The Beaconhouse National University, within its mere fifteen years, has already seen a significant number of artists working actively within the international arena, many securing prestigious art awards and residencies early within their careers. This phenomenon has overall pushed forth a larger movement within the Pakistani art scene, encouraging a view of art not as neat packaging of “cultural” or “Pakistani” production for consumption, but as a journey of individual/collective self-actualisation within the world at large. Risking to venture into newer territories – new media, critical perspectives and interdiscplinarity – BNU has opened itself to new waves within the global “postmodern” scene whilst acknowledging its unique approach
The Visual Arts Thesis 2016 was, in a nutshell, a reflection of all this.
Located on the far west of Lahore, the school requires a thesis visitor to make a journey from the chaos of the city towards a transitional yet calmer locality, that is Tarogil. Hundreds of students make this very same journey countless times in a year. Plucking them daily from the city and then implanting them back before daybreak, BNU offers a peculiar yet unique experience to these daily inhabitants – it provides a thoroughly neutralised space (in location, time and experience) for reflection or action.
Students owned and demarcated each area in the building as an extension of their presence
Moreover, the building possesses a quiet aesthetic, inspiring those of a creative inclination to own it, taint it and morph it. This flexibility and independence is reflective of the school’s ethos; the mission statement promises the opportunity for students to “forge a personalised path…within a broad discipline” and to foster practices that “cut across geographical and cultural boundaries”.
As one meanders through the displays, there is a sense of transitioning not from one room to the next but through widely disparate worldviews – each showcase offers an environment of not standalone objects but engulfing emotional and mental space. It is clear that most students owned and demarcated each physical area within the large building as an extension of their presence, transforming it into a lab of experimentation, catharsis and dialogue.
One of the first encounters within the show is with Ayesha Rumi’s room full of obsessively archived mundane imagery from the journey between Lahore and Tarogil (where BNU is situated), transferred onto fragmented pieces of calcium sulphate and shelved in rows from ceiling to floor. This large body of photographed “non-moments” will inevitably fade into the chemical till nothing remains, perhaps alluding to the passage of time and dissolution of memory whilst the rows seem to almost represent time in linearity.
An adjacent room houses an entire nursery of plants with an adjoining laboratory for the produce, so convincingly and meticulously executed that a viewer transcends into its psychological space upon entrance. Each object and mark, carelessly yet so carefully placed, seems to hold a history and definite purpose within the continuity of a fictional life. Sara Aslam seems to ask the viewer to fill in gaps for this imagined narrative. There is an evident parallel investigation into how one inhabits a space yet also how an inhabited space is perceived.
In a similar vein, Moonis Ahmad Shah toys with fiction upon endless fiction, drawing the viewer gradually into a paranoid reality wherein history, memory and representation cease to hold meaning. Working with archival material as a language in itself, Moonis misguides the viewer into false histories and non-histories around the Kashmir dispute, implanting variations or absurdities within the information to disorient the viewer. One is immediately reminded of Walid Raad. Using text, media, software and large functional machinery to generate these falsities, he questions these very modes of information. Calling upon the viewer to participate in certain purposefully purposeless works further examines the notion of participation through consent and belief in “data”.
In a drastically different and more personal tone, a neighboring room houses an entire elaborate “home” with carpets, doors, tiles, furniture, walls etc., along with the psychological trauma that comes with it, reminiscent of Womanhouse 1972. Naima Khan successfully transports the viewer into yet another fictional, inhabited space; this home however is riddled with absurd sights and objects, alien yet uncomfortably familiar. A tile floor with a growth of excessive hair, a shower gushing water upon another shower, a peephole revealing a dead bird being juiced – Naima transforms “homely” symbols into representations of quiet violence. Although the work could be dubbed too literal, there is an honest, unabashed and almost tangible sense of vulnerability and rebellion that the viewer cannot escape.
The works are not made to be held in the hand, but to become part of life in continuity
Many other works in the show similarly feature personal and cathartic investigations – Hira Mirza works with seemingly mundane and quiet imagery from around domestic spaces to speak of loud personal narratives, Samiha Khan questions power dynamics and sexuality in a series of monochromatic videos whilst Maham Chaudhry seems to explore modes of coping with repressed emotional growth through attachment and forced innocence.
Other displays contain a more light or playful tone – Kashif Shahbaz’s works seem to decode the reading of two-dimensional imagery with an interest in visual culture and art historical references, Talal Faisal creates absurd or surrealist narratives in sculpture using materials from the urban landscape, Afifa Mirza plays with perceptual engagement in public spaces whereas Muqaddas Babar constructs monumental labyrinths and play-spaces through urban material.
Of the latter category, Hashir Hameed Bukhari’s work perhaps stands out most for its quirky character. Drawing upon his personal experience as a musician and tying that up with an inquiry into socio-psychological relationships with commonplace objects such as a table or typewriter, Hashir transforms the experience of these familiar items through the use of sound. The table almost ceases to be a “table” as one can play a variety of sounds by tapping onto it in different sections. Similarly, a set of drawers becomes a musical instrument wherein each drawer sounds a note. The work is enticing and incomplete without interaction and play.
Needless to say, and as is the case with most BNU theses, many of the works or experiences within the show are not immediately sellable, if not entirely non-sellable, in their form. The graduate works’ inherent inattention to the market, the abandon of pre-fixed dichotomisation between subject and object or even the risks taken with some works (fully resolved or not), are all revealing of the school’s primary focus on critical and independent thought before all, and constitute the show’s very success and impact. The works are not made to be held in one’s hand, but to become part of life in continuity and experience.
Overall, with BNU graduates carving a new path in Pakistan and actively contributing internationally, it would be no surprise if this particular batch adds further to the school’s portfolio – with every passing year, the numbers are only increasing. Despite certain traditional schools of thought and critics (or perhaps also because of them), all eyes are resting on the school’s overarching trajectory in history, with these fifteen years only a nano-second in time.