Paradise, pandemic and hopes.In conversation with Edwin Koo -Award Winning Singaporean Photographer

In 2013 I began a search to ‘Understand the Phenomena of Paradise through Contemporary Visual Art’ and my final MA Visual Arts dissertation withheld that title. Back then I’d excavated Edwin Koo’s paradise photography while rummaging thousands of paradisiacal visual art inquiries around the globe. I chose Koo’s work as one of the five case studies for my dissertation. The artist travelled to Swat Pakistan to observe the homeland of a people who called it paradise. The valley had faced a war with the Taliban and the 2010 floods, Koo photographed it when it was mourning yet breathing again. The current state of our planet urged me to connect with Koo to converse on paradise, pandemic and hopes…where migration, home and Singapore also became the anchor of our dialogue.  


“An old man stands beside the disfigured carving of Buddha dating back to 6th-7th centuries”
(Koo, 2020)

Sehr Jalil: Have you searched for paradise after Swat and any works which represent that notion of paradise?

Edwin Koo: The query into the notion of paradise began when I returned from Nepal to Singapore for a short break, sometime in 2009 ( I was working in Nepal 2008 – 2010). In human history a lot of people see paradise as the final home to return to. My inquiry into this concept of Singapore as my birthplace and home was challenged when I returned. In 2009, I had a chance to go to Swat and document people who were fleeing the valley as a result of Taliban insurgency. It was during that time that the people of Swat used the term paradise to describe their valley. It got me thinking on: what is paradise?

When I finished documenting for the book I published in 2015, I had no conclusion. The book “Paradise” had an open ending and the only conclusion I could arrive at was that paradise existed in the minds of the people, its psychological or physical proportions depend on one’s personal definition of it.

Upon the book’s completion I was left with an open question – my own view is very much informed by my own faith because I am Christian, I have my own definition of a non-physical paradise that resonates with everything I experienced.

When I encountered the people of Swat my first understanding of their paradise was physical – the mountains, rivers, pastures and clean air, very biblical and later on I realized that it’s more to do with the memories they held on to, in the hope of rebuilding a life that they once knew. The search transcended from physical paradise to the question of paradise – where I didn’t want to draw a conclusion.

Earlier I wanted to call it “Paradise Lost”. I realized on the way that I did not have the moral authority to assert that paradise is lost. It informed my work for the future and I became less judgmental. Subsequently I did another work titled Transit, I observed people’s expressions when they were travelling on the subway. The central question of inquiry being ‘that the place that we live in is our idea of paradise’ is still intact… there are many people who go from home to work and work to home and they spend a lot of time inside trains, they go to many places where they really don’t want to be –that is a phenomena, as humans we do things that counter our nature, with ‘Transit’ I left it open ended. There can’t be a linear narrative where there is no beginning and end. In paradise there was a crisis and a resolution but in transit there’s no beginning.

Hamala, 8, recites the Koran by memorising the sounds. Her mother teaches her the Koran. Bahrain, Swat, Pakistan. 2011/05/26.(Koo, 2020)
Transit (Edwin, 2020)

SJ : What is your understanding of the word ‘paradise’ until now?

EK: My own interpretation is informed by my faith, in believing something that you can’t see. Many times I try to be more certain but it’s very hard to be certain.  Is it in the sky? Is it a transfiguration of the present world? Is it another place? Is it the same place but transfigured? Is it an end point, a destination or a journey? There are always questions in my own personal life that I try to answer – I find it important for further understanding to what it could be.  I’ve three children and I don’t wish to inform them forcefully but I do want to provide them with a lead point. ‘I don’t know’ is a sad answer. The photographs are a try to give a sense of light to what I perceive. Our imperfections carry these facets and if we can piece them together through our own lens we might have another level of understanding. It’s a continuous journey. Humanity’s search for paradise is eternal and not final.

Toddler Daud Masih, 2, sleeps between (left) his grandfather Anayat Masih, 65, and father Waseem Masih, 23, in the North Diocese Church in Mardan. Some 350 refugees of all faiths – Christians, Muslims, and Hindus found refuge in a small compound more suited to a congregation of 100. Pakistan.2009/05/24.(Koo, 2020)

SJ:Do you think that the pandemic is related in some way, to the notion of heaven and hell?

EK:That’s very interesting, because a lot of people will have the view that the Covid-19 pandemic is a result of nature. From a divine point of view, a pandemic or a war is almost always considered something with a cause-effect relationship. It’s easy to think of it as a result of an action or a punishment for certain people. I won’t say it’s not but as humankind we have a special ability to hope – animals don’t. We are able to see the future in a way. Before we even see it, we are already aware of the idea of apocalypse – and upon observation, something good always comes out from something bad, for me that is a reoccurring truth. For paradise in Swat I had a rosy picture of people re-building the physical landscape but I experienced more than that – especially the friendships which allowed me to make those pictures. It was not by chance that people came and helped me. I experienced the kinship of men that allowed me to go to places where few had been to, to find out what is paradise…

Kalam, Swat Valley, Pakistan. 2011/05/24.
(Koo, 2020)

If the valley hadn’t fallen a lot of people would never have thought of a homeless paradise. What comes after is your own reaction and choice. You chose between despair and hope. I think rather than looking at it that way it is a universal truth that whenever there is bad there is good and when there is good, some bad will come in. There is a balance and it may sound cliché but depends on how each one of us makes do of the situation.

