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Means to meanings

Local symbols on Eid cards are being erased in favour of internationally understood visuals in art

Means to meanings

Remember those Eid cards… crescent moon, date palms, mosque, camels in the middle of a desert, and occasionally a veiled woman, with Eid greetings in Urdu beautifully printed on them.

We don’t have those Eid cards anymore. They’ve been replaced by incredibly long, awfully tedious and extremely boring text messages, emails or Facebook posts. A few still try to continue the tradition, buy Eid cards and mail them using local post, but, really, no one is expecting them. It comes as a surprise when you actually receive one.

However, on opening the envelope, the card’s imagery and formation is hardly a surprise. They’re not much different from birthday, wedding or graduation cards. The moon and camels have replaced photographs or paintings of flowers (roses in most cases). They are no longer specific to a particular celebration or culture — because cards with flowers are universal, they can be sent to any place in the world on any occasion.

This is the impact of living in a globalised world, where one is not bound to local and provincial matters, and one does not need to translate one’s message in another language or culture.

Cards from the past carried symbols associated with Eid. Crescent signified the sighting of the Eid moon, mosque annual Eid prayer, offered by men, women and children and date palms the Arabian landscape.

However, much is lost in translation. Although an Eid card bearing a bouquet brings a message of love and happiness, it is not specific to a day or festival. This is the great success of marketing/globalisation, because it has, to a great extent, obliterated vernacular differences in the realm of images and celebrations (even though Christmas cards still carry pictures of Santa Claus, reindeers, Christmas trees and snow).

The phenomenon of erasing local symbols in favour of internationally understood visuals, poses a problem for artists. It becomes a part of the dilemma of choosing one’s subject, references and narratives: whether it should be relevant to the local or international audience or if it should aim to strike a balance between the two. Since an artist, working in his studio, is always aware of his audience, their constituency and choice.

So, the question for many — and mostly those who live outside of the mainstream art world — is regarding the extent of inclusion of local links in an artist’s work. In some instances, the usage of vernacular elements inculcates a sense of exoticism as was observed in many art practices in the past from different cultures. An artist — whether an immigrant, expat or one in exile — never loses connection to his roots, culture and surroundings; yet he is aware of his place in the international art world and how he is seen as a representative of his culture by others.

Artists can either totally ignore the local connection and create works in a language that is international (a number of works in abstract aesthetics can be presented as examples in this regard) or select images keeping in mind the limitation of their meanings. While surviving in contemporary art world, an artist has to consider how his work would be comprehended in his immediate environment and in other places.

It would be a fallacy to assume that the immediate environment means an artist’s physical location because in most cases, work produced in an alley in Karachi or a lane in Lahore is directly sent to an exhibition at a far way address in Dubai, New Delhi, New York, London, Sydney or Ontario, and usually is seen by compatriots through press coverage and internet.

Hence, the question persists: Can local themes, histories and connections still be used in a work that has an audience beyond that location/limitation?

This debate also concerns a number of writers because literature is often read in translation. Arundhati Roy, during a lecture in Lahore, shared her mother’s astonishment on the writer’s inclusion of indigenous trees, streams and streets in her English novel. Roy’s response was “Mom, we are also worthy of literature”.

The same issue was faced by the writers of Latin America, who used their own reality in such a way that particular references, characters and locations assumed a global meaning and relevance. For example, one of the world’s most celebrated novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude is based on a small town in Columbia, yet it has become a universal story of mankind. Responding on the success of this literature, its author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, said that the generation before him was also writing novels, but they were more interested that those be translated. It was him and his contemporaries who started to write for their people, and then that literature was read all over the world!

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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