Meccahattan is Shaista Chishty’s photographic response to recent expansions and changes in the sacred city of Mecca. The collage project highlights the increasing consumerism and gentrification of the city and questions the intentions and priorities behind these recent shifts. I spoke to Shaista about her connection to the project and her concerns regarding these expansions.
How did the Meccahattan project originate?
I visited Mecca for the first time in 2008 and had the most uplifting experience. Seeing the Ka’bah that Muslims pray towards each day in real life blew me away. The next time I visited was for the pilgrimage of Hajj some years later. I was shocked at how much had changed and with cranes visible in the distance, saw that more change was to come. In particular I was taken aback by the large clock tower which now completely overpowered the Ka’bah. While my Hajj experience was amazing, I could not ignore how commercialised Mecca had become and how normal people had been priced out of making the journey.
I was surprised to see the difference in Mecca between my first and second visits. Of course much expansion and change had already taken place in Mecca prior to my first visit in 2008- malls bustling with shoppers, designer boutiques, countless restaurants and fast food chains. My biggest surprise however came when I began researching the expansion plans themselves following my return home to the UK. For example, more demolitions of historical sites to make way for projects such as the worlds largest hotel complete with 10,000 rooms, 70 restaurants, 12 towers, 4 helipads, a ballroom and a special wing for the Saudi Royal Family. All of this incongruous with the simplicity and spirituality encouraged by the tradition of Islam itself.
In the magazine you touch upon the idea that many Muslims feel as though the expansions in Mecca are ‘cultural vandalism’. Do you agree with this statement?
Unfortunately I do agree with this statement. There are many places of historical importance that have been knocked down to make way for luxury hotels and the like. For example the homes of the Prophet Muhammad, his wife and his companions, with more to come. I simply cannot see why history is being erased to make way for yet more hotels and malls.
What was your intention with the project?
Honestly I didn’t have any intentions other than letting off some steam!
Would you say the response to the work was what you expected?
I have been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to the work- particularly from other Muslims who have since told me they feel the same about the expansion plans. I had been a little worried that my intentions would be misread by Muslims because we pray towards the Ka’bah five times a day, it is something spiritually and historically important for us and I was afraid my work would be considered disrespectful.
What lead you to create using digital collaging? Is this a medium you often work in?
My return from Hajj coincided with an assignment during my MA in Documentary Photography. It was called rethink and required us to completely shift how we worked, pushing us outside of our comfort zone. I was so frustrated by what I saw in Mecca that I knew I had to channel those emotions into making new work about it. Until this point I had worked in a very traditional way with minimal editing of images, still tied subconsciously to ideas about truth and photography. I decided to throw everything out the window and get creative using collage techniques which have historically been associated with political movements. Something clicked and since then I have been interested in expanding my practice be it through collage or other techniques.
When creating these collages, did you seek any inspiration from other artists?
At the time I was less focussed on the form, more driven by a cathartic need to channel my emotions! It just so happened that I decided to experiment with digital collage which I had never done before. I still look at these images and feel they are somewhat unpolished, although for me that is less important than what I am trying to communicate.
As far as collage artists go, I am an admirer of fellow Brummie Christopher Spencer (Cold War Steve) and of course Cat Phillipps & Peter Kennard who completely nail the art! Over lockdown I enjoyed watching Lorna Simpson’s Instagram stories where she shared behind the scenes of her new collage work.
Do you intend on further exploring this project, or do you feel as though you’ve said all you wanted to say on the subject?
I have thought about extending this work and may well come back to it later, but for now I am happy with the project as it is. Especially because there is a long list of other projects I’m desperate to get cracking on for now!
How did you find the process of making during a pandemic? Did you find time to continue your practice?
I was already working on a long term personal project before COVID struck. My work is a conversation between my various identities- British, Muslim, Pakistani, Woman- and how those evolving parts relate to mainstream news and popular culture. I am particularly interested in how my lived experience and that of other Muslims I know, is at odds with representations of us. I find myself rolling my eyes on a daily basis- problematic representations manifest so insidiously. So imagine how mortified I was when I recently came across images in my own archive which are exactly the kind of images which annoy me today! I begged my sister some 15 years ago to wear a face veil so I could stage a series of pictures. The images show a face veiled Muslim woman standing alone, dressed in black, nameless, passive and motionless. The blueprint of how we perceive the Muslim woman in the Western imagination.
Through lockdown I decided to experiment with repurposing those images and play with the idea of the blueprint- enter cyanotype fun! I also looked to news archives as one means of trying to understand the construction of otherness that I had come to internalise. I collaged these ideas and made the series It’s No Life For Any Woman. The project is really about exploring how I was socialised to create these images in a context where I knew the images didn’t represent any Muslim woman I’d known.
I was also thrilled during lockdown to be awarded a bursary by GRAIN, to make work related to the current situation. While I’m very much in the research phase at the moment, I can say that it is a study on the parallels between the use of black and brown bodies in war propaganda and government messaging about COVID.
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