Visiting Artist Profiles

Mariam Ghani

By Tess Thackara July 19, 2012

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.

Mariam Ghani will speak at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 21, at the Asian Art Museum, in San Francisco.



In a gutted commercial space riddled with loose cables, peeling plaster, and exposed brick and mirrored walls on New York City’s Fifty-Seventh Street, a dancer moves to the sound of whispered vocals and a voice singing an aria from Gluck’s opera Paris and Helen (1770). The dancer’s slow contractions seem to manifest the ruptures of this space in the grip of transition and, juxtaposed with spare and haunting vocals, to mourn its past lives. A collaboration with the dancer Erin Ellen Kelly, this video piece, titled Three Surrenders (2007) and set in a former McDonald’s, provides a sort of ritualistic emblem for the process through which Ghani draws her larger body of work.

Much of Ghani’s work is marked by surrender to spaces in transition, exploring places in states of flux or reinvention—like her video documentations of the post-conflict reconstruction of Kabul—and as repositories of narrative and trauma. In Landscape Studies: New Mexico (2008–2010), she combines footage of largely barren landscapes in and around Galisteo Valley, White Sand Desert, and US Route 66 in New Mexico with sound samples and vocals taken from records of the Trinity nuclear test, the White Sands Missile Range, and the film The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), all events that have roots in these locations. Juxtaposed with live and filmed performance, the video’s soundscape (like ghostly incantations calling forth the past) conjures the histories embedded in these uninhabited landscapes.

Ghani’s self-proclaimed interest in “border zones, nomanslands,” and areas of “slippage where cultures intersect,” extends to the political and to the metaphysical, informing her inquiries into translation.1 In The Trespassers (2010–2011, a magnifying glass moves slowly over public-domain transcripts of interviews with translators and personnel working with the U.S. military during prisoner interrogations in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Murky questions of abuse and complicity arise, pointing to the ambiguity surrounding an interpreter’s role in times of war and conflict. On her interest in translation, Ghani asks, “Does the act of translation, like the presence of an observer or recording device, preclude or occlude, transform or make impossible the act of bearing witness?”2

The transcript of one interviewee in Trespassers reads: “I do recall that some interpreters were uncomfortable with yelling, cursing, and some of the comments they were expected to translate. The interpreters were disturbed by some of the treatment of their people.” But overwhelmingly, interpreters’ statements are clouded with uncertainty; their perspectives are silenced amid black deletions in the text and the clamour of contesting viewpoints. Dari and Arabic audio translations of the text overlay the footage, while the magnifying glass steadily brings the text in and out of focus; the impression is of a layered cacophony of voices that continuously renders meaning fluid. In Trespassers, Ghani suggests the many fissures and discrepancies through which facts can become mired in both the subjectivities and objectivities of language, and questions: what is the translator’s ethical burden in all of this?

What unifies Ghani’s work is a commitment to summoning and complicating personal and collective histories and giving form to the invisible; whether video, performance, or database, her works offer quiet spaces in which viewers are invited to pause and meditate on the stories, cultural tensions, and narratives of conflict that belie the sites or individuals upon which she focuses. Often her works interrogate the tools with which these narratives are buried. Ghani refers to Edward Said’s writings on history in conversation about her work, and the spectre of his theories does indeed loom large in many of her projects."My argument," Said famously wrote in Orientalism, “is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silence and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.”3

Index of the Disappeared (2004–ongoing), a collaboration between Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, attempts to address individuals erased by American history by documenting the stories of immigrants in the post-9/11 United States. The project is an example of what Ghani calls a “warm data” project due to its community-based focus on aggregating data that is antithetical to the “colder” and more abstract identifying information that gives way to racial profiling. The Index comprises a living database that records immigrant experiences, a travelling library, and a zine. Through records of elisions that relate particularly to special interest detainees, documents detailing the definitions and legalities surrounding detention, torture, and military codes of conduct, and the personal testimonies of the subjects in question, the project gives form to patterns of censorship used to blot out immigrant identities and, in some cases, to deport them. But perhaps more importantly for Ghani, the components of the Index explore the role language plays in these mechanisms of disappearance by contrasting the reductive legal-speak that dominates the immigrant debate with individual voices and Ghani’s own poetics, which function as a mediating guide in the section of the database that is titled How Do You See the Disappeared? “Imagining myself in your place/ so easy to do, the twin accidents/ of birth and luck/ the only guards at my door,” writes Ghani’s narrator voice.

Born in New York to an Afghani father and Lebanese mother, Ghani grew up at the confluence of three cultures, a reality that provided the basis for her interest in exploring the borderlands between identities and making the political personal and specific. In her “warm” questionnaire through which data is generated for the Index, individuals are asked, “Who was the first person you ever fell in love with?” and “If someone questioned your right to call yourself an American, what would you offer as proof of your American identity?” Ghani’s work insists that identities are constructed of the intangible—amorphous, unnameable components—and provides a forum for the reconstruction of individual histories. But more pressingly, her work serves as a call to action, deconstructing political systems and languages and creating structures within which a multiplicity of identities and experiences can be expressed and reinforced.


The Visiting Artist Profile series is supported by the San Francisco branch of the Kadist Art Foundation. Kadist participates in the development of society through contemporary art by collecting and producing the work of artists and conducting various programs to promote their role as cultural agents. The foundation also supports the work of curators, academics, and magazines internationally through its residency program and by hosting public events on Wednesdays and a Saturday Reading Room at its space at 3295 20th Street in the Mission.


  1. Mariam Ghani, “Statement,” Kabul Reconstructions, accessed Jul. 18, 2012,
  2. “Dances with wolves,” interview with Muhammad Yusuf, the Gulf Today, Feb. 17, 2011,
  3. Edward Said, Orientalism (London: 1978, Penguin). 

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