The two sides of Samina Iqbal — professional artist and art historian — merge in her solo exhibition Art Factionary. Many creative individuals, besides producing art or literature, have other interests and professions that are completely detached from this work. Fiction writers are employed as journalists, visual artists teach at schools or are hired at design houses. There are examples in Pakistan of artists practising law, taking part in national politics or writing fiction.
This other dimension of their personality infuses a new element into their art: for instance, the political subjects in the paintings of Ijaz ul Hassan; likewise, being a lawyer may have influenced the art of Iqbal Geoffrey both in terms of themes and format. Tassaduq Sohail’s early excursion into short story writing was decisive in shaping his narrative as a painter. Outside Pakistan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez used his experience as a newspaper reporter to inject the magic of reality in his fiction. The choice of subjects and structure in Joseph Conrad’s novels came out of his years spent as a sailor.
Samina Iqbal’s recent engagement with the history of art — a PhD dissertation ‘Modern Art of Pakistan: Lahore Art Circle 1947-1958’ from Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA — has emerged in her art practice. In her solo show at Rohtas 2, Lahore from February 6-17, 2018, one came across works with reference to art theory. In ‘Art Across Time’, a regular book of art history was placed on a pedestal. But if you opened, you realised that various sections were blank. White papers inserted in the tome of art history indicate how history is constructed on the basis of whims, needs and plans of certain societies and, once compiled, is imposed as truth.
Anyone studying art in countries outside Europe and North America realises the Eurocentric focus of art history. Although in recent times, with pressures for being politically correct and all-inclusive, chapters on art from South East Asia, India, Middle East, Australia, Africa and pre-Columbus America have been included. But compared to the main discourse of European art, these meagre additions hardly matter or leave any impact. It would be interesting to compare the first edition of Art Through the Ages (1926) and subsequent editions in order to know how art from other eras/areas have been incorporated with the passage of time. Yet there are still missing links in history, or spaces to be reclaimed in the mainstream narrative.
While leafing through these white sheets in Iqbal’s ‘Art Across Time’, you can imagine any text that you fancy, and wonder if one day it may become ‘art history’. Or join piles of historical texts which are contested again and again, and are finally left on the shelves of oblivion. Not only art, but history in general is accumulation of anecdotes, incidents and descriptions which were valued in one period but considered defunct later.
Samina Iqbal refers to that in ‘Reference Section’, comprised of four cabinets filled with rubble. These cupboards with shinning wood and clean glass suggest they contain important stuff. Instead, these are filled with dust and debris collected from a construction site. The contrast between the immaculately built wooden cupboards and their rough storage signifies that the text printed on a glossy paper of an art history (or history for that matter) book is no more than a collection of disposable substance.
The artist’s preference for art history, a natural outcome for someone who studied printmaking in the Department of Fine Art at the National College of Arts, Lahore but then chose art history as her main discipline, is seen again in her work ‘After Kosuth: One and Three’, in which inspired from Joseph Kosuth’s ‘One and Three Chairs’ (1965), Iqbal has created three possibilities of surveillance. There is text with dictionary definition of word ‘surveillance’, along with a security camera and a notice in Urdu announcing: ‘Beware, camera’s eye is watching you’. Iqbal’s take on transforming a classical work of contemporary art into local situation, after adding new context, is another swig on the dense doze of art history provided by the western masters. She has appropriated not only the ‘truth’ of art history but interjected her own reality or realities that are part of her surroundings.
Surroundings which have surrendered to an untiring web of surveillance devices, detecting one’s fingerprints and construction of cornea, thus reminding that a person’s daily acts are being recorded, something which could contribute towards personal or official archives. However, any image or interpretation through surveillance is merely one way of rendering, not the whole representation of reality.
Iqbal comments on that act of security, questions it and doubts it through her gilded mirror, audio and motion sensor installation ‘Disclaimer’. Here when a viewer stands in front of the mirror the sound erupts: ‘The character in this image is fictitious. Resemblance to any one dead or alive is entirely coincidental’. These words remind one of opening page of a work of fiction. At the same time, this sounds like a government document about a deceased or disappeared citizen.
In this piece particularly, Iqbal hints that not only our portrayal of Other in literature is untrue (which is not false!), in the history of art too any depiction of an artist, art movement, civilization is not to be believed. Because like a momentary contact with mirror that gives an illusion of reality, reading of art history is also a transitory satisfaction till one realises that the facts found in the annals of art history are a mere fabrication. Who knows if Homer and Shakespeare were real individuals or the result of a community’s collective imagination; likewise, perhaps in coming years we may start speculating on the existence of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and discover the life history of an unknown hand who made a miniature at a provincial Mughal court, or painted a portrait in a Swiss town before the Renaissance, or carved a stone prior to the Conquest of South America.
The exhibition of Samina Iqbal reminds us that all history is fiction, hence Factionary. At the same time, we assume that all our fiction will end up as history and hopefully all our work as history of art.