Ayesha Jatoi’s text piece Weeran guides us toward an improvised gallery space, generously provided by Rashed Rahman of the Research and Publication Center. The vinyl work travels up the stairs vertically, while the Urdu poem, inscribed, challenges this movement with its reference to a leveling horizon. The unkempt hall is fitting for an exhibition that challenges the histories produced for pristine sites. The curators, Natasha Malik, Laila Rahman and Saher Sohail have, quite purposefully, chosen research-based, thought-provoking practices over palatable ones that may be more commercially viable.
The role of an artist as a documenter surfaces continually, with many of the artists using video, photography and references to the two lens-based mediums as a means to layer, deconstruct, complicate and supplement narratives. Natasha Jozi’s video work is a documentation of a performance in which she, along with collaborators, explores a changing relationship with nature in an increasingly urban existence. Farida Batool’s “The Thousand and One Nights” is projected on the floor, a few steps away. Like Jozi’s work this multi-layered video work imagines the ebb and flow of constantly shifting shores, landscapes and decay, albeit from the point of view of a present day Scheherazade, her journey documented, once again, by a camera.
Noor-us-Sabah Saeed uses video footage, as well as images from google earth, to illustrate her questions about how new information about history can disrupt our identity in the present. Meanwhile Madyha Leghari’s work contemplates a hypothetical question for a possible absence in the future. Leghari’s work is visually evocative, using black and white video to create surreal moments in reimaging identity with an imagined loss of hair.
References to a lens appear even within painting. Fiza Khatri’s “The Sink”, an oil on canvas, includes intimate moments being captured using a phone camera. The act of cutting one’s own hair is seen as a challenge to the social and cultural histories that are reinforced through subtle and overt pressures of conformity.
Malcolm Hutcheson’s photographs of present day Misri Shah in Lahore are spatial explorations that assert histories within the visual layers of information that they capture. They reference a truth in photography that we take for granted. The banner sized images next to them by Veera Rustomji, on the other hand, quickly undermine any such claims. She uses photography to explore her alter egos, including Lord Mountbatten, Indiana Jones and James Bond. This sardonic humor, challenging patriarchies, is echoed in other artworks as well.
Emaan Mahmud has created poster-like prints on canvas as lessons for feminists on how to handle male fragility. This project is an extension of Mahmud’s practice, which uses fictional characters to comment on the glaring contradictions and complications of being a socially conscious person in modern-day Pakistan. Similarly, the tongue in cheek story, Tipu theTiger was a Spoiled Brat, by Fazal Rizvi, draws analogies between man and cat, that fall spectacularly apart as the book progresses. Zoya Siddiqui’s appropriation of Shaani, a Lollywood sci-fi film produced in the late 1980’s, deconstructs the bizarre premise of an alien landing in a Pakistani village. This leads to analyzing the cultural as well as the religious aspects of our identity which we seem to still be struggling with as a nation.
Amna Suheyl’s work engages multiple mediums, the traditional mehndi song used for one of her works, provides the over-arching sound for the exhibition. A handwritten diary by her mother chronicling her migration to west Pakistan, is made available for visitors to read, while aquatint prints provide Suheyl’s take on her own personal history.
The collective colonial history of Pakistan hinted at by other artists is explicitly referenced in Saba Khan’s “Neela Dharpan” and Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani’s collaborative work, “Rakshas Railways and Unruly Lines”. Khan references the famines caused by the British East India Company with the cultivation of indigo in her carpet-like hangings, while Rajani and Malkani trace alternative narratives in the creation, decline and attempts at restoration of the railways in Pakistan.
Abeera Kamran and Sumaya Kassim’s collaborative project is part of an ongoing investigation of the act of cataloguing. They question what is left out in the process of creating so-called objective accounts. Their work challenging colonial constructs was also displayed recently at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and its presence within this group of works, among a mostly English-speaking audience, adds another layer to its implications.
The collective colonial history of Pakistan hinted at by other artists is explicitly referenced in Saba Khan’s “Neela Dharpan” and Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani’s collaborative work, “Rakshas Railways and Unruly Lines”
Perhaps one of my favorite works were the ephemeral sand drawings by Anushka Rustomji. Tucked away in their own niche, they referenced the Ishtar Gate, one of the many ancient monuments that have been relocated to the West. The movement of these artifacts alters the physical histories they experience and convey. The act of recreating the floor plan in sand, and the accompanying work on paper that illustrates the façade through pin-pricked perforations, are fragile reproductions of what the solid brick structure would have stood for.
Engagement and dialogue seem at the heart of the exhibition with a number of collaborative practices included, as well as, with the curators themselves working as a team. I think one of the most vital aspects of the exhibition was the exhibition catalogue, documenting the bringing together of these artists. I hope that it serves to continue the many conversations this exhibition has no doubt started.