composition and sound installation. Originally commissioned for Lahore Biennale 02, you conceived it in the wake of nationwide student solidarity marches in Pakistan against cuts to the education budget and violence against women on campuses. Can you share more about the context of making this work?

Hajra Waheed The marches erupted just after my site visit to Lahore in November 2019 and coincided with a massive mobilization against the Citizenship Amendment Act across the border in India, which instituted discrimination against Muslims and other minorities. Both movements were non-violent, but government crackdowns were brutal. These movements weren’t in direct communication, yet students were taking to the streets across both sides of the border in India and Pakistan, reciting the same poetry and songs by revolutionary poets and political prisoners from a previous generation. These were songs of struggle against state oppression, the rise of authoritarianism and the plight and hope of working people, the marginalized and dispossessed.

Hajra Waheed, Hum, 2020, multi-channel sound installation, ‘Hajra Waheed: A Solo Exhibition’, CAM St. Louis, 2023–24. Courtesy: the artist 

What lives at the heart of Hum is a deep desire to have people connect to and learn from some important social movements that take on power directly. Sound and song often play a critical role in this, to bring people together, inspire and reinforce courage in the face of state violence and corporate power.

WA Bookending Hum are songs by imprisoned Kurdish singer-songwriter Nûdem Durak, who in April 2015 received a 19-year sentence in Turkey for singing in the Kurdish language. What is the importance of her story to your work?

HW After returning home from Lahore, I came across Durak’s story. Although I wasn’t able to connect with her directly, her brother notified me that she had recently been thrown into solitary confinement for rallying fellow inmates through song the very act she had been jailed for. Yet, even in solitary confinement, she continued to defiantly hum. Her courage was the impetus that led me to choose the medium of humming. Humming is an utterance we’re all capable of, even when our lips have been sealed shut and can heal us when we’ve lost our voices altogether. It’s incredibly legible, yet insidious; it’s irrefutable and infectious. Whether or not our mothers actively hummed to us as children isn’t important; it’s been passed down ancestrally to all of us – and this is where its inherent power lies. Reimagined in this form, a song of resistance has emancipatory potential, reaching beyond borders to encourage collective action.

WA There’s another layer to this: hum also means ‘we’ in Urdu, your mother tongue, which has a complex sociopolitical history in India and the subcontinent.

Freedom struggles must be broad, reach across and challenge borders.

HW My sisters and I grew up with my father reciting Urdu shayri (poetry) to us at a very young age and, if we were lucky, he would recite his own prose when compelled. It’s common for my family, who are from Hyderabad, India, to sing and share Urdu poetry whilst together. When Hyderabad was annexed by the Indian military in 1948, upwards of 40,000 Muslims were massacred and countless others displaced: this is a hidden history of Partition. At the same time, Hyderabad has a long and rich global history, connecting it not only to other places in India, but across the Indian Ocean world. However, since the definition of what it means to be Indian has narrowed increasingly in recent years, Muslims in India as well as the diaspora are often interpreted as not belonging to India – a phenomenon now taking very violent turns, with language, including Urdu, being targeted and erased.

WA Alongside Durak’s songs, Hum comprises works by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Hamid Hussain, Sheikh Imam, Habib Jalib and Mohammed Osman Wardi. Despite their political, ethnic and linguistic differences, they all use poetry and music as tools for resistance.

Hajra Waheed, Hum, 2020, multi-channel sound installation, Portikus, Frankfurt. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Diana Pfammatter

HW There are many commonalities between the poets and singers within the first volume. All of them have experienced imprisonment and self-exile for speaking out, their songs suppressed or banned at various moments. They also wrote and sang in the colloquial language of their familiarity – Arabic, Kurdish, Nubian, Rohingya, Urdu – adopting a simple style to address people’s concerns and reach as wide an audience as possible. Although these songs might arise out of specific historical circumstances, they deeply resonate with political struggles today.

WA For Sharjah Biennial 15 you created Hum II [2023], which centres the voices of women in resistance movements. How does the second volume build upon the first?

HW In a number of social movements I was following in 2019, I could see that women’s participation was critical to shaping these movements. While the first volume focused on international solidarity struggles between the 1960s and 80s during processes of decolonization, it haunted me that I had not shed light then on something so glaring so early on in my process. Hum II was therefore guided by a deep deficit in the acknowledgement of the role women consistently play at every level of societal and political transformation.

Consisting entirely of voice, Hum II features seven songs central to popular uprisings, social movements and anti-colonial struggles across the Americas, Africa and Asia, where women have been at the forefront. While many of these songs and musical forms have been suppressed or banned, all of them are still sung widely today, preserved and passed down by women. The composition begins with a K-pop hit, ‘Into the New World’ by Girls’ Generation, which was sung by protesting female students and became the unofficial anthem for South Korea’s 2016 Candlelight Revolution. The rest of the composition consists of: two encrypted Palestinian folk songs or tarweedeh, which date back to Ottoman-era conscription and are now sung in protests against Israeli occupation; ‘Baraye’, a viral song and anthem for Iran’s current revolution composed by Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour in September 2022 following the death of Mahsa Amini; Un Violador en Tu Camino (A Rapist in Your Path, 2019) by Chilean feminist art collective LASTESIS, which has been performed in more than 400 locations in over 50 countries; and the Inuit form of throat singing known as katajjaq. The composition ends with a Bhim Palana – lullabies composed, sung and passed down by Dalit women to their children to popularize the teachings of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the leader of India’s anti-caste movement between the 1920s and 50s.

