The Art of Surveillance

By Stephanie Milliken is a M.A. Candidate in Gender Studies and Feminist Research program at McMaster University

Photo courtesy by the artist

This spring, the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre (WAHC) will be hosting an exhibition featuring the works of artists Riaz Mehmood, and Gail Bourgeois. WAHC has been operational for twenty years as a museum that, according to Program Coordinator Tara Bursey, “conveys the current and historical experiences of working people locally, as well as throughout Ontario and the rest of Canada.” The museum hosts three large exhibitions per year in their main gallery space. Riaz and Gail’s exhibition connects past and present cultures of surveillance, and the rise of surveillance cultures in the workplace and will take place in conjunction with complementary programming and activities.

Riaz Mehmood immigrated to Canada from Pakistan in 2009. He studied civil engineering in Pakistan, but realized that he would not be fully satisfied with a career focused solely in engineering when his passion lay in the arts. Once his brother completed his studies at an art institute in Lahore, the two brothers opened up a design studio in Lahore that was quite successful. After three years, Riaz decided to immigrate to Canada to study art. Moving to a new country was “freeing,” he said. “There are no expectations or pressures from other people because no one knows you, which can be quite liberating, as well as intimidating.” He moved to Toronto, and was admitted to the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD).

The exhibition at WAHC will feature Riaz’s drone sculptures. The inspiration for this work came when he was studying in Windsor. Windsor is a border city, and his hometown of Peshawar is a border city as well. “A classmate told me that I should look into drones because the U.S. has a lot of drones at the border to keep track of who is crossing…I had never noticed that…I thought that drones were deployed only in other areas, not here, monitoring citizens.” As Riaz explained, “drones are increasingly used for surveillance of citizens in most areas of the world, but we are often not made aware of it.”

The drone sculptures are decorated in a style customarily employed by Pakistani truck drivers to decorate their trucks. Truck drivers in Pakistan, a place with a history of conspicuous drone presence, work closely with artists to decorate their trucks in a variety of ways. Riaz reflects that, “it is like a work of art on the vehicle…it is a complex cultural phenomenon.” Pakistani truck drivers are proud to express their thoughts, political aspirations, heroes, and beliefs, as they travel long distances on the road. “Most of the drivers are not formally educated,” Riaz said, “so to have the opportunity to express themselves and their thoughts this way is really special.” Riaz channelled this idea into his drone project, and hopes to add to the discussion about drones and surveillance on a local and global level.

Riaz has learned a couple of really important things through studying and showing his art for the past decade. First, it is vital for new artists to learn how to format their resumés properly, in a way that promotes their training and the places where they have previously shown their work. Second, he critiques the ingrained idea that “art is supposed to talk for itself.” While art can have different meanings for different people, Riaz has noticed that people want to hear an artist talk about their work and the process behind it – it makes the piece more interesting for them.

When speaking on his desire to show his work at WAHC, Riaz said, “it would be an honour for my work to be shown in a place where other artists I really respect have shown their work.” Riaz’s work often has a political message, and a lot of the time the message is infused with humour. At the moment, Riaz teaches a course at a community college in Thunder Bay, and he also works freelance in a variety of areas, including coding and website design.
Watch for Riaz and Gail’s exhibition, Harvest, Sweep, Gather, at the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre this Spring. The exhibition will run from May 14th – August 20th.