BY Moritz Scheper in Reviews | 13 NOV 15
Featured in
Issue 22

Maryam Jafri

Kunsthalle Basel

BY Moritz Scheper in Reviews | 13 NOV 15

Maryam Jafri, Generic Corner, 2015, installation view

Generic Corner, Maryam Jafri’s largest solo show to date, revolved, like her work as a whole, around two main axes: a thoroughly psychologized consumer culture and the corresponding conditions of globalized production. The mixed-media installation Product Recall: An Index of Innovation (2014–15), for example, displays products that were withdrawn from the market. Jafri presents these recalled products (or old advertising shots of them) alongside informative labels. Only occasionally does she diverge from this matter-of-fact composition, as when biscuits are arranged into an abacus. As a whole, the series works as a cabinet of curiosities of the capitalist imperative to innovate: from Jell-o salad to coffee in self-heating tins. In some cases, products were recalled due to a bad choice of name or an unfortunate coincidence – as with Ayds diet cookies, whose sales plummeted with the advent of AIDS. With her straightforward presentation in small wooden frames, Jafri establishes a sober counterpoint to the psychologically modelled, sense-stimulating appearances used by the products’ creators to create emotional ties with the consumer. Ayds is a good example of this: although the cookies did not reduce one’s appetite, the added amphetamines ‘sweetened’ the everyday life of American housewives (as reported in comments from online forums, which Jafri also presents). In this way, Product Recall highlights the kind of ‘spells’ cast on products by marketing strategists and food designers in their attempts to generate demand.

This was more evident still in the show’s titular work Generic Corner (2015). Here, the artist presented generic foods: products whose packaging foregoes brand names and elaborate design by merely naming their contents and appealing to consumers with reduced prices (achieved in part by saving on advertising and product design). In their minimalism (bold black on white lettering) the products, shown on plinths, recall Ed Ruscha’s word paintings. The photographs of such products also included in the series, on the other hand, recall Taryn Simon’s series Contraband (2010): both avoid giving their subjects any aesthetic charge. Viewed together with Product Recall, these series revealed how strongly we now expect products to awaken our desires with their tempting, promising displays. We have become so accustomed to this that the absence of advertising looks positively unnatural.

In her video work Avalon (2011), the artist deepens this examination of the sen­-sory and psychological levels of capitalism, combining it with a look at the conditions of production in the global economy. The film begins with calm, cleanly lit S&M scenes of a man being dominated by a woman. In the next sequence, a businessman from Bangladesh behind a screen discusses his company, which produces fetish wear for the western market without the seamstresses knowing what the goods are used for. The firm’s head of product development, who also appears in the film, hopes that her creations will not be used, since her work is utterly at odds with her religious beliefs. At the end of the video, Jafri goes back to the end of the production chain. It is not hard to decipher the chained sex slave, humiliating himself as a toilet roll holder, as a cipher for the late-capitalist subject who derives pleasure from submission – unlike the sweatshop workers. Accordingly, the opulent visual idiom of the sex dungeon contrasts with the sparse documentary approach Jafri uses to present exploitative wage labour.

For all the dialectics and partisanship of her oeuvre, Jafri skilfully avoids moralizing. Instead, she takes moments of ridiculousness that are ingrained in the system and puts them to pleasurable, entertaining use: moments in which capitalist business becomes a travesty of itself – through Jell-o salad or a Muslim designer of fetish wear.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Moritz Scheper is a writer and curator based in Essen, Germany, where he works as artistic director at Neuer Essener Kunstverein.