SJ:  This irony or dichotomy somehow reminds me of a Malala Yousafzai’s speech when she migrated to Canada. She mentioned that she loved her homeland Swat and that it was paradise but she can’t live there, transit comes in – her home is paradise but living there is dangerous for her. So it again goes back to being in transit or pushed out from heaven to earth or hell and back in – or somewhere else. This applies to asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants all over the world.

Aitzaz, 9 and Noman, 11, prepare tea for their guests. Zubair Torwali, a family friend, renders a helping hand. Bahrain, Swat Valley, Pakistan. 2010/09/25.(Koo, 2020)

SJ: Discuss any art, ideas, people or situations that remind you of your idea of paradise in the current day?

I’ve wanted to re-watch the Italian movie set through holocaust ‘Life is Beautiful’(1997). I feel it’s very close to what it is. How the father tries to make the boy’s world a different place. Of course not all of us can go to that length and it’s success is subjective. Yet the notion of sacrifice always comes with the notion of paradise. Without self-sacrifice or wanting to make things better, there is no paradise. I imagine and hope that in paradise people are kind of selfless – everybody for everybody else. This may sound naive but in hope we need to have a dose of naivety. An angle of the pandemic and current situation makes us observe the better side of humanity, the beautiful stories that come up – communities sewing masks when there are no masks, retired doctors volunteering to be at the frontline. These stories make living more meaningful and less painful. The sacrifice from father to son had a deeper impact; it is a lesson for the future generations. 

life is beautiful –
(of greatness, 2020)
Fauziah Aminullah, 35, a Muslim from Shaidul Sharif, Swat, coos her baby to sleep, in a church in Mardan, along with four others from her family. She has no money and no relatives in Mardan. The Pashtun women need privacy and refugee camps are too open. “There is no problem. I have my own tent and do my prayers there.” The Pakistani military launched a massive operation into Swat Valley after a peace deal with the Taliban militants broke down in early May. The result of the fallout is Pakistan’s largest exodus since the partition in 1947: more than two million refugees have poured out of conflict-hit Swat Valley and surrounding areas. Pakistan.2009/05/24.(Koo, 2020)

SJ: Tell me about your practice ‘now’, is it going in many directions – is it focused on one thing or expanding?

EK: I think paradise is actually not the central notion of my inquiry. My own obsession centers on how one relates to home. To search for the sense of personal identity in home, paradise became one of the concerns. Currently I’m working on an ongoing project ‘notes from Singapore son’ it’s a working title. It’s a personal draft of history – I’ve three children now, when I first came back to Singapore in 2011, I’d one. It’s a father’s yearning to want to tell the story of homecoming to his children. It carries moments important to Singapore’s history. In this work-in-progress, the question of home and identity continues with a very hyper-local context of Singapore.

Neelam, 12, a refugee from Shaidul Sharif, Swat, has been bleeding from her nose for the past two days. Many people in the tent villages have been suffering from heat-related ailments, as Swat Valley’s average temperature is at least 10 degrees below the sweltering 40 degrees Celsius of Pakistan’s plains. More than two million refugees have poured out of Swat Valley as the Pakistan army launched a massive operation to eliminate Taliban militants, after the breakdown of a peace deal in early May 2009. The exodus of refugees is the Pakistan’s largest since the Partition in 1947.Pakistan.2009/05/20(Koo, 2020)
Tanjong Pagar. Transit by Edwin Koo. 2015/02/12. (Edwin, 2020)

SJ . Your answer makes me want to ask; is it due to the evolution or becoming of Singapore in the past decades and your life over there that made you concerned about these issues?

EK: Singapore is a modern nation, but its history is also mine. In my earlier work on Tibetans, my own ethnic identity as Chinese does get in the way (even though I identify more as a Singaporean than a Chinese person) Still I would ask, why did “my people” persecute Tibetans? When you are born in a migrant nation where the ethnic identity is not so homogenous, it’s a kind of good and bad thing – you are more open to self-interpretation yet there is a lack of permanence and rootedness which forces on us a “culturally consistent” lens can be used for viewing everything. That internal search for identity is probably more acute because I’m born in a migrant nation. I’m in this place which constantly evolves, no – not evolves (evolves has a positive connotation)… but changes. For example if we ask Singaporeans what makes us Singaporean you’ll probably get silly answers for example ‘we eat chicken rice’. We are multi-racial and it’s just an assumption that since I was born in such circumstances probably it triggers a lack of security in who I am as a person. Through my documentary exercises I’ve met a fair number of people who are more certain of who they are. For example in places like Swat there’s an unquestioning sense of identity in their tribe’s lineages and claim to birthplaces. In my own personal history, I’m not even sure where my forefathers came from, which village in which part of China, what they did for a living, what did they do for their community back then? This lack of lore and rootedness, I suspect, triggers a sense of yearning to search for one’s identity.

