Today every field has a celebrity – the chefs, the scientists, the baby food experts. Gone are the days of a cuddly Julia Child in the kitchen. Now we have a goddess named Nigella teaching us to stir-fry. There’s no denying their talent, it’s just that you miss simpler days: back when it all involved less glitz, fame and shiny watches. So when you are at a gallery talk, and a certain Farida Batool describes spending ten years after art school working with Lahore’s inner-city community women to ‘enrich’ herself and her knowledge of the world, you are delightfully surprised.
After her Bachelor’s from the National College of Arts in 1993, where she trained in miniature and sculpture, Farida felt there wasn’t much left “to say”. Feeling empty she went into Lahore’s ‘androon sheher’, working for women’s economic empowerment. As a result, her lenticular prints – layered photographs that move with the viewing angle – are conceived not from the lens of an anthropologist, but as the city’s daughter. Curated by Hajra Haider Karrar, the show at Gandhara Art Space, part of its three part series, “Look at the city from here: by the High wall and the closed gates” lets visitors grapple with our changing cityscapes and messy social fabric.
Lenticular prints – layered photographs, moving with the angle of view – lend themselves to Pakistan’s dualities
In ‘Ek Shehar Jo Udaas Hai”, children play and life goes on alongside images of bricked walls and barricades of a once open city. In an earlier piece “Nai Reesan Shehr Lahore Diyan (There Is No Match of the City Lahore)”, a girl happily skips in front of burned-out buildings. Farida said her tools were always more industrial and less painterly. While collecting knick knacks from Lahore’s Shalmi area – torches and kids’ treasured pencil boxes – she noticed their peculiarity. A cat on a ruler waved at you when you moved it. The possibilities for satire from a changing image excited her. Lenticular prints lend themselves to Pakistan’s dualities.
Her ambitious 2012 piece “Kahani eik shehr ki” (The story of a city), is some 70 feet in length and moves like a train. As we walk with it, Farida is seen navigating Lahore. It’s a quirky ride with passers-by and tenants of footpaths – the hawkers, the homeless, the rude and radical graffiti, and beautiful urban scruffiness. As she progresses from the Mall to the Jain Mandir in Anarkali, we move from intrigued to disturbed. There’s a wall of clocks, an ad for a sex clinic, another celebrating a killer. Farida is no voyeur, she interacts with the surroundings, pausing for a snack or a chat. The piece’s lenticular entrails make it impossible to photograph: it has to be seen to be believed.
In another series of works, Farida explores masculinity as a cage that leaves men insecure and constantly threatened. She simplifies the male into movements and parts – they form rows of senseless marching feet in a video piece. In another, they are reduced to the ubiquitous and annoying male gaze, a nasty privilege men have in streets and car windows. The cheeky “Dekhna Mana Hai”, has a large grid of boys’ eyes following you thanks to lenticular print. They form a creepy living wall. “It’s meant as a challenge and a joke,” she says. “Fine you want to look, keep looking.”
Farida explores masculinity as a cage that leaves men insecure and constantly threatened
But it is her “World cup 2016” that haunts and begs to be in a museum. It has everything you would want in a piece of public artwork: it is multilingual (it’s the world’s most popular sport after all), interactive, poetic and puzzling. On the floor of Gandhara gallery, 58 footballs are scattered like marbles, intriguingly patterned in greys and peach. Children at the show were enthralled. On closer inspection the footballs are printed with grotesquely beautiful images of scalps, skin and fingers. Farida was reeling from the Taliban playing football with decapitated heads in 2013, and the conflicts from Aleppo to Karachi. It triggers memories of the sacred minarets, caves and carvings which the Islamic State group and their clones have erased, and more recently the chilling, dusty face of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh. I cringe when my daughter picks a football, but the piece is irresistible.
Farida’s show is gutsy, haunting and allusive. I enjoyed the interaction of it all – the way it demanded you walk with it, or kick and dribble it across the floor. Also the way it asked you to look at yourself: a contradictory, scarred society, living in cities filled with blood, suspicion and love.
Zehra Hamdani Mirza is a writer and painter based in Karachi