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Ghost of war

Artists examine the idea of war at an exhibition in connection with the Lahore Literary Festival at Alhamra Art Centre

Ghost of war
Ayaz Jokhio.

Many years ago, cartoonist Zahoor published a drawing in which a man in torn clothes was sitting on a dilapidated wooden cot, surrounded by broken windows, and a rope around his neck whose other end was tied to the ceiling fan. He was shown waiting in front of a television screen that was about to transmit a cricket match between Pakistan and India.

It illustrated how critical a cricket contest between the two neighbouring countries is. Any sporting event involving the two countries is a matter of life and death, a substitute for war. Today, countries do not challenge each other in battlegrounds but in sports stadiums.

For Pakistanis, defeating India in a match is a cause for huge celebration; likewise, being beaten by them is a national crisis — only because the two countries have been to a few wars with each other in their brief history of independence.

Ayaz Jokhio recognises that countries clash with each other on playgrounds rather than at sensitive borders. In his work, cut-outs of varied sportsmen are displayed in a line, and each figure is made of black & white images of soldiers from the World War I (WWI). The work, titled, Moral Equivalent of War was part of the exhibition ‘Digging Deep Crossing Far’ in connection with the Lahore Literary Festival 2017. The show, held from Feb 24-March 3, 2017 at Alhamra Art Centre, was curated by Elka Falat and Julia Tieke. There have been previous displays of these works in Bangalore, Kochi, Berlin and Karachi, including artists from various regions especially those that participated in WWI. These were based on using archives of WWI or reflecting upon the idea/history of war.

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A considerable number of artists came from countries like India, Pakistan, Algeria that were colonised by the Western Imperial powers. In the first half of twentieth century, the forefathers of those artists were involved, rather enrolled, in a dispute beyond their homeland and without their consent. The latter generation of image-makers from colonised countries reacted to a war that has a misnomer like World War. The WWI was fought among powers from Europe and Japan, but the world at large did not have any stake in that conflict. For example, a peasant from Rawalpindi or Patiala did not have any reason to go to battle against Germany, Austro Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Empire, or in favour of Britain, Italy, France and Russia. It was only due to colonial rule that men were recruited and served at far-off territories.

In a similar sense, the work of Risham Syed recalls a phase in our history in which another conflict was the prime concern: detainees at the Andaman Islands during the British Raj.

It shows how a people, if disposed of their identity, become a tool in establishing the imperial agenda. However, the army men collaborating with their European superiors in the WWI, as narrated by Sarnath Banerjee in his drawings, were barred from fighting on the front in Europe because the possibility of killing a white person by a coloured soldier was unacceptable under a strict code of racial etiquettes. In one of his black & white drawings, Banerjee points out this aspect. But by and large his installation was “about the hundreds of thousands of books that have not been written about the Indian soldiers’ experience in the war”.

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The story that Sarnath Banerjee, the leading graphic novelist of India, refers to is an account shared by many others. Racial discrimination encountered by Indian soldiers is a subject for Ayisha Abraham, a Bangalore-based artist. She has used personal archives of her grandfather who took part in the WWI. In her collages and photographs — components of the mixed media installation …the telegraph now rings full speed — Abraham recreates multiple narratives of a native soldier fighting in far-off fields; hence the colour of skin is a major issue in photographic representation.

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The exhibition was an effort to present voices that have been lost or never acknowledged in the main discourse of WWI. Patriotic speeches of political leaders — after their expiry dates — turn mere rhetoric, whereas the reaction of ordinary people affected by the atrocities of war have a longer and lasting life, because it hits the chords of people who suffer the separation from their loved ones, and pray for their return.

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In Bani Abidi’s Sound Installation, songs of women longing for their men indicate the situation of an individual participating in war who was confronting on two fronts: combating an official adversary besides dealing with loneliness, distance and despair. Those verses, sung recently (“and drawing on the archive of London-based Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan”) invoke the feeling for the lost ones. The blend of today’s voices with old songs recalls the sentiments of the last century, making a viewer realise how art has the capacity to resurrect past in its perfect sensibility.

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In a similar sense, the work of Risham Syed recalls a phase in our history in which another conflict was the prime concern: detainees at the Andaman Islands during the British Raj. Her work (embroidered blanket, stitched on digitally printed cotton, next to a small framed painting in acrylic on canvas) with the outlines of a colonial prison building narrates how this structure had an overpowering and oppressive impact, reinstituted through its architecture that reminds of Mughal aesthetics.

Risham Hosain Syed.

Risham Hosain Syed.

Syed’s method of creating her narrative is intriguing since she has made a composite form/format in which pictorial elements are combined in such a way that the work instead of just repeating the past history, portrays the plight of our times, oppression, displacement and dislocation. Her method of weaving various visuals reflects how an artist approaches historical facts and turns them into fiction, that somehow have more power, impact and insight than actualities.

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Using a dark quilt next to the printed image of prison along with embroidered leaves suffices a voice that was stifled — being a craft in the realm of art. The link between high and low art was seen in the work, particularly in the panel with advertisement for Indian soldiers recruitment along with a streak of red paint — blood at the base.

Along with Syed’s work, Jamil Balcoh’s video installation, in which a man (artist) brings out flowers from his mouth and places them on a table laden with world map deals with political divide. Both the depiction of a prisoners’ camp in a faraway island of Indian Ocean and the spilling of flowers on global map describe the way our destinies are already being planned, produced and practiced without our consent and consultation. Just like the WWI in which many from this piece of land sacrificed their lives, a venture that was repeated in WWII, but there is not going to a WWIII only because now we have WWW.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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