(Edwin, 2020)
Tooti Gul, 60, who lives in a hut perched on a rock below the Buddha carving of Jahanabad. “At about 3am, the militants came to our house and snatched our mobiles from us and warned us not to climb up there. I asked them ‘Why are you doing this? The Buddha statue is stuck to the wall and won’t harm you’and they replied ‘It;’s none of your business.'” Then we heard the sound of driling and then an explosion. By the time we had the Fajar prayer, they were finished.” Mingora, Swat Valley, Pakistan. 2010/09/19.(Koo, 2020)

SJ This resonates with many places in Pakistan as it’s a nation sliced out of an existing geographical place. There has been lots of migrating and movement within South Asia during partition and through history. Swat is one example but we do have a multi background identity. Our history as South Asians is too complex as so many people came to this region and then they left. It’s difficult to assert that this is who we are and when people are very clear, it astonishes me as well…

Ek: Once you say this is who I am people become extreme. The right wing extremists are so sure of their identity that they look at others as less…

SJ : A superiority complex of some sort…

Sumera, 5, fled with her extended family of 40 from Swat to Islamabad on a truck. They pooled all their money to rent two houses in Golra Sharif, on the outskirts of the city, paying 9500 rupees (USD$120) a month. But they have no drinking water, and no more money to buy food. About 90 percent of the two million refugees displaced live with host families, either renting rooms or squeezing in with their relatives, unseen by the public. Many of them do not receive relief aid, like those who live in camps. Pakistan.2009/05/27.(Koo, 2020)

SJ: Is there anything that is not considered art in the mainstream narrative but you consider it art?

EK: There’s one big problem. In Singapore we love to tear down buildings. There’s a lot of conservation going on this matter. It’s a pretty selective process. A lot of colonial structures are being preserved while local structures are being or have been torn down.

I’m talking about architecture; this disproportionate and unfair way of tearing down things is problematic with me. What makes one building more valuable than the other…?

SJ – And who decides ?

EK: Yes! A lot of buildings have been torn down in the past two to three decades. They should have been kept; the national library with bricks was demolished for a better express route tunnel – also a block of residential apartments that were very iconic as they were in four primary colors – For me those are works of art. What is art?  For me it is something that evokes people’s feelings -to be able to tell your children and grandchildren that grandpa was in these buildings, the sense of continuity …

SJ: What is the main reason behind these demolishment choices?

EK: Pragmatism – Singapore considers itself a pragmatic nation. Choices are for a sense of progress. Most choices were mainly for a tunnel so that the traffic would flow through the city. How can one stay with the idea of a place you call home when it’s constantly changing – you don’t change the furniture of your home every day or paint it every day and it happens here all the time in the name of pragmatism. Some things are beyond dollars and cents. If I can’t give the continuity of memory to the generations to come then what is my place in this country…?  

The last but not the end note to this conversation would be a few moments of silence for the all who left us in the PIA karachi crash on 22 May 2020. I pray and hope that all ‘the departed’ have found their own paradise.

(Edwin, 2020)
Bahrain, Swat, Pakistan. 2011/05/22.(Koo, 2020)
Muslims gather at the ruins of Bilal Masjid, popularly known as the “Rock Mosque”, for evening prayers. Built 3 years ago by an Arab Sheikh, the mosque was the biggest in Bahrain, with a capacity for 500, before the flood washed away everything except its foundation. Bahrain, Swat Valley, Pakistan. 2010/09/24.(Koo, 2020)

Note: This blog and its publications can be seen as art, research and ongoing curiosities

—————————————————-

Edwin Koo, (photographer), in conversation with Sehr Jalil, 3 May 2020

Edwin, K., 2020. Transit | We Are Commuters. [online] Transit. Available at: <http://www.transit.photo/&gt; [Accessed 15 May 2020].

Koo, E., 2020. Paradise. [online] Edwin Koo. Available at: <http://www.edwinkoo.com/album/paradise.html&gt; [Accessed 12 May 2020].

of greatness, k., 2020. Film-Of-The-Day- Life Is Beautiful – How To Gamify Life To Get Through The Impossible.. [online] Medium. Available at: <https://medium.com/@KnowGreatness/film-of-the-day-life-is-beautiful-how-to-gamify-life-to-get-through-the-impossible-5bf1c8f7046b&gt; [Accessed 15 May 2020].

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