In a way all creative people are trapeze artists who are trying to keep a balance on a tight rope, seeking appreciation from the audience. In each discipline, the rope changes and so does the audience. Yet the act of creation almost remains the same – a difficult task of maintaining one’s poise against forces that are there to pull one down. Social systems, cultural constraints, religious regulations, political pressures are a few along with demands of tradition, ethics and aesthetics that interfere in the making of a work of art, literature and other creative expressions.
Artists learn how to preserve that path and complete a journey that can be hazardous. They turn it into a fantastic sojourn. Some works may seem scandalous but after that initial reaction these become part of cultural heritage. Like the writings of Manto and D. H. Lawrence which were banned by the state but were later accepted by the official canons of high literature.
There is another kind of trapeze ‘artists’, carrying long bamboo sticks on their shoulders, perched on their bicycles, hawking in the streets and lanes to offer their services for cleaning choked gutters. Earlier known as ‘sweepers’, in the age of politically-correct language they are promoted to the rank of ‘sanitary workers’. Nomenclature apart, they are still treated as untouchables.
Their class, profession and religion may have turned them into outcasts, but not in the realm of art which is crowded by outcasts of all kinds. It is not unusual when an artist focuses on this contingent and identifies with them. Huma Mulji has been photographing these workers who are looking for their daily bread in colonies and neighbourhoods. She has photographed them — in profile — against a background of houses and trees, and is showing these at her solo exhibition ‘The Country of Last Things’ being held from Feb 9-22, 2016 at the Koel Gallery, Karachi.
Her photographs (Archival Inkjet prints) have portions painted in acrylic and are added with a small etched metal plaque at the base of each print inside the frame. Using acrylic paint, Mulji daubs the background in such as scheme that one can still detect trees and houses, but in a diffused state. On the other hand, the small figure riding on cycle, his bicycle wheels and bamboo poles appear fully visible and dominant.
In a sense, this formal device elevates the sanitary workers by making them visible. As the artist is not a social volunteer or reformer, Mulji introduces the element of beauty and romanticism through a sort of mist which mystifies these characters, who in the words of the artists are “multitasking: smoking a cigarette, keeping a bicycle upright in inconceivable city traffic, chatting on a mobile phone and balancing extended bamboo poles to prod posh residential gutters clean”.
This reminds one of the opening scene of Gujarati movie Bhavani Bhavai, in which director Ketan Mehta shows the lashing of untouchable sweepers in squeals which echo the Descent from the Cross (as portrayed by the painters of Renaissance and later periods). The Indian director alludes to the fact that sanitary workers in the subcontinent happen to be Christian, because after other religions of subcontinent refused to claim them, it was the foreign missionaries during the Colonial period that converted and accepted them. This historic prejudice is deep-rooted that in the villages and small towns of Pakistan even today.
The audience at the Art Now Pakistan’s sessions during KLF 2016 were shocked when Mulji, talking about her latest exhibition, disclosed that a newspaper advertisement for sanitary workers at a government organisation clearly stated that only non-Muslims can apply for the job.
At her solo show along with these, there are images of other outcasts. Photographs of a man who used to run a small bakery in Lahore Cantonment next to trays of loafs of bread are installed in the gallery. The desolate figure of a man, who was up against a huge machinery of multinational and big businesses, knew that he was going to lose it. But he continued his ritual of baking the brown bread started by his father for the first time in the city in 1914. The photos convey a sense of defeat and demise amid un-plastered walls and bare furniture.
Amid these group of ‘untouchables’ (in the social hierarchies) are drycleaners photographed by Huma Mulji. Holding the uniforms of military officers on their back, while walking next to their bicycles or riding on them, these visuals seem a comment on authority — how the emblem of power and prestige on the back of these orderlies turns into ordinary clothes unless worn by the chosen ones.
Looking at the series of prints, A Study of Equilibrium, Drycleaners and Anonymous Moments along with her sculpture The Flight (with a preserved sparrow put on a broken down plastic chair fixed with a brick), one realises that the artist has taken a leap from her previous work. Talking about her famous entry at the Pakistan section Desperately Seeking Paradise at the first Art Dubai 2006, Mulji shared her experiences about presenting actual ‘objects’ (taxidermy animals) where no one asked what is it, and instead concentrated on the idea. Similarly, at the Koel exhibition, the photographs serve the same purpose because the actuality and physicality of them force a person to investigate what is meant by the artist.
And what the artist intends is revealed through the title of her exhibition, The Country of Last Things. The title is derived from a book of Paul Auster in which he renders a scenario with basic structures slowly disappearing and human society descending into a base and lowest existential state. While reading the novel, I had this uncanny feeling it was written about our country. Likewise, when looking at Huma Mulji’s work, I suspect it deals with our situation even though a work of art must transcend temporary settings.