The work that will be created is inspired by a story that Mirza recently found himself inadvertently connected to. Several years ago, Mirza used a YouTube video in one of his artworks of Olivia Arévalo Lomas, an elderly Peruvian shaman and community leader, singing Icaro (a traditional healing song). He was drawn to her story and the Icaro, which is a traditional practice the indigenous people of Peru are fighting to protect.
Last year, Mirza received an email from a journalist informing him that Lomas had been murdered by a Canadian man who came to Peru allegedly seeking healing. It was a shocking story (in fact, the man was lynched by members of Lomas’s community in a widely-publicised revenge killing) that stuck with Mirza and forms the base of his new artwork. But chances are that neither Lomas nor her murder will come to mind when you experience the artwork; Mirza translated parts of her Icaro into English and used it as the base of a sci-fi opera text.
Of course, that use of a traditional song raises important questions about ownership that Mirza, who comes from a Muslim family and notes some similarities between the Icaro and Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, is keen to address. They’re particularly difficult questions when the world is becoming more aware of the problems associated with cultural appropriation.
“At what point is the discussion around cultural appropriation paralysing to cultural exchange?” Mirza asks. “There’s one thing which is exploiting someone or something for financial or other gain, or being derogatory, which is obviously unacceptable, but at the same time there might be something to be gained from other practices.”
It’s easy to imagine that somebody who started their career working with other artists’ music as a DJ would develop an inquisitive and critical attitude to ownership. But Mirza says, in part, you have to have that attitude to be a DJ in the first place.
“DJing is collage,” he says. “Actually, there are so many words for it; it’s bringing existing material together to create something different. Not necessarily new, but different; to juxtapose things to create a relationship that’s not already there.”
But that’s not to say that the art world doesn’t work with appropriation in exactly the same way, Mirza says. It’s just rarely acknowledged so openly, which is something Mirza’s entire approach to art is bound to challenge.
“Art is actually an industry like any other industry, like the music industry or the fashion industry, and within that industry there are conventions. One of those conventions is that there’s an artist and it’s that artist’s exhibition; they’re the sole author of the work. But that’s just not true. It’s never the case; especially at the level I work at. There might be hundreds of people involved.”
Haroon Mirza: The Construction of an Act is at ACCA from September 14 to November 17.