How to Love a Tree: Wild Encounters
About the work of Hira Nabi

How can we reflect on our role within the natural world through art and poetry? In this essay, Foam curator Aya Musa connects the artistic practice of Hira Nabi with the writings of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, whose works are both rooted in the rich tapestry of Islamic traditions in South Asia.

A still from Wild Encounters, 2023 © Hira Nabi.

Deciphering the Interconnectedness of Humans and Nature in the Face of Anthropocentrism

The artistic world, reflecting societal dynamics, evolves to mirror changing priorities. Hira Nabi, a young artist from Pakistan, embodies this adaptive spirit. Focused on environmental issues and daily narratives, her work challenges the traditional anthropocentric (human-centered)views that have dominated the global stage. Her perspectives are heavily influenced by the historical and cultural contexts of South Asia, especially the remnants of British colonial rule. Her South Asian background deeply informs her perception of human-nature dynamics, prominently showcased in her art. Residing in the Netherlands, Nabi is positioned within the "glocalized" world that continually moulds artistic narratives. This integration of global and local dynamics enables her to challenge Eurocentric ideals in her art, fostering a deeper understanding of her own roots. Her artistic pursuits span the contexts of South Asia and Western Europe and reach out globally. In this glocal era, her work encourages a re-evaluation of art and our environmental relationship. 

Anthropocentrism, placing humans at existence's core, is deeply rooted in Western art and philosophy. It's echoed from Descartes' "Cogito, ergo sum" to Kant's belief in human-exclusive moral comprehension. Its influence has profoundly impacted Western thought. In South Asia, colonial influences amplified anthropocentrism, often stressing individualism and human progress at nature's expense. As modernization surged, resource exploitation became justified through an anthropocentric lens, with human-centric progress becoming a central theme in policy and culture. Though colonialism shaped many facets of South Asian philosophy, emphasizing human dominance over nature, it's pivotal to recognize the region's intrinsic ecological traditions that counter anthropocentrism. This dynamic interplay is where Hira Nabi's art is rooted. Through her pieces, she critiques these contrasts, enriching the ongoing discourse on anthropocentrism locally and globally.

In the vibrant tableau of the art world, Hira Nabi stands out as a compelling voice against anthropocentrism. Drawing from her personal understanding of Islamic traditions and influenced by the writings of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, she puts forth an alternative perspective, underscoring the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world. Central to her exploration is the rich tapestry of Islamic traditions in South Asia. Her work mirrors Islamic principles such as "Khalifa", or stewardship, viewing humans as caretakers of the Earth, and "Mizan," symbolizing balance in the universe. The teachings of "Tawheed," or the oneness of God, further resonate within her work, suggesting a unity of all creations.

A focal point of Nabi's exploration is the concept of the "Shahada," a fundamental tenet of Islam, commonly translated as "the testimony." The Shahada affirms the belief in the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. In a broader context, Shahada is also interpreted as the act of "witnessing" or being mindful of the divine in every aspect of life. This witnessing extends to the universe and the environment, fostering a profound sense of respect and interconnectedness with nature. By integrating the concept of Shahada into her work, Nabi extends the witness's role to her audience, urging them to observe, reflect, and recognize their role within the natural world. This delicate balance of religious philosophy and ecological consciousness positions her work as a resonant critique against the dominant anthropocentric perspective, presenting a compelling alternative rooted in spiritual and environmental harmony. 

Bridging these diverse cultural and religious narratives, Ali's poem "A Farewell" provides a poignant illustration of the connection between people and their environment, a theme that is deeply woven into Nabi's installation How to Love a Tree

 Ali writes: 

In these lines, Ali underscores the deep intertwining of human narratives with the environments they inhabit, using the backdrop of the contested region of Kashmir. This sentiment finds a powerful echo in Nabi's work. The socio-economic reality of Pakistan, which sometimes compels people to exploit the very trees they rely upon for sustenance and survival, manifests in Nabi's poetic film installation. Through her work, she brings to the fore the forgotten landscapes and unheard voices of nature, as well as the fraught yet essential relationship between humans and forests. 

Continuing with his poem, Ali asks: 

Ali's poignant questioning of who tends to the natural world finds its visual counterpart in Nabi's artistic explorations. She captures the entanglement of trees, forests, and human lives, shedding light on the complex relationships between identity, place, and nature. Her work brings attention to the often overlooked yet essential elements of our environment, reminiscent of Ali's fallen ibex fleece. 

Toward the end of "Farewell", Ali pens: 

In a world echoing with a yearning for connection, Nabi's artistic expressions resonate profoundly, mirroring themes found in Agha Shahid Ali's poetic reflections. Both these artists, in their unique ways, draw attention to the intrinsic bond between humanity and the natural world. They beckon us to view our environment not merely as a passive backdrop, but as an active, essential component of our collective narrative. 

