Talking through a museum can sometimes be a slightly intimi­dating experience. Time stops. We make an earnest and concentrated effort to take in everything at once and assume we have magically emerged from the space as wiser and smarter versions of ourselves. Such spaces now seem prosaic in an age where our senses are constantly bombarded by infinite images, colour and sound. Shorter attention spans mean we have greater expectations. Instead one is simply left a little exhausted and bereft at the end of such visits, zooming past meticulously organised displays and not really taking them in. Granted that it can be a momentous experience but such spaces are also almost mournful in their predictability when it comes to display and presentation.

Recently, the last residence of Allama Iqbal, Javed Manzil, located on Garhi Shahu Road in Lahore, became the site for an unusual exhibition of artworks by visual artist Sehr Jalil, who attempted to contest such a museum-like experience and develop the link between art, memory and history. Named after Iqbal’s personal notebook of essays Stray Reflections, and curated by Sundus Azfer, the exhibition was a defiant statement in itself because both the artist and the curator had disavowed the white walls of the art galleries in favour of the house of the poet.

The six artworks, with their random and unexpected placement in the museum, reminded visitors to “reflect” upon how official narratives of history are often interspersed and peppered with other people’s personal histories, memories, sentiments and recollections.

An unusual exhibition celebrates the life and works of Allama Iqbal

The idea of the exhibition stemmed from a copy of Stray Reflections gifted by Allama Iqbal to Jalil’s grandfather. The signed copy of the book was featured as an artwork at the entrance to the exhibition. As a group of excited school children walked past this artwork, one perplexed child asked, “This is also a painting?”

Executed in mixed media, most of the artworks were a spontaneous and tactile whirlpool of colour, gesture and image. Photographs, texts and personal memorabilia flowed in riotous seas of colour to become meaningful markers of events that documented memories. The size and placement of some of the works evoked a sensory experience that transformed the idea of what a museum should contain.

If Wishes Were Dogs
If Wishes Were Dogs

For example, Jalil’s scroll-like painting in vertical format, titled ‘If Wishes Were Dogs’, was unframed and spread out on the ground at the entrance rather than displayed as a hallowed object on a wall. Its content contested the unquestioned sanctity we accord to such spaces.

‘Between Horses, Homes And Rivers’ eschewed the traditional rectangular/square format of an easel painting altogether and became an almost unpredictable cinematic spectacle, but seamless in its portrayal of the climax of a film complete with galloping horses, plumes of billowing smoke and ambiguous figures. If one was caught by surprise and left rather unnerved, then all the viewer had to do was to take a few steps away to step back into the predictable nostalgia of conventional display: Allama Iqbal’s neat and stately dinner sets gleamed in placid, orderly contrast in a corner, reminding us of the different ways in which a narrative can unfold on a historical site.

When famed writer Marcel Proust did the most mundane of things by taking a sip of tea soaked in the remnants of a Madeline cake in Remembrance of Things Past, he could hardly have imagined the unexpected onslaught of memories and histories that would invade his senses and suspend time. In that one bite, his memory traversed many recollections that described culture, landscape, tradition and even religion. The mundane act became a pivotal moment. Perhaps Jalil, too, is testing the waters to see what associations the viewer may dredge up from her dregs of a forgotten time.

“Stray Reflections” was displayed at Javed Manzil in Lahore from December 23, 2018 till January 6, 2019

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 17th, 2019

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