Buffalo native Asad Raza is an internationally renowned multidisciplinary artist. In 2019, Raza created the 34th Kaldor Public Art Project in Sydney, Australia. The project, called Absorption, was later presented in 2020 at the Gropius Bau in Berlin, and at the 2021 Ruhrtriennale in the Ruhr area of Germany. He was recently in the Netherlands installing a new project and will return to Buffalo throughout the spring to serve as the artist-in-residence as part of the UB Arts Collaboratory’s Working Artists Lab.
“This Working Artists Lab differs from others in that we are connecting with a major arts institution in another city and state,” says Bronwyn Keenan, director of the UB Arts Collaboratory. “Working on a project of this level is exhilarating for me, but especially for all the collaborating UB and Buffalo artists and scholars who will be introduced to each other’s work and, through Asad, broaden Buffalo’s reach onto the national stage.
“Professors Maria Horne (Department of Theatre and Dance) and Dennis Maher (School of Architecture and Planning) have been key collaborators since the word go,” Keenan says, “and their leadership of this lab, alongside Asad, is proving to be an exciting meeting of the creative minds.”
Raza has been commissioned by FRONT International 2022: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art to create a multipart artwork that involves outdoor sculpture, sailing and song. The project will be developed over seven intensive weeks as part of UB’s Arts Collaboratory Working Artists Lab. Deeply collaborative, the project will bring together the expertise of astronomers, indigenous scholars, architects, maritime organizations, marine biologists, musicians, poets and artists.
Seeing the triennial as an opportunity to initiate something that will have a life of its own, Raza’s multifaceted approach seeks to highlight the regional ecosystem and the shared heritage of Lake Erie’s environment. The lab will culminate with Orientation, a sculpture made of Lake Erie mussel shells, sand, silt and rubble, and Delegation, a journey across Lake Erie during which a group of musicians, poets and artists will compose a piece of music to be performed live on opening night at the Cleveland Triennial. FRONT International 2022 runs from July 16 through Oct. 2 in Cleveland.
The Working Artists Lab is an academic class where graduate and undergraduate students can earn academic credit at UB through the Department of Theatre and Dance. Horne, associate professor of theatre and dance, and Keenan created the class as an experiential space where UB’s interdisciplinary student artists/scholars can learn and thrive together along with renowned professionals and researchers.
“We are delighted to host Asad’s lab at UB and to collaborate with him in this unique project, which marks the fifth edition of the Working Artists Lab,” Horne says.
Maher, clinical assistant professor of architecture, notes that the project as a whole “will bring the collaborative nature of the Buffalo art community to a larger audience.”
“We are looking forward to working with Bronwyn, Asad Raza and his team, and the University at Buffalo community to realize this work,” he says.
The Working Artists Lab with Raza is taking place now through May 13, with support from the IACE (International Artists & Cultural Exchange) program, the departments of Theatre and Dance, Art, Music and Indigenous Studies; UB Sustainability; and the School of Architecture and Planning.
Raza recently talked with UBNow about the inspiration for his project.
You’re originally from the Buffalo area. Do you visit often? What do you like to do while you’re here?
Yes, I was born and raised in Buffalo and come back two or three times per year. I spend time with my uncle, Wahid Mohammed, who is 93 now, and my nephews, Omar and Aral. I usually visit Cathleen Chaffee at the Albright Knox and see shows — last time it was Patti Thomas’ paintings at the Burchfield Penney. I also eat a ton and spend time down by the lake and the silos.
As part of the Working Artists Lab, you will focus on the Great Lakes, and Lake Erie, specifically. Why is this important to you?
When I was invited to do something at the FRONT Triennial in Cleveland, I realized how strange it was that I’d never been to Cleveland, even though I grew up in Buffalo. The two cities are so similar and on the same lake, are part of the same region, and yet there’s really very little cultural traffic between the two places, so I wanted to try and connect Buffalo and Cleveland. The thing that connects them is Lake Erie, so I thought if I do a project that relates to the lake that will tie them together.
Your work consists of three components: an outdoor sculpture, sailing and song. Can you talk about the boat ride from Buffalo to Cleveland and how that component came to fruition?
I thought it would be interesting to sail across Lake Erie because it puts you in touch with the waterscape, the landscape, the sky, the sun and the moon. And that brought on the idea that maybe we can bring a group of musicians on this journey because there is a natural link between music and water. I think of music as related to traveling across water — it’s about rhythmic journeys across space and time. We have several musicians going on the trip and I’m very much looking forward to their interplay and creativity on that journey. The action of sailing across this water will produce the first part of the project, which is called Delegation.
Talk about the structural part of the project, Orientation.
I’ve been looking at these astronomical instruments that were produced in India in the 17th century. The sculpture, or structure, draws on these Indian astronomical observatories, Jantar Mantar, which were constructed across India to track the sun, moon and planets. I thought it could be interesting to build one of those structures because people can really interact with them. They’re large and kids can climb on them and they have stairs, so the structure isn’t just about visual consumption; it’s about interacting and playing with the structure, which also relates you to the heavens. The sculpture will be made of materials gathered from Lake Erie: a wooden frame with plaster formed from crushed Zebra and Quagga mussels trawled from the lakebed, as well as lake sand, silt and rubble, and phragmites, or coastal grasses. I thought it would be interesting to leave something like that in Cleveland — something that seems to relate to art, but also to science and the world. It will in the Wade Oval, across from the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum.
What can participants expect from the lab?
The lab will offer the opportunity to witness and take part in the production process and will include a series of workshops, discussions and readings. They will also work with material processes involving mussel shells, explore the process of musical composition inspired by the waterscape, and study the ecological life of the Great Lakes. We’ll be testing different plasters and participants will get to create and test plaster of their own creation. We’ll be going to the lake to gather ingredients and then they’ll be going on the boat trip. The entire project will be informed by the history of the region and inhabitants over the last 10,000 years, and its present-day environmental challenges. Joe Stahlman, the director of Seneca Museum, will speak, and Joyce Hwang (UB architecture professor), whose work is about architecture and non-human species, and Aviva Rothman, a historian of astronomy, as well as Peter Hedman and Nick Andersen, both astronomers. We’re also going to have ecologists, artists and musicians visit the lab. There’s an amazing group of people who’ve come together to make this whole project happen.
How did your partnership with UB Arts Collaboratory and the Working Artists Lab develop?
I was working on all these ideas as part of the triennial commission and I received a call from Bronwyn Keenan, (director of the Arts Collaboratory), whom I knew from New York. She told me about the collaboratory and the Working Artists Lab and how they would like to invite me to be the artist-in-residence this year. I thought it sounded exciting and told Bronwyn that it was an amazing coincidence because I was working on a project that’s about connecting Buffalo and Cleveland. So, with Bronwyn’s leadership, we got together and came up with this course and an amazing group of scholars, who will come visit with students. And together we will work through an investigation and celebration of the past, present and future of Lake Erie and the ecosystems and communities surrounding it. And this is really the first time in my career, even though I’m very connected to Buffalo and feel very strongly about Buffalo, that I’ve had an invitation from Buffalo to come and do something this exciting.
As someone who splits their time between New York City and Berlin, but still comes to Western New York to visit with family every year, have you noticed any changes in Buffalo?
I love Buffalo and I get back to visit two or three times a year. Every time I come back, I feel more and more energized by the way things are moving in Buffalo. It’s becoming a more dynamic and fun place to be. It’s pretty amazing if you grew up here in the 80s, like me. Also, the Bills have their best team since I was in college and are gonna win the Super Bowl this year.