As of 2021, Pakistanis constitute the fourth largest immigrant group in Norway. A small country with a population nearing 5.5 million, there are around 40,000 and 50,000 Norwegians of Pakistani origin, including second-generation migrants.
Most Norwegian-Pakistanis emigrated to Scandinavian countries between the late 1960s and early 1970s to seek more secure, wealthy lives for themselves and their future families. Upon journeying primarily to Denmark with very few resources, they worked through menial jobs and endured recurring displacements before eventually finding a home in Norway. Norway continues to be a popular option for many Pakistanis aspiring to settle abroad.
An interdisciplinary artist based in Karachi and Oslo, Sarah Kazmi’s recent solo project called “Sweet Dreams/Meethay khwaab” is a culmination of a year-long research into the lives Norwegian-Pakistanis rebuilt in Oslo as well as the lives they left behind in Pakistan.
Exhibited at AAN Art Space and Museum, the exhibition comprises photographs, drawings, textual poetry and recitals, and an assemblage of pre-existing documents, publications, and archives.
A solo exhibition illustrates both the realised and unfulfilled aspirations of the Norwegian-Pakistani community
Kazmi sought inspiration from her neighbourhood’s traditional Pakistani sweet shops she regularly crossed. Geometrically cut sweets balanced atop each other in a vertical stack reminded her of the brick-laying process used in construction. Enamoured by the engineering marvel, she approached the store owners for an informal conversation, during which she learnt how most of them originated from Kharian.
The artist, therefore, rendered most of her drawings on surfaces like graph paper used for architectural drawings, vernacular packing materials for confectionary boxes such as cellophane and silver and gold paper, and food paper similar to the translucent backing parchment, used in between food items to demarcate and separate.
She observes this in-betweenness and detachment as traits strongly embodied by the immigrant community. In some drawings, Kazmi selectively traces the silhouettes of the pyramids made from local sweets and disguises them as ambiguous architectural facades.
She also works with cut-out prints of those confectionary items to create buildings and houses and turns the sweets into motifs and tessellations — a design feature common in homes built in Kharian.
For her research, the artist explored Grønland, a neighbourhood in Central Oslo inhabited mostly by Pakistanis and consequentially nicknamed “Little Pakistan”, and Kharian, a city in Punjab which accounts for close to 80 percent of Pakistani immigrants in Norway and is known as ‘The Little Norