The title of the show (art exhibition) is Unmaking History and it’s the first show that I’ve chosen to write on in this very independent platform as the work and the curation ‘poetically, historically and aesthetically’ – penetrated and perforated my mind. Leila Rahman, Saher Sohail and Natasha Malik borrowed the research and publication center in the center of Lahore from its director Rashed Rahman for this curatorial optimum. The space felt like a land mine of explosive underlying narratives where one step on either side, left, right, forward or backward, would cause an explosion in the air and new, buried meanings would emerge, impatiently waiting to be exposed. Rahman, Sohail and Malik were sophisticated and intelligent in their approach, the allocation of space and ongoing dialogue in-between works was overpowering. Like music, there were multifold layers to why this composition or curation worked – in-between adjunct identity, power, politics and erasure of hierarchy I observed how the works confided in each other.
Veera Rustomji’s, Zoya Siddiqui’s and Emaan Mahmud’s art is placed almost opposite each other; gender maybe their reoccurring concern but these works share a similar approach:
Mahmud’s series of inkjet photographic performative-disguised posters with the ongoing subtitles: “Searching for penetration – a guide to dating and marrying in Pakistan – the mind-blowing series – Male fragility sensitivity training for feminists” are societal-text-pun-porn; they are the ‘chanta’ in Urdu or chandd in Punjabi (father of all local slaps) on the faces of all constipated ideas of the role of a woman in our society. As I stand facing a conversation like “a man’s worth is measured by the control he has on women, ladies make your man worthy” and more… the history of virtual ‘chandds’ I carry out every day in a response to this dictation of how a woman should, be, act and do – design her life, not as per close circles necessarily but all else who consider themselves society – flash through my memory. I’ve been introduced to Mahmud’s work in this show and her Instagram project page, posts by fellow-friend artists on the current show in Sanat gallery inform me more about the artist’s genuine devotion to this cause – a subversive satirical trajectory where her group of fictional characters ‘socially conscious socialites’ fathom codes of conduct and their ideas as per their expertise. For me the excitement of this excavation lies in its context and Mahmud’s understanding of it – she is her characters but she’s not – she is attached and detached, critical and inspecting – she is aware of the limitations of her voices and uses those limitations to bring out the cause of concern without stating it directly but bringing it wrapped to us in their own idiosyncrasies.
Sitting with an old TV set and in-between VeeraRrustom Ji’s and Eman Mahmud’s pieces, Lollywood 1988 film Shanni becomes Zoya Siddiqui’s joy land and haunted house. An alien invasion, a sky catastrophe is entwined with a national historic landmark. National mainstream cinema is whisked from history to jolt and revisit the dichotomies and scars that a decade of dictatorship left for us. I watched this film bewildered, questioning and curious about this invasion and the artist finds the ‘golden mean’ of placing it in lieu of Zai ul Haq’s plane crash – Siddique’s montaged film is a modern, third world, allegory, painful and conscious it has the tendency to make us do what we do best in this part of the world: laugh it off.
Veera Rustomji’s photo montage drapes hang diagonal from the ceiling. Staged reiterations of the artist herself effectively assert a clinging-on to unnecessary Paraphernalia of fashion, etiquette, surrounding and convention. There is certain edginess and favorable irritancy to these works – historic male icons live a new off-beat life through the artist, displacement is core – the viewer searches within how, would, when and who?
Upon entering the show on the right side after Jotoi’s work on the outer gallery are Fiza Khatri, Madyha Leghari and Malcolm Hutcheson’s pieces. These three artists are contemplative in their approach. Palimpsest oeuvres preserver through Huchetson’s lonesome longing captures. The city’s concrete, road, locks, text, walls speak in ‘male’ if that was a language. Khatri poignantly celebrates the haircut in its power and vulnerability in her canvases. The intimacy or solitude of Khatri’s places resonates with Hutcheson’s and Leghari’s lens. Leghari’s hairless city is no different from Hutcheson’s male zones though in Huchetson’s cityscapes the city is reduced to feeling hair-less due to many a few who have hair on their heads and bodies – Leghari’s deprivation in her Hairless Single channel video suffices on concocted unintended possibilities – what if all that was not supposed to be said and felt appeared in form?… what if there was a universe made with Freudian slips? It is said to err is human – through Persian and South Asian history skilled carpet weavers mastered their art to the point where there was no error, so they intentionally made a mistake upon the last knot to reaffirm that they were creatures who erred. Somehow these works remind me of the importance of being in a world where we err … what would happen if we did not? And why are we so ignorant when we do?
