70,000 Veils, Text by Merray Gerges
by Sameer Farooq
“To speak of a veil is to speak of a barrier preventing the viewer from seeing what lies beyond it,” a scholar and translator of Sufi teachings wrote. The veil, in Sufi philosophy, he explains, is “any barrier that bars the intending seeker from what is intended and sought,” which is the divine. To reach it, one must pass through 70,000 veils of light and darkness, a process known as kashf—or “unveiling.” “Unveiling” is used as a verb in the Qur’an 14 times; I lost count of how many times Sameer Farooq used it in our discussions of this artist project.
Within the collection, the veil can be: a banker’s box, a folder, a shroud, a plastic drape, a bag, a roll of masking tape, a sorting tool, a label, a sheet of bubble wrap, a note to remind oneself to sort and label. Farooq’s practice examines the collection’s mechanisms by mimicking them. He mimics its criteria for acquisition, how it stores the things it acquires, how it classifies and compartmentalizes them, how it conserves them, how it conceals them, how it reveals them—for example, by building fictional, speculative museums to which the audience is invited to contribute the effects of their daily lives, or by bringing forward what is only ever in the collection’s back rooms. To the artist, who was trained as a cultural anthropologist, what collections choose to reveal to us and what they choose to conceal from us is not incidental.
In 70,000 Veils, Farooq lays bare a sliver of his decades-long excavation of the apparatus of collections—documented in tens of thousands of photographs inside museums, that he’s taken and sorted using his own categorization system. To make the veils on the facing page, Farooq draped millimeter-thin paper clay over weighted objects that are used to cushion the items held in the collection’s storage room. Sixty seconds after the clay’s draping, the object is removed, and the remaining dried ceramic veil delineates the contours of the object it momentarily veiled. The object’s absence, and the impression it leaves behind in its negative space, invites us to think about what gave form to the clay, what it veiled in the minute it took to mimic the object’s form. If the collection is founded on the quintessentially settler colonial imperative to possess, revealing some of the seemingly innocuous but ultimately messy mechanisms it employs to construct narratives amounts to what Farooq calls a gesture of “anti-colonial abstraction.” When he confers value on what is ostensibly of no value, the veil itself becomes just as noteworthy as what it veils.