Lights are off inside the Shahi summer palace of Lahore Fort. The air is moist. The hum of visiting art enthusiast is low. The sharp beam of the mobile phone torch lights up the path – from paradise to hell.
The exhibition, titled Art Lahore 22, a creative endeavour of the Lahore Arts Foundation Trust, opened at the Lahore Fort on March 6, 2022. The show, curated by Sabah Husain, is inspired by Amir Khusro’s couplet:
Gar Firdaus baroo-e-zameen ast
Hameen ast- o Hameen ast -o Hameen ast
(If there is a paradise on Earth
It is this, it is this, it is this)
Thus, artists from Pakistan and other countries like Austria, France, Germany, and the United States have showcased artworks that capture the essence of Khuro’s couplet – the planet as an ‘Earthly Paradise’. The 23 artists participating in the show react to hell and heaven, and superbly demonstrate that the two are just a short breath away from each other. They explore the bad places, and decide earth is “an abode of the damned”, pain and suffering overwhelm all the rest. Then they tumble out of hell and into the heaven, where peace and mercy rule in shape of landscapes, constellations and installations.
Malcolm Hutcheson’s photography captures the dark side of life — a sanitation worker covered in slush from drains he cleaned; wrestlers bathing in polluted water drawn from a hand pump; a Muslim officer and a Christian worker from WASA. To allow a viewer to fully immerse into the grim realities of class struggles and power dynamics; Hutcheson artistically develops the images in black and white.
The photographer used the traditional Ruh Khitch or box camera to create effective results. He develops his images in the purely traditional way, in the dark room, with negatives and simple chemicals.
The show is seeped in symbolism. While the hell is dark, the paradise is illusionary. It’s not the usual gardens, rivers, mountains… in fact paradise is perceived as a point of reward.
Following a similar theme, Ayesha Villani’s photographs attempt to capture the harmonious relationship between nature and humankind, a life in which we got used to the paradise and “started taking it for granted”.
The show is seeped in symbolism. While the hell is dark, the paradise is illusionary. It’s not the usual gardens, rivers, mountains… in fact paradise is perceived as a point of reward. Aqeel Solangi perhaps associates his primary school with paradise, where he was taught to write letters with perfection on takhtis. To acquire that perfection he had to repeat the same letter several times. The repetition of flowers in his Fasl-e-Gul series on woodcuts (takhti-shaped) is reminiscent of letters he repeated in school. Repetition ignites a sense of spirituality in him.
Mouna Saboni presents The Expectations of the Night, a multi-destination “love song” that takes viewers on a journey into the promises of the night. But naturally, the photographs taken in Jordan in 2021 by an artist who is a dual Moroccan-French culture are at once universal – “crossings, cultural anchorage, absence and desire, femininity”. Her muted seascapes, taken in the light of the full moon, wrapped in text, are real but also dreamlike.
The most direct yet ethereal depiction of this theme is the exhibit by Sabah Husain. It is a site-specific series of installations in the Ragamala miniature style that celebrates the festivals, seasons and colours presented in Khusro’s poetry. Husain says the musicality in Khusro’s poetry has always fascinated her – “It must be a very powerful kalam for it has survived many centuries in India, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia, in areas where Farsi is spoken.”
Husain has in the past tried to work with visuals to encapsulate the spirit of the great poet, but she felt that images froze his poetry and lyrics. So, for this show, she decided to work with fine mirror to reflect the environment and colours of the Shahi summer palace – basically, “to make it a part of where it is placed”, she says. The etched text in Hindi, Urdu, Persian and Braj Bhasha is not always decipherable. They elude a sense of magic in silver and gold.
It was indeed disappointing to find that the lights were off at the site of the show on the day of my visit. The authorities should have at least ensured an uninterrupted supply of power for the exhibition. The videos that are an important component of the show could not be displayed – quite an injustice to the participating artists – and the visiting art lovers as well.
The show will remain on until April 4, 2020.