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Nationality for sale

Mahbub Shah’s solo exhibition called The Found Objects, at Canvas Gallery is a comment on nationhood, monetary drive and religious obligations

Nationality for sale

As there are practising and non-practising Muslims, there are practising and non-practising Pakistanis. We are not just born into a religion; we are also born into a nation. One can also acquire citizenship at a later stage in life. Those who attain a second nationality are often described as a blend: American of Pakistani origin, Indian British, Algerian French, Cambodian of Chinese ethnicity etc.

Such people would rather project one identity than the other. However, boundaries and borders are now becoming blurred. A character in V S Naipaul’s novel In a Free State declares: “… what’s nationality these days? I myself, I think of myself as a citizen of the world”.Untitled-4aa

We live in a world of great contradictions. We share information, cultural expressions, fashion, tools and gadgets with others across the globe; yet we are becoming more enclosed in our tiny hamlets: of faith, language and race. Nationality in recent years has become the new religion. Remembering Allama Iqbal’s verse: In taza khudaoon mein bara sub sey watan hey (national homeland is the biggest).

Anyone who grew under the dark shadow of Zia’s dictatorship can recall how the fervour for patriotism was planted, with state-controlled media reinforcing the hype during the month of August. People were encouraged to adorn their house, streets and vehicles with national flag. The Independence Day, previously observed in low-key ceremonies, was transformed into an uncontrollable carnival. On one hand, this served to fill the ideological deficiencies of the military regime, and on the other, facilitated the manufacturers, middlemen and sellers of these patriotic emblems.

While some signs of national identity were serious, and stark, others showed the power and infiltration of popular culture. In one case, there was a Pakistani flag with the images of Jinnah and Iqbal along with the figure of Mickey Mouse holding another flag, on top of a slogan Crush India weaved in the white portion. It was a remarkable visual of intertextuality that had a flag within a flag. The there were Pakistani flags, printed with the text I Love Pakistan next to pictures of missiles inspired by Truck Art. These flags sold everywhere till someone recognised the humour, and the Mickey Mouse flag was banned.

Mahbub Shah is using that banned flag in his work The Found Objects, as part of his solo exhibition After-Images at Canvas Gallery. The work includes a total of four flags collected from roadside stalls, inserted into poles and shown fluttering due to a pedestal fan placed for this purpose inside the gallery.

This, and others works from the exhibition, denote the concern that Shah has remained engaged with since his days at the National College of Arts — the idea of a singular nationhood as well as the role of economics in promoting and popularising it. One of the most intelligent artists of his generation, Shah had explored these questions in works from his degree show (2001), particularly Sabz Parcham and Historical Mispronounced Sounds Like Hysterical. The former is a composite image of 15 Pakistani flags, each with a separate shade of green, while the shade of white is the same. Inspired by the flags sold in markets, it indicates the paradox: of varying minorities represented through a uniform white, and the singular Muslim community shown by varying hues of green. The latter comprises multiple pictures of Quaid-e-Azam printed for public consumption, in which the icon is portrayed in several different ways to serve the demands of the power feel.

Traditionally, the state had represented that power; now market has become the stronger power. In any event, both are closely connected because money is normally a national currency, usually bearing the picture of the monarch, national leader, or dictator on one side of the coin or bank note. The other side denotes the value, often with a miniaturised monument, floral pattern, animal, or a mythological character.

Recognising a dichotomy here, Mahbub Shah has printed large views of both sides of one rupee coin in his Head and Tomb, juxtaposing the profile of Jinnah and the tomb of Lal Shahbaz Qalander, thus placing state’s authority and constraint next to a Sufi shrine, a venue for public expression and freedom. In another work, Heads without Tails, one comes across reproduction of coins with faces of Quaid-e-Azam, Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Emperor Akbar, and King William III (from 1834). The common thread – all six ruled here – suggests a unity and uniformity in the state’s mind-set, regardless of ethnic and cultural differences, and the age in which they ruled.Untitled-2

A one rupee coin, often ignored, finally serves its purpose as part of Mahbub Shah’s installation. The tiny metallic object is balanced on a circular disk resting on the table covered with green fabric. One wall of the room is filled with portraits of Jinnah (Historical Mispronounced…2), so the viewers feel as if they have entered a government office. The coin fixed on metallic surface rotates vertically, alternating the profile of the most revered national leader with a popular spiritual structure, an outlet for all sorts of unrestricted behaviour and indulgences. The work also signifies the smell of money in our dealings and discourse, be it the corridors of power, hospital wards, educational halls, publishing houses, sports grounds, gallery establishments or airline offices.

The whole display appears to be an essay on nationhood, monetary drive and religious obligations; often colliding as in Congregation Train, which has two identical and inverted photographs of a train completely covered by passengers stuck on every side of the locomotive.

Shah’s choice of medium is a comment on this conviction and commodification. A majority of his two-dimensional pieces are printed in halftone (Inkjet on canvas) — the mechanical process supporting the idea of nationalism on sale. In Dewy-Eyed Jinnah he has placed a regular portrait of the Quaid, but introduced a streak of water on the lower eyelids of the Father of the Nation. One can easily relate with the artist’s intention of transforming a national icon into a living being, even if momentarily.


The exhibition is on till August 15 at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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