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A TRYST WITH HISTORY

April 01, 2018

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Untitled, Masooma Syed
Untitled, Masooma Syed

Tangible culture housed in museums is a shared collective inheritance; we engage with it both individually and/or collectively in order to understand the relationship between our past and present. Should it not also be implicit in our viewing that history and culture are not static phenomena and nor are they a mass of reductive definitions? The blurred margins of history contain within them myriad voices and complexities that have the capacity to inform and enrich our cultural consciousness.

This was one of the many dialogues that emerged from the works exhibited at the Lahore Museum under the banner of the Lahore Biennale Foundation. The space proved to be more than appropriate, for the building itself embodies a layered history; it is a conflation of vernacular and colonial architectural styles befitting the four artists who exhibited works that were contesting the linearity of history.

Ayesha Jatoi presented works on paper as well as sculptural pieces in the glass display cases of the Museum. Housed in the centre of the main central gallery and flanked by miniature paintings from the Pahari Schools (17th-19th centuries), Jatoi’s minimalist line drawings and text were visual deconstructions or rather distillations of design and composition in miniature painting that were representative of spatial layouts and architectural plans. Her large-scale architectural “plan” of the components of miniature painting, executed in line and text, glowed in white neon light as it towered above the viewers. In the context of space itself, these mappings invited a visual and conceptual dialogue that questioned discourse on what it means to make “contemporary” and “traditional” art today.

A rare display of artworks that contest the linearity and authenticity of history

Waqas Khan exhibited small-scale works in the Manuscript Gallery and a large-scale diptych in the Contemporary Painting Gallery. His large work resembled a large folding book, its two black “pages”, encased in glass and frame, hummed with delicately made marks, precise rhythmic formations, blocks resembling scripts and not-quite voids. In a vast hall flanked by portraits of powerful leaders and works of art — some of which encompassed defining moments in history — this sombre work appeared almost magical and otherworldly; it was an intervention demanding to be read, its prophecies and judgments were destinies in transit.

One of the most powerful works in terms of utilisation of space, Bani Abidi’s dramatic and immersive sound piece housed in The Armaments Gallery literally amplified this feeling as one stood entranced by several speakers that encircled the historic sculpture of Queen Victoria and the bust of King Albert in an arrangement that was almost confrontational.

There was also a tribute to the 70,000 Indian men who lost their lives in World War I but were never acknowledged by their masters. The work contested and critiqued official narratives of history whilst attempting to reclaim subaltern voices. The sound piece being played in a loop consisted of a poem by Amarjit Chandan based on censored letters written by Indian soldiers who fought in World War I and an old Punjabi folk song sung by women at the time.

Masooma Syed’s painstakingly crafted works housed in the illuminated glass cases of the Indus Gallery touched upon the authenticity and manipulation of history. Her fictive biography of an eccentric perfume maker presented in the form of historical remnants, not unlike the ones normally housed in the Indus Gallery, was laced with humour and wit.

Human hair, needles, collage, casts of body parts-disposable debris — the personal detritus of our lives — became Syed’s medium of expression as black cats made of hair, necklaces of red chillies and miniature lighthouses entranced us with the lure of the forgotten recesses of memory.

Positing these works in the midst of historical artefacts gave currency to the more nuanced contexts of these works. For a brief moment, the voices of the murkier debates of history not only questioned and challenged official discourse but their voices rang louder in the annals of history.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 1st, 2018