WA You purposefully ended Hum II’s composition by centring mothers in the fight to end 3000 years of caste apartheid.

Hajra Waheed, Hum II, 2023, multi-channel sound installation, Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Ismail Noor

HW I wanted to stress the importance of the role and voice of the mother in the production and transference of knowledge, as the first site of resistance and hope. Ambedkar, who was himself a Dalit (previously known as ‘untouchable’), sought to demolish the tyrannies of Hinduism’s caste system so as to rebuild a new social order based on the equality of all. He believed that this annihilation of caste could only proceed through the emancipation of women, particularly Dalit women. Today, Dalit women musicians such as Sheetal Sathe are bravely revitalizing these traditions to bolster the anti-caste movement and denounce new manifestations of caste emanating from the country’s neo-liberal regime and rise of Hindutva fascism. Dalits continue to face widespread discrimination, rampant sexual violence and a severe lack of access to justice, education, health and other services. But these struggles should not be seen as isolated, but rather entirely interconnected to other liberation struggles by Palestinian, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, femme and Queer communities.

WA You worked closely with Sylvia Cloutier and Beatrice Deer – both from Nunavik, the Northern Territories of Quebec – who created a unique katajjaq piece for the composition.

HW Katajjaq in Inuktitut, is a guttural form of chanting or musical performance that uses rhythmic inhalations and exhalations of breathing and reverberating in the throat to produce multiple notes simultaneously. Unlike other traditions of overtone-singing, katajjaq is practised and passed down between women, who initially developed it as a way to entertain themselves and their children during long winter nights.

Katajjaq was almost entirely lost, due to a sustained programme of cultural genocide pursued by the Canadian government and Christian missionaries after their arrival to Arctic communities in the late 19th century. Since the mid-1980s, however, it has seen a resurgence, with elders passing down the practice to a younger generation of Inuit women and girls, who have returned to this oral tradition, exploring new ways of its expression. Katajjaq is not only a powerful musical form but an act of love, healing, resistance and decolonization.

A song of resistance has emancipatory potential, reaching beyond borders to encourage collective action.

WA The impact of Hum is most evident when it’s experienced in person. At CAM, visitors were so affected by the work – many shared their common sentiment of belonging. Given that St. Louis has a history of resistance and protest dating back to the 1800s – including, more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement – presenting Hum in St. Louis is a powerful act.

HW I was deeply moved by the responses of the St. Louis community, who in many ways became the steadfast beating heart of the Black Lives Matter movement at a pivotal moment when global mobilization was taking root. I’ve always been interested in creating diverse, informal yet collective listening experiences – from live radio to sit-ins to built environments. There are many rituals to the architecture of space that can disarm and re-engage us, whether by the simple action of entering barefoot or allowing people to sit or lie down as they choose.

Countless educators and organizers, including Angela Davis and Gaye Theresa Johnson, have long spoken to the role that Black music plays in conveying stories of resistance around the globe, and how this has generated international solidarity for Black struggles in the US. Freedom struggles must be broad, reach across and challenge borders. We can’t think of Black emancipation or women’s liberation as separate to larger struggles of oppression, just as we can’t truly be successful if our struggles can’t be imagined as global. I believe in the notion of building on the edge of each other’s battles while remaining conscious of the impacts of past and present experiences of inequality, trauma, oppression and a diversity of perspectives. Song and sound in these contexts have, time and time again, not only generated a profound sense of felt meaning but a declaration of shared visions, responsibilities and futures.

Hajra Waheed, Hum, 2020, multi-channel sound installation, Diwaan-I-Aam, Lahore Fort, Lahore Biennial 02. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Danyal Rasheed

WA You pursued an MA and PhD in Education at McGill University in Montreal and have spent time working as an educator. How has that shaped your thinking?

HW I’ve been making art for over 20 years, but it took me a decade before I was willing to call myself an artist. While receiving a BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I began building curriculums and teaching, later full time throughout my degrees. Much of my teaching interests centred around popular and informal education movements, so I quickly fell into the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher, activist and educator who worked closely with workers and peasant groups. Forced to flee Brazil following a military coup, Freire wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed [1968] – a powerful and revolutionary reformulation of the very idea and purpose of schooling – while in exile in Chile. It centred education as a source for critical consciousness and liberation rather than oppression. I became interested in Freire’s work and was later co-supervised by a long-time collaborator and comrade of his, Donaldo Macedo, a linguist, educator and translator of Freire’s works. As an artist and educator, I really believe in the role that the arts can play in establishing new terms and creating new lexicons that might be useful in continuing to mobilize social movements. This is something that remains an area of deep interest and exploration for me.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 239 with the headline ‘Conversation: Hajra Waheed and Wassan Al Khudhairi’

Main image: Hajra Waheed, Hum II, 2023, multi-channel sound installation, Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Ismail Noor

Hajra Waheed is a multidisciplinary artist. She was the recipient of the Sharjah Biennial 15 Prize, and her first US solo museum presentation is on view at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis until 11 February 2024.

Wassan Al-Khudhairi is an independent curator, the former Ferring Foundation Chief Curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, USA, and curator of the 2025 Hawai’i Triennial.