“Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies”
(A Bend in the River) V.S. Naipaul
Everyone living in South Asia has some knowledge of the police’s role in crime, corruption and brutality. Along with the three legacies of British rule — English language, western outfits, and cricket— it is the institution of the brutish police that unites Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
In one sense, the officer who pens down the first investigation report is almost a great novelist, shaping a parallel reality in such a fashion that it appears plausible. In his work, Moonis Ahmad tries to capture the essence of the two professions. Displayed during his solo exhibition ‘Counter Memories’ at the Rohtas 2 Lahore (December 29, 2016 – January 7), his mixed media pieces narrate the situation of a country, any country, in which it is impossible to differentiate truth from lies, at every level of existence and death.
Facts are forged, disfigured and misrepresented everywhere: in the corridors of power, in the privacy of homes, on media, in history text books. The distinction between a compulsive liar and a fiction writer is of intention; the former seeks to cheat others by projecting falsehood as truth, whereas the latter offers his narrative as ‘invented’ even if it is derived from reality. However, the success of both lies in how the two are capable to convey a feeling of factuality in their imagined accounts.
Moonis Ahmad seems to have achieved this. In a series of 10 boxes (lit with LED lights from inside) objects were placed with one piece of paper (sketches resembling human faces) at the back. All titled FIR Report with varying numbers, these cabinets appeared like display units in a museum: since Ahmad has composed these boxes as collections of artefacts and documents (one of the exhibits was named Document!) belonging to disappeared personalities. Things as varied as a diary, iron, ring, water mask, watch, key, mariner’s compass, an open book, and goggles were arranged as if excavated from sea or deep debris. Their blackened state, broken bodies and rough surfaces make them seem like relics of the deceased.
The choice of these objects to represent the long-vanished individuals is intriguing, because these refer to gender, class and certain professions. Next to each item a yellowed piece of paper was put with an explanatory text (such as ‘Report 44/4/3’) and a face that looks abnormal. The artist (or investigator, journalist?), relying on police reports of unrecognisable personages, has composed features of different individuals in order to create each one of these faces. In all drawings rendered with graphite, a blend of features from diverse sources was seen.
This, a formal device for some, serves to be a conceptual element too, because whenever an incident like cross-border terrorism or violence happens, no single perpetrator is identified but several still unknown infiltrators (gusbethiyas) are blamed.
Those accused mysterious men, in a sense signify the sentiments, desires and designs of a larger community, since men are merely tools to execute ideas into acts, which threaten the power of a country, and challenge the construct of nationhood. To some extent, Ahmad’s work turns into testimony of a single person’s struggle against the hegemony, supremacy and suppression of state.
It also indicates the monopoly of the government in creating history and transforming everyday events into official and certified versions. Moonis Ahmad comments on this practice in an interesting tone: in the cabinet titled ‘Document’ the sheet looked like another FIR page, but the detail was about the art works on display next to it. So the ‘Document’ in a sense ended up being the FIR on the rest of the exhibits. Hence the description: “Following directions are to be followed strictly: 1. All the drawings which have been generated based on the reports of people who claim to have witnessed the gusbethiya must be returned with immediate effect for the future references of the witnesses”. The ‘document’ was produced using (now almost extinct) typewriter with some errors corrected in pencil. The fake paper was prepared in such a scheme that it was convincing enough to be authentic. Almost echoing the original records at police stations constructed on made-up stories.
This kind of aesthetic approach and conceptual solution reminds one of Jorge Luis Borges who wrote stories as if those texts were found from past sources; and fiction that could not be differentiated from non-fiction; and literary essays that had the flavour of fables. In his work, it was impossible to separate genres from each other. Similarly, the sense of detached/distant reality in Ahmad’s fabricated (display) boxes was enhanced in the gallery space which due to the dark walls and diffused lights seemed more like a natural history museum than an art gallery.
Natural history or history which is altered like these documents interests Moonis Ahmad. But due to his readings of philosophy, the artist has approached his theme by not assuming a position or accusing a person, group, or government for the plight of people in his surroundings. Although his depiction of grim conditions — in light box installation Landscape Thinks Me Therefore It Becomes and mixed media work Kashmir Ki Sabza Zari— was connected to a certain territory, but his (and Showkat Kathjoo’s, who collaborated in these two pieces) method of treating the subject widened the content as well as adding a poetic element into the work which dealt with gruesome facts.
This approach reminds of the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali from his collection The Country without a Post Office who while writing about a certain region extends his metaphor to whole of humanity. In Ahmad’s Kashmir Ki Sabza Zari, a viewer comes across a small grave-like construction in wood, with panels opened slightly at the top to reveal some fresh grass under the drops of water or dew. The outer side of this structure is painted in the traditional textile motifs of Ahmad’s homeland. So not only this sculpture but his other works also turn into maps of a country that may be without a post office, but not without graveyards that are multiplying.