In Rudyard Kipling’s short story The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows, Lahore is depicted as a city of vice where a labyrinthine network of streets and gullys (alleys) both hide and disclose nefarious criminal activities of its inhabitants. In another story titled The City of Dreadful Night, Kipling projects his fears, paranoia and melancholy on to the topography of the city at night to make it emerge as a mysterious and sinister space. While both accounts reveal different aspects of the city, they can also be interpreted as a product of a colonial imagination which had a clichéd understanding of the Orient. In short, there is simply no reprieve from the Eurocentric exoticism that pervades both descriptions.
It is in this context that a recent exhibition of artworks at the Alhamra Art Gallery in Lahore, titled City of Dreams and Nightmares, came as a pleasant surprise. The works unwittingly seemed to challenge this colonial view by presenting Lahore as a city that is at once dynamic, complex and intensely sensory — a quality that shone in each work. Curated by Anum Lasharie, the two-person show featured the works of Bibi Hajra Cheema and Sachal Rizvi, executed in pen and ink.
A two-person exhibition at Alharmra Gallery celebrates the ethos and culture of Lahore
Characterised by a sweeping bird’s-eye views, Rizvi’s monochromatic cityscapes were almost a cinematic homage to the chaos and energy of a city bustling with activity. The urban space in his works came across as a complex, theatrical arena that overwhelmed us with its scale and detail. The surface became a dense expanse where perspective was amplified, distorted or exaggerated. Buildings seemed to loom larger than life as horns blared, crows flew, landfills vied for space with unkempt fields and torn billboards, while the spaces in between teemed with frantic activity. As voyeurs in Rizvi’s world, we became privy to the minutiae of daily life, executed with the skilled virtuosity of an expert draughtsman who knows his craft.
Rizvi’s other works explored the architecture of the city, the buildings detail, shedding light on ordinary structures throughout the city. One of his works titled ‘Mohalla -4’ depicted a top-down view of what appeared to be a neighbourhood in the older parts of Lahore. The work captured the arches, jharokas and, occasionally, the glimpse of a charpoy through the window, showing life inside.
As opposed to Rizvi’s almost quasi-documentary style, Cheema’s works were a kind of visual topophilia — a sense of place that celebrated the city.
Talking about her work, Cheema said she wanted to explore “stories that are invisible from afar and the rumble of diverse expressions make the larger whole appear incomprehensible at first. I located my work at this level where crowds move back and forth taking the meaning of the city.”
The works featured caricatures of a postmodern city in South Asia, with its imperfect modernities and contradictions. Themes of consumerism and prosperity ran parallel with piety, history and memory. These dense contrasts were presented as either humorous or reflective depictions. For example, a personalised portrait of gluttony and excess called ‘Aftari Time’ featured insightful caricatures of a family gorging at a dinner table, with the television blaring.
‘Enflamed’ on the other hand, presented a scene from Mela Charaghaan, with a huge luminescent flame at the centre of the composition. The drug addicts, dhol wallahs, qalandars and devotees around it were sketched in Cheema’s unique style.
“City of Dreams and Nightmares” was displayed at the Alhamra Art Gallery in Lahore from October 9 till October 13, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 4th, 2018