Nabi’s ongoing project, 'How to Love a Tree', especially its 'Wild Encounters' chapter, casts a spotlight on ecosystems of regions like Murree and the Galiyat in Pakistan. These areas, once imprinted with colonial footprints, now bear the scars of contemporary degradation. Through her art, Nabi weaves the multifaceted tapestries of South Asian narratives—its deep-rooted ecological philosophies in Islam, the enduring shadows of colonialism, and the age-old indigenous wisdom and practices. In challenging dominant anthropocentric views, she seeks to give voice to the silent elements of nature, urging a vital shift in global perspectives. 

An alignment with a broader movement, Nabi’s work reverberates with the ecocentric ideologies championed in recent decades. Philosophers like Arne Næss and John Baird Callicott, and artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, and Navjot Altaf, all emphasize the profound interconnectedness and symbiosis between humans and nature. Her How to Love a Tree: Wild Encounters deeply explores South Asian art traditions historically skewed towards anthropocentrism, urging a return to more holistic perspectives. She not only paints a vivid picture of our world's interconnected narratives but critically addresses the colonial remnants on Pakistan's socio-cultural and physical landscapes. 

Agha Shahid Ali, with his poignant verses in "Farewell," conjures a parallel sentiment: 

These poetic lines, imbued with layers of meaning, reflect the intricate weave of culture, people, and their environment—a recurring motif in Nabi's work. Both artists offer a compelling discourse that challenges dominant views, finding resonance not just in Southeast Asian art but also in Western European traditions, all calling for a more harmonious, interconnected worldview. Hira Nabi, a prominent figure in the Pakistani photo and video avant-garde, has carved a distinct space for herself within contemporary art. Her work sharply delineates the intricate relationship between humans and the environment. Her project How to Love a Tree: Wild Encounters stands as a vibrant testament to this approach, shining a light on fragile ecosystems overshadowed by colonial history. A line from Agha Shahid Ali's poem, "Your history gets in the way of my memory," deeply resonates within her oeuvre, illustrating how historical narratives can cloud our perception of the natural world. 

Exploring Hira Nabi's creations is not just an appreciation of her artistic prowess, but a moral imperative emphasizing the crucial roles of ecocentrism and postcolonialism in modern art discourse. Nabi highlights how our deep-seated beliefs can hinder our understanding of our intimate ties with the environment. In her poignant installation, How to Love a Tree: Wild Encounters, she delves into the intricate dance between memory and history. This piece underscores the idea that forgotten stories aren't exclusively human. They also resonate with the multitude of life forms with whom we share our planet. With the project title encapsulating notions of loss and inherent longing, Nabi offers a potent critique spanning from personal to environmental loss, spotlighting the repercussions of our anthropocentric mindsets. 

Central to her practice, How to Love a Tree: Wild Encounters traverses a range of motifs but consistently circles back to themes of love, care, a longing for planetary consciousness, deeper engagement, heightened awareness, giving, receiving, connecting, and expanding the imaginal realm. This work is a heartfelt echo of Ali's verse, reminding us of our responsibilities and the potential for fostering a harmonious bond with nature. It fosters a dialogue on adopting a truly 'planetary' perspective, urging us to not only reflect on our place within the biosphere but also to recognise our potential to evolve for its betterment. 

About the artist

Hira Nabi, an emerging Pakistani artist, confronts and challenges the anthropocentric assumptions deeply ingrained in (Western) art and philosophy by focusing on the environment and everyday stories. Her art seeks a greater interconnectedness and provides a broader testimony of the contemporary era, rather than
solely emphasising the human experience. Recognised by the Prince Claus Fund Next Generation Award, her work goes beyond human actions and experiences,
acknowledging the natural world around us, including plants, animals, and ecosystems, as independent entities. Within the Southeast Asian art tradition, Nabi
directs her lens to the impact of colonial interventions and transplanted geographies, primarily in the context of Pakistan.

About the exhibition at Foam

In a multi-media installation including moving image, audio, text and performance, Hira Nabi looks at the interconnectedness between humans and their environment. Specifically, she critically examines ecosystems in Pakistan marked by centuries of colonial rule.

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A still from Wild Encounters, 2023 © Hira Nabi.

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How to Love a Tree: Wild Encounter. About the work of Hira Nabi - Article | Foam: All about photography Foam curator Aya Musa reflects on the exhibition How to Love a Tree: Wild Encounters by Hira Nabi. D [...]
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How to Love a Tree: Wild Encounter. About the work of Hira Nabi