‘Abeera Kamran, Sumaya Kassim’, Farida Batool and Saba Khan surge and identify the dichotomies or the vulnerability of shifting contexts, in time. Earlier on Kamran and kassim (along with other members) have been on the invincible mission of memory-erasure with decolonizing the pre-structured knowledge zone of the Birmingham Museum – They were invited to curate an exhibition in the museum and the Art gallery. Words like “you catalogue the silence – cataloging as a process of forgetfulness – fantasy for us all to consume” divulge effortlessly in these ‘work in progress’ A4 pages, ready to be taken away. A note on the side guides us to take one along. This accusation and accessibility of ‘art-knowledge’ is also a reinforcement of their narrative.
Batool renders almost a lenticular video – breath, blood, wound, flesh, in, out, flash in rectangular strips of her video work. The curation here is what the work must have yearned for. This ‘millennial’ one Thousand and One Nights epic is protruding, projected and reaching out from the ground – as I sit and bow down to look deeper, I am reminded of the dichotomy of survival – the discussion continues in khan’s work. Khan, Batool, Kamran and Kassim are almost in the quest of finding skeletons, wiping of the dust or using it to trace what remains or what had the zest to survive. Khan’s drapes are skeletons or ghosts of the orientalist idea of a carpet, blue cotton drapes with drawings hang from the ceiling near Batool’s floor-projection. They narrate dusty, dingy stories of peasant farmers who dyed indigo for the imperialist ruler’s requirement of dyed blue cotton or deplorable conditions of factory workers in Bangladesh, these ghosts shatter the sublime idea of the carpet and , stop it from flying across history and drop it on the road of a third world city.
Anushka Rustomji, Amna Suheyl, Ayesha Jatoi, Farazeh Syed, ‘Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani’ leave elegiac and poetic parchments in memory. Rustomji creates her own ‘Ishtar Gate’, (c. 575 B.C.E., glazed mud brick), on one hand perforated and luminous on the other a dirt installation drawing on the floor. I remember hearing about and seeing later… this modern-conquest and believing that it was ridiculous: the ancient gate named after the Babylonian goddess of love and war was transported and is now housed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. As per the limitations of the space the second gate is stored in the museum in it prior condition. “All’s Fair in Love and War I” walks us through this journey of excavation, dislocation, loss and pain – Rustomji’s reminder of this act asserts an injecting of something like Alzheimer’s disease. Imagine if we went in conversation with the gate and asked her about her new home, what would she say? The pain would probably make her choose: to forget where she belonged.
Suheyl liquefies history. She lets it flow and we have to try and withhold. Her blackened time lapse on paper reminded me of a whirlpool in coal – a beat and a dear ones words on pages from time lost, all are vacuumed within this blackness . The show begins with Jotoi’s text work through the staircase and the words “yeh lakeer weran hai” (this line is alone/ detached/ barren) conceptually translated as ‘this line awaits us’ in the show catalogue. The words echo in the large foyer like space. Jotoi’s orange luminous veran lakir written on the wall has a mirror-effect as it instills a cosmic landscape in memory and thought. It is a confession and request to overcome associations: of form, hierarchy and more. It is a poem. Free of history. Syed’s protagonist curates a new life for itself where she (a woman) can be who she wants to be. Syed’s is almost a feminist-surrealism where a super-reality is not a dream anymore – it can happen. Rajani and Malkani’s work is a bitter-sweet present day myth. A colonial Past and the railway infrastructure is the core of their narrative. The nuts and bolts, ruble, destruction, dust, heroism of objects, multiplicity, repetition, come together to whisper and lure the listener-viewer to reckon and recognize a carcass – of a defragmented – violent history.
The curation of this unmaking of history reminds me of something I read recently: “Merleau- Ponty claims that prior to the Cartesian ‘I think’ it is necessary to acknowledge an ‘I can’ or ‘I do’; that is: a practical, non- discursive consciousness which governs my relationship with the world and which is expressed in routinized practices and actions, in bodily habits (Merleau-Ponty 1962:137ff, Macann 1993)” Olsen, B. (2003). Sohail, Rahman and Malik have done it. They’ve undone so many histories within a place.
Olsen, B. (2003). Material culture after text: re‐membering things. Norwegian Archaeological Review, 36(2), pp.87-104.