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Light to dark

In Julius John Alam’s recent solo exhibition at Koel Gallery, 51 art pieces represent those who were sentenced to death by a violent majority

Light to dark

Newspapers have a peculiar approach of coining headlines. One daily recently used a pun, ‘Qandeel (torch) has been extinguished’, to describe the death of Qandeel Baloch. Ironically, the end of Balcoh was not dissimilar to her acquired name: she acted like a hot star on the social and electronic media till she was murdered ruthlessly.

Like Qandeel, Shama (candle/lamp) also provides light by burning itself. There may be a metaphor for self-sacrifice or being consumed to meet others’ demands and desires. The title of Julius John Alam’s recent solo exhibition (July 28-August 6, 2016) at Koel Gallery Karachi, Shama Jalti Rahi: the candle kept burning, appears to be a comment on such acts: of heroism, martyrdom, and struggle to bring light into the dark.

The exhibition title connotes something else too — burning. Shama in Alam’s show is not an ordinary candle but a woman named Shama who was burnt to death along with her husband on charges of blasphemy by a mob in 2014. Shama and Shahzad, a Christian couple and parents of four children, were pulled out by tearing the roof of their room where they had taken refuge and were burnt to death in a brick kiln.

Alam, in his work, reflects upon the play of language and the irony of fate, because a woman named Shama (candle) was forced to flames. Her end is one among several such cases in our society where agitated mob behaves as the investigator, judge and executor when it comes to accusations of blasphemy.

According to newspapers, a total of 51 people have been killed without trial on the offense of blasphemy. In the exhibition at Koel Gallery, a viewer comes across 51 art pieces representing those who were sentenced to death by a violent majority. These are large-scale books made of white cloth. The display looks more like a library with books open at their spine at tables, revealing a red thread of binding. The fact that books are without text (an unusual, almost unthinkable, feature of a book) and manufactured in fabric signifies how Alam looks at his subject-matter and his focus on the plight of a community in Pakistan, which is subjugated on the basis of religion.

The books consist of white cotton cloth, reminding one of the custom of covering dead bodies in plain cotton. In a sense, the 51 books are the coffins of those forgotten individuals who were exterminated when ordinary and angry citizens tried to take law in their hands and sentenced them to death (their own interpretation of Section 295-C of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan). The aspect of these books being blank invokes the idea of fate or ‘fatelessness’ (recalling the name of a book by Imre Kertesz, the Noble Laureate in Literature and a survivor of Holocaust!). Because in the framework of religion, everything which occurs to us has already been inscribed by the Divine; thus all what we do is merely following that script.

Julius John Alam has converted those dead personages into books of identical dimension and appearance because death is a great force to cleanse individual or minor differences.

So, the pure white books indicate how the future of a few unfortunate people is without any description or documentation. Like the letters on the page of a book, they are lost, wiped clean, and not remembered. Their individual personalities are now reduced to digits — a total of 51 — since the media also represents them as numbers instead of living human beings, with their pasts, professions, relationships and families. Somehow, Alam’s work reflects upon that process in which someone alive is transformed into an unnameable article/number.

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Books have been important for Julius John Alam, because the artist (a graduate of National College of Arts before he acquired his Master’s degree in Fine Art from The New School in New York) has already worked with books. In the group show ‘Lived Experiences’ at the Twelve Gate Gallery, Philadelphia (May 2016), John displayed a number of books with blackened pages.

Alam’s art conveys how the Book is being represented and interpreted by the followers or holders of the faith. In Pakistan, a majority of people killed on charges of blasphemy were Christians (people of book — Bible — that literally means The Book!). A situation that recalls how Heinrich Heine described Nazi genocide: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people”.

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Julius John Alam has converted those dead personages into books of identical dimension and appearance because death is a great force to cleanse individual or minor differences. Once you die, you cease to be a unique person, turn into a ‘dead body’ and join millions who left this world. Thus your personal belongings, collected items, and cherished moments — of love, longings, fears, and secrets — all vanish or cease to be important for others. What remains is your name, which may be forgotten in a century or even sooner. John, in that sense has resurrected the dead, in that transitory stage/state, in which one can touch them but does not expect them to respond back. Talking about his books, John says: “I think of them like bodies, the way these feel when you hold them, they embrace”.

In his previous works, Julius John said he was “deconstructing the books, but now I am making them”. Perhaps, that shift was possible due to the change of location.

On his return from New York, the artist may have viewed the reality, political issues and social situation in a different manner and opted for a language that is simpler, yet not direct. Thus, seeing these books on a row lying on tables, one gets the uncanny feeling of visiting a morgue, where bodies are placed on planks and shelves. In that way, John has successfully managed to transpose human body into a book of white cotton (coffin).

This is not different from when a living being is converted into a script: through interviews, comments and live footage, either to be part of attraction on the media, or becoming an object of hatred if heard of desecrating a sacred book. “The future is surely uncertain: who can say what will happen? But the past is also uncertain: who can say what happened?” — Antonio de Machado.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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