The country unseen

Published August 7, 2022
The writer is an instructor in journalism.
The writer is an instructor in journalism.

CAN art help a country come to terms with its forgotten past? I thought of this at the launch of an exhibit by Osman Yousefzada at the Victoria Albert Museum in London last week. (Full disclosure, I know the artist from our time as undergrads at SOAS in the mid-’90s when I was senior to him and we have kept in touch on and off.) The three-installation exhibit ‘What is Seen and What is Not’ was commissioned by the New British Council in partnership with the V&A and the Pakistan High Commission on the occasion of Pakistan’s 75th anniversary, a moment that prompts plenty of opportunity for introspection. Yousefzada’s work in handcrafted textiles, wrapped objects and seating interventions explored themes of identity, migration and communities.

The three large canvas tapestries are a mixture of paint, printmaking and embroidery, some of which was done during Yousefzada’s time as artist in residence at the Indus Valley art school in Karachi. The abstract figures were inspired by Falnama, the Book of Omens — a beautifully illustrated fortune-showing book in the 16th century across Iran, Turkey and the subcontinent. The manuscripts were used by sultans and common people to explore the unknown and seek guidance. Despite scholars banning the practice, fortune-telling and divination were (are) popular in the Muslim world.

Yousefzada’s figures share a likeness to those in Mohenjodaro — the dancing girl and priest king — and I hope the more people connect with these tapestries, the more they will find themselves returning to the past to better understand their present — or ask why there’s been concerted effort to erase links to the past. We may be celebrating 75 years of Pakistan’s birth but in no way is that the start of its history.

As Yousefzada said, the tapestries can evoke a sense of polytheism “which may seem provocative, especially for an intervention to do with Pakistan. But I think sometimes, Pakistan doesn’t always remember its own history before 1947”.

The artist’s reflections on migration was especially moving.

I know from teaching at secondary and Master’s level in Pakistan just how poorly the country’s history is taught. Even at good private schools, where we once went to Mohenjodaro on a visit, the lesson was superficial, mechanical, as if delving too deep would somehow threaten the Islamic identity that has come to be the only lens to view Pakistan with.

The artist’s reflections on migration and displacement through his sculptures of wrapped objects ie potlis used by women to transport, store their things was especially moving. It pays tribute to migrant women often unable to find their own spaces or unable to integrate in their new lands; the potlis become their only possession then. The artist described the folds and knots of these sculptures as “[women’s] marks of identity and ownership”.

It’s not uncommon for women to put something away for another day compared to today where desire for consumption is now in overdrive, wrecking the environment in its wake. I thought these sculptures were a beautiful ode to preservation, not just of things but of stories, experiences. They are also a gentle reminder to return something that is innate in us.

The seated interventions housed in the gardens signify a space for exchange and reflection. Peeris made by the artist scatter across the garden for visitors to shift around as they deem fit, the act of moving things around symbolising the packing/unpacking and moving/sitting that embody displacement. I was especially fascinated by the artist’s creation of a charpai — he used garment waste from factory floors to weave the bed and repurposed a door frame, typical from the colonial era, and placed it horizontally. The change of placement from vertical, which in colonial times was used to deny entry based on class and race, to horizontal “shifts the power dynamic from a hierarchical to communal architecture”, said Yousefzada.

I walked around one installation of peeris centred around an alam (flag) which reminded me of my childhood as an expat in countries with tiny Pakistani diaspora; we clung to one another because of shared rituals. At the V&A, the alam could move on having done its job of bringing people together or the mooras (low stools) could move on to allow new people in.

These three installations were unlike anything I expected in conversations about Pakistan because they required more than just a simple viewing of structures. I must commend the Pakistan High Commission for its support of this important exhibit by an artist who got a deserved opportunity to represent his parents’ country. This exhibit is a big shift from the PTDC-esque work stuck in the 1970s we come to expect around Pakistan’s representation. Yousefzada’s work paid homage to a country with a rich ancient history, whose elders left lessons for the nation to learn — ie preserve and protect your heritage.

The writer is an instructor in journalism.

Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2022

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