Profile | ‘This is what ambition looks like’
In 2001, artist Michael Landy made an inventory of everything he owned and, over the course of two weeks, systematically destroyed all of his possessions in an empty department store in central London while the public looked on.
The artwork, Break Down, is one of the most unforgettable in a long line of extraordinary projects commissioned by Artangel, which has been tearing up the rule book on art in the public domain for almost four decades.
Among the crowds that flocked to Oxford Street that February was a young student from Chelsea College of Art, Mariam Zulfiqar. “I now sit in an office with Michael Landy’s print next to me,” she says.
“I went to see Break Down when I was just graduating from Chelsea and I remember thinking: ‘Wow, this is what ambition looks like.’ To have that print next to me many years later reminds me of just how influential Artangel has been for me.”
Zulfiqar joined Artangel as director at the start of this year, succeeding co-directors James Lingwood and Michael Morris. She will spend her first year working in collaboration with her predecessors, who have been at the helm since 1991.
“It’s incredible to be here in that overlapping year,” says Zulfiqar. “We can discuss ideas and share experiences.”
It may feel like neat symmetry to end up so close to where she started, but Zulfiqar says there was nothing predetermined about her career, which has “been quite a winding path”.
Encouraged by a teacher to study at Chelsea, Zulfiqar steered away from the art world when she finished her degree, taking a job as a film runner before working alongside the diplomatic sector. The 9/11 terror attacks had just happened and it was a strange and sometimes difficult time to be at the intersection of culture and international relations.
“I was really fascinated to observe the way that culture was starting to become a tool deployed as a mechanism within international relations,” she says. “This was the very early days when the term cultural diplomacy was emerging. I was putting on exhibitions and working with artists from the Middle East at a time when those practitioners weren’t visible in the UK.
At that point there was a real straining of relations between the Arab and Islamic worlds and the West. I learned a lot about the way in which artists, musicians and poets from the Middle East were being marginalised from the discourse in the UK.”
On the move
Cultural exchange has always interested Zulfiqar, who grew up in a mixed heritage family in Pakistan and moved to the UK when she was 11.
“When you’re cross-cultural you get no time off from that,” she says. “In Pakistan I was always the white kid and in England I’ll always be the Asian girl. I came to England in the early 1990s aged 11 and people were quite open with their prejudices. It was a tough time, but in a way it was a very interesting early exposure to the nuances and challenges that need to be recognised.
“I’m particularly interested in the diplomacy and sensitivity that are needed when these topics come up in public contexts, and how one handles that,” she says. “I don’t shy away from it. I think very deeply about how you occupy space that is being used by so many different people and how it can be activated to become a space for dialogue and growth.”
This dual world view informed Zulfiqar’s own understanding of what public art is. “When I went to Chelsea College of Art and Design, at that point art in the public domain was still primarily understood in the mainstream as sculptural, static and authored.
“But I also had another view from growing up in Pakistan, where you’d see historic sites and mosques decorated by unnamed artists and craftsmen. And there were also tanks and statues of soldiers, things that lionise the army and illustrate the birth of a new nation, so I grew up with diverse references around public space and how it is occupied. Fundamentally, for me, public space is a platform for ideas.”
Through her work with the diplomatic sector, Zulfiqar realised that her passion lay in curating, and she took a masters in contemporary curating at the Royal College of Arts. Her study involved a placement at Art on the Underground, which commissions contemporary artworks for London’s tube network. She ended up staying for several years.
Zulfiqar says catering to such a large audience – with millions of commuters from all walks of life passing by every day – opened her eyes to the power of what it means to occupy an entire city.
“When you create the conditions for artists to respond to such a public context you may not realise how it touches someone’s life,” she says. “One of my favourite moments that really sums this up was when we’d just done our Imran Qureshi tube map cover for the 150th anniversary of the tube. The phone rang one day and it was an elderly gentleman who said he’d seen a poster in the tube by Qureshi and asked if I knew that this artist was Pakistani.
Mariam Zulfiqar has a BA in design and public art from the Chelsea College of Art & Design and an MA in curating contemporary art from the Royal College of Art.
