On Belonging is a poignant, engaging, and thoughtful meditation about how our unique stories—of where we come from and how we define home—bring us together.
—Michelle White, Senior Curator, Menil Collection
About the Project
On Belonging, my site-specific art installation, was launched in Houston (TX) in 2018 as a commissioned project by the Menil Collection. Since then, I have installed the work at a 100-year-od carob tree at Scripps College (CA) in 2019 and on five trees in three Pasadena (CA) public parks in 2021.
The installation echoes the Sufi tradition of using beads, fabric, paper, and thread to transform trees into shrines and spaces for meditation. The installation features indigo and red block-printed cloth ajrak fabric from my home city Karachi in Sindh (Pakistan). The ajrak design is also claimed by residents on the other side of the border in the Indian provinces of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Each time, I initiate On Belonging I distribute comment cards to gather community member responses through text and art about journeys that they have undertaken. The cards are then displayed around the tree trunks and branches.
Over the past four years of collecting community cards for the project, I have found that less than 10 percent of participants reside in the same location as their primary caregivers’ birth cities reaffirming my belief that refugees, migrants, humans will cross regardless of barriers.
On Belonging is dedicated to global communities and refugees who resist walls, borders and checkpoints.
My On Belonging installation on a hundred-year old carob tree at Scripps College, Claremont California, Fall 2019; photo Sehba Sarwar
October 8, 2021, 6 – 10 pm: My site specific installation, On Belonging community responses to home & the pandemic, was launched at ArtNight Pasadena in three Pasadena public parks (Memorial, Victory, and McDonald). In the new phase of my project, I invited community members as well as students from Pasadena High School and Blair High School to share cards about how they found comfort during the pandemic. All three installations were supposed to up for two weeks. However, the McDonald Park installation was stolen while the Memorial Park one was damaged. Only the three oak trees at Victory Park remained undamaged and were available for viewing for two weeks.
On Belonging: community responses to home & the pandemic was cosponsored by the Armory Center for the Arts. The project is funded in part by Pasadena Arts & Culture Commission and the City of Pasadena Cultural Affairs Division.
September 2019: I was invited to create my On Belonging installation at Scripps College on a 100-year-old carob tree, where it remained up for three weeks. Students participated by submitting cards; I also offered a reading from my novel Black Wings (Veliz Books, 2019). To view images from my Scripps College installation, please click here.
Sehba has an amazing ability to paint masterpieces evoking time, place, and feeling with words. I am always in awe. It’s essential to make time for On Belonging to feed the spirit and keep the soul intact.
— On Belonging audience member
On Belonging was launched in February 2018 at Houston’s Menil Collection campus to complement artist Mona Hatoum’s 2017-18 Terra Infirma art exhibition.
February 2018: I launched On Belonging when I was commissioned by the Menil Collection. I presented a 40-minute live performance through which I explored my journey as a transnational citizen alongside my family’s history of migration and displacement, while creating space for community members to share their journeys. At the performance, I incorporated my history interwoven with voice recordings by my mother, daughter, husband as well as audio renditions from comments extracted from response cards that were completed by more than 500 community members in cities around the US.
Using the cards that I collected, I created a site-specific art installation on an oak tree at the Menil Collection campus. The installation included ajrak fabric from my home city Karachi in Sindh (Pakistan)—the ajrak design is also claimed by residents on the other side of the border in the Indian provinces of Gujarat and Rajasthan. For the project launch, residents in Austin, Boston, El Paso, Houston, Karachi, Los Angeles, McAllen, Montreal, Washington DC completed cards. Their mothers (or primary caregivers) were born in countries including Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Canada, China, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Guyana, Haiti, Hawaii, Honduras, Indonesia, India, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, Spain, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, USSR, Vietnam, and the United States.
I am available to tour On Belonging with all or some of the project components (performance, site-specific installation, workshops, and community conversations). Please contact me if you’re interested in bringing On Belonging to your city or campus!
On Belonging has been supported in part by the Menil Collection; Mount Holyoke College Alumna Fellowship; Mid-America Arts Alliance, the National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, and foundations, corporations and individuals throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. The project was developed through my 2012-14 residency with the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and through my work with Voices Breaking Boundaries.
Ongoing & Additional Projects
I am an author and speaker, an artist, and a community and cultural activist.
If I can use my talents and passions to inspire you or your network to push boundaries and become involved in our communities, please connect with me. I offer a range of services including: readings, workshops, courses, or multidisciplinary performances/installations. I look forward to hearing from you!