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History in wonderland

In the exhibition ‘Making History’ at Sanat Gallery, Karachi, different artists dissect history through their own lens

History in wonderland
‘Lahore: Smog 2’ by Risham Hosain Syed.

“Literature does not describe countries: it invents them.” Mario Vargas Llosa

Likewise, visual artists do not report the past, they create it. In fact majority of us fabricate the past, our personal histories. We manipulate, manufacture, modify, amend, and edit our experiences, not only for others but for ourselves too. We erect a false version of facts, and begin to believe in the truth of our invention.

Actually, history has an author who is invisible — an invisibility that somehow turns it convincing. The absence of a writer reinforces the authenticity of content. I have never heard anyone disbelieving or disputing the machine manuals, phone directory or a train schedule.

History is not only inscribed in words and pictures, state documents and architecture, it can also be traced in the way people lived at a particular period: the way they spoke, their food, eating manners, clothes, motifs they weaved, their utensils, toys, songs, sports, festivals, funeral rites. These all add to the history of a people.

‘Body Body’ by Ammar Faiz.

‘Body Body’ by Ammar Faiz.

Games, considered frivolous activities, are a replacement of war. Through them mankind imagined peaceful battles. These also train a community for interacting with, encountering, and tolerating the Other. Each culture has its own games but in every format, one realises the undercurrent of aggression along with acceptance of a superior team/being. Ammar Faiz, while focusing on indigenous games of Punjab, has mapped areas in which these contests take place. As the two teams run, combat and confront their opponents, they also leave invisible marks on the field. The possibility of turning these into a foundation of history, a document of people’s struggle, gains and losses, has enriched the visuals of Faiz.

Sport is an apt metaphor of relations between nations: one group tries to overcome the other, either in the game ground or in the battlefield. In his poetic rendering of war and peace, Faiz comments and documents what has been lost or fading away. He almost reconstructs his history, or the history of a people who have been subjugated by various rulers: Mughal, British till the era of Globalization.

Compared to history, memory is beyond the guidance of an outside entity. If the edifice of history reminds of a state organisation, military machinery, colonial power, or imperial dynasty, memory is personal. Like art, it has the potential to fabricate a new version, not for political dominance but for personalising the outer world in order to understand its meaning and to infuse new sense in it. In Risham Syed’s work, memory conquers history, but cannot control it.

Sport is an apt metaphor of relations between nations: one group tries to overcome the other, either in the game ground or in the battlefield.

The interplay between memory and history is evident in the way the painted image of a smoggy day in Lahore is placed next to a tiny cabinet and small chair. For a viewer reducing the scale of furniture items could be odd, not realizing that a picture of Lahore city, with the road bathed in fog and a lone rider on a motorbike is also small in size. Thus, the whole setting is a picture, a visual memory of actuality.

The choice in Syed’s two-dimensional surface, smog, is a metaphor for history. Because the way the past is re-produced for the present is a means to blind everyone from reality and facts. Reading history is like struggling through a haze, in which we can feel elements but fail to find fine details. We sail through optical obstruction, and assume that we have seen. In actuality we have not looked at anything clearly, except impressions.

Like a journey in smog, blood is also associated with danger. Bleeding bandage can be a testimony of personal/biological history, as crucial as the history of nations and empires. People who go through surgery or medical treatment keep a recollection of all that because the world for every human being means his/her own existence. All knowledge, family feuds, relationships, art, culture, music etc. lose their value when one is in critical condition or passes away. Nabiha Khan, recognising the importance and impact of that moment builds “tactile surfaces through interlacing and weaving of conventional (fibre), unconventional (found objects)/materials”. She tries “to capture moments and beauty of everyday experiences in places and mundane objects”. The softness of her surfaces reminds one of human flesh, exposed and wounded. Yet the preference for red, in most cases, along with roses and branches connects it to the violence of history. Yet, it has a lyrical quality managed with the sensitivity of the substance used.

‘Untitled 4’ by Nabiha Khan.

‘Untitled 4’ by Nabiha Khan.

Khan’s work recalls the poetry in the mundane, both in terms of material and meaning and memory. Aspects which can be connected to Affan Baghpati’s aesthetics. Like a historian, the artist has collected objects, strainers, kohl containers, and other artefacts from the past to convert them into works of art. A different value observed in these items relates to how we approach the past and transform it.

A phenomenon addressed by Sajjad Ahmed, with works questioning the difference between reality and its fabrication. Drawing his imagery from European art history, Ahmed reflects on the truth of art versus truth in life, the difference between local and imported, the distance between past and present. The epitome of Renaissance painting The Last Judgement from the Sistine Chapel is converted into a curtain, to cover and simultaneously reveal the picture of a street protest in Pakistan. This is another kind of judgment of our times where the mob decides the fate of the accused.

This work of western art serves as an outer layer to our painful realities because, underneath our cultured and developed taste, sometimes resides a crude, cruel and extreme behaviour. Another work that reminds one of classical European painting has Urdu text: basically, a phrase in English inscribed in Urdu letters, alluding to the custom of mixing and merging two languages in our surrounding.

In the exhibition ‘Making History’ (May 8-17, 2018 at Sanat Gallery, Karachi) one experiences multiple languages of history. Each artist picks a different tone while examining history continuously, consciously and critically.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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