She worked alongside the diplomatic sector as head of events at Morris International Associates in 2003 and went on to commission artworks for Art on the Underground. She undertook a curating residency in Barbados as part of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Scholarship Fund and has also held curatorial roles at the Science Gallery at King’s College London, Film and Video Umbrella and Up Projects.
She was the contemporary arts manager at Forestry England before joining Artangel as director in January.
“I told him that I did and that I had helped put his work on the tube. He said that he had lived in this country since the 1950s and this was the first time that he’d felt proud that this was his home. It moved me so much.”
Our understanding of public space has changed again since the pandemic, says Zulfiqar. “I think we realised just how valuable spaces beyond our domestic context were, whether that’s public spaces like museums or outside spaces. And culture, whether it’s film, poetry or music, was crucial for so many people during the pandemic. It has definitely heightened people’s perception of culture and their connection and access to public space.”
The toppling of the Edward Colston statue during the Black Lives Matters protests of 2020 also pushed society to reflect on the nature of representation in the public realm. “There is a friction between the evolution and movement of social consciousness and the ‘static-ness’ of statues,” says Zulfiqar. “We live with these statues around us that speak of specific moments and underline specific kinds of historic and contemporary inclusions and exclusions.”
Zulfiqar welcomes the “raised level of awareness and renewed engagement with the context that we live in” that the fall of Colston has brought about. “It’s interesting to think that a statue put up so long ago would have the power to trigger events and debate today,” she says.
Throughout her career, Zulfiqar’s work has – consciously or not – tracked alongside some of the biggest issues of our age. Last year she began working at Forestry England, a pioneer of arts initiatives that respond to outdoor spaces. It was here that Zulfiqar began to focus more intensely on the intersection between art and the climate and biodiversity crises.
“Forestry England brings a unique set of conditions to the table because not only does it have access to an enormous amount of outdoor green space, but it also has access to scientists and researchers and people who are on the forefront of the climate emergency. I was really interested in developing Forestry England’s leadership role at the intersection of art production and environmental concerns.”
Growing environmental issues
Under Zulfiqar’s guidance, Forestry England embarked on a five-year partnership with Arts Council England to address climate and environmental issues. Zulfiqar is keen to continue this focus at Artangel.
“One of the biggest themes for me is the question around environment, because I think that, like the pandemic, this is a situation that will impact everybody, but not everybody will suffer in the same way,” she says. “I’m really interested to have conversations with artists about what it means to respond to this crisis and how we can re-examine what art production means in this context.”
Artangel’s archives offer an incredible resource to draw on. Zulfiqar says she’s particularly inspired by Jem Finer’s Longplayer, a musical composition that launched on 1 January 2000 and will continue playing until the end of 2999. The piece can be heard online and at several listening posts around the world. “I love what Longplayer stands for – long and durational rather than quick and transactional,” she says.
Zulfiqar’s exhilaration at becoming director of an organisation like Artangel is palpable. “It’s a fantastic team – I’m really excited about hearing the things that they are interested in and I look forward to the projects we will work on together.”
She says she’s particularly motivated about expanding the charity’s regional and international remit. Taking over from two directors who have been in the role for so long – and contributed to so many significant moments in British art – may seem like a formidable challenge, but Zulfiqar is undaunted.
“I grew up in a country in which the experience of people who have done something for a lot longer is really valued,” she says. “It’s not a hard end and a new beginning, it’s about how we build on their work to face the challenges of today.”
Founded in 1985, Artangel’s driving principle is “extraordinary art in unexpected places”. The charity has been behind some of the most memorable art experiences of recent decades, including Seizure (2008) by Roger Hiorns, who used blue copper sulphate crystals to transform an empty council flat in London’s Elephant & Castle, and House (1993-4), Rachel Whiteread’s temporary sculpture of the inside of a condemned east London home cast in concrete.
In 2011 the charity launched the Artangel Collection with Tate to enable film and video installations to be presented across the UK. More than 25 works are available for loan free of charge to publicly-funded sites. Current projects include Jitterbug, a film by Hackney artist Ayo Akingbade on the consequences of gentrification in her home borough, which was at London’s Museum of the Home.