In the recent past, museums and galleries in the United Kingdom have put remarkable effort in facilitating visibility for UK’s South Asian minorities. Some of these minorities who arrived in the UK as early as the 1970’s, live mostly in isolation from British culture, forming support systems and social networks within their communities that embody the character of the country they left behind.
Often these communities continue to live by norms that were practised in their home country at the time of their migration. However, the second generation of these immigrant families are carving niches for themselves as they assert their hybrid identities.
Justifiably, the Midlands Arts Centre (Mac) in Birmingham, which has the largest Pakistani origin population in the UK, has showcased ‘Zaibunnisa’, a solo show of Maryam Wahid’s photographs from her trip to Pakistan in 2019. The work relays the artist’s personal journey of self-discovery, her identity as a British Pakistani, contemplating notions of Partition and migration, asking how and why the Pakistani community in the UK came to be.
She travelled to Lahore, accompanied by her mother, for the first time ever at age 23, to meet her family and visit her maternal ancestral home. The photos highlight a personal but parochial aspect of Pakistani life and culture in the vibrant city of Lahore.
Maryam Wahid’s photographic exhibition in Birmingham often only reinforces stereotypes
Visually and conceptually, the exhibition can be divided into two. The first part uses the photographer’s mother as the main subject, with members of her family and friends appearing in some images. Most of the solo shots of the artist’s mother relay a sense of detachment and are a bit lacklustre. These are shot in different parts of Lahore as well as in the family home.
The red brick architecture that forms the backdrop in the images reflects both beauty and age. It serves as a marker of time; portraying a somewhat rundown and candid version of the city. Undoubtedly, these staged colour prints lend exoticism to affliction. One photo that stands out is composed of a grid of four squares with repeated imagery, which is the skyline at the Wagah border, with the Bab-e-Azadi [Gateway to Freedom] at the bottom, tilting sideways. It exudes a sense of positive abandon and energy that the rest of the work lacks.
Wahid’s understanding of life in Pakistan was pieced together from old family photos (some of which are on exhibit) and her parents’ verbal accounts. Her trip to Pakistan in 2019 would have been the final piece of this puzzle, except she experienced utter culture-shock as she visited cities like Karachi and Lahore, and attended events like the Karachi Biennale.
These places, having evolved significantly since the time of her parents’ marriage, were not at all what Wahid had expected. This brings me to the second part of the show, which adopts a Cindy Sherman-like style, where the photographer herself enacts an imagined alternate reality, one in which her family doesn’t migrate to the UK, and in which she is born and raised in Pakistan.
In this series, Wahid poses by a kitchen stove while cooking, riding on the back of a motorcycle with a niqab covering half her face, standing in front of a grimy mirror staring at a photo of her late grandmother, wistfully recalling the relationship they would have shared. Not to undermine the artist’s personal journey for self-identity, but these photos perpetuate stereotypes at best.
Indeed, this is what she witnessed of women in her family, but she also encountered completely different environments in the buzzing metropolises she visited. Since it is an imagined alternate identity, she could have imagined herself at events such as the Aurat March or an integral part of an NGO or simply sipping coffee at a cafe alongside the roles she portrayed. This would have been a more egalitarian representation of women in Pakistan.
‘Zaibunissa’ raises several questions. What audience does the work of a British Asian artist cater to? Who and what dictates these visuals? What is the artist’s autonomy and responsibility in producing such works?
The Mac tried coaxing Pakistani expats who have been residing in the UK for decades, into the gallery space where they would seldom venture. Undoubtedly, they would find the visuals sweet and nostalgic. However, a more likely audience would be white, possibly an uninformed, white audience that doesn’t know South Asians beyond stereotypes. This unimaginative alternate identity series only reinforces those clichés.
As for the second question, for a British Pakistani to make it to this level, they need to be good at their craft as well as have the support of the gallery system, which is primarily composed of white Britons — who then propel the artist to make content through a primarily colonial lens that fuels pre-existing, Anglicised notions of the East.
The feminist author and critic Rebecca Solnit once wrote, “… museums love artists the way taxidermists love deer.” She was referring to the categorisation of work and how it limits interpretation of art. It also implies that institutions may lead artists into directions that are determined by their own intellectual and experiential limitations; they frame work to resonate with certain audiences.
Despite their noble intentions of inclusivity, institutions sometimes fall into a pattern of highlighting a version of Pakistan that is only partially true. The responsibility to upend this lies with both the artist as well as curators, who need to direct the content in a way that it starts the right kind of conversations.
‘Zaibunnisa’ is on display at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham, United Kingdom, from February 5-April 18, 2022
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 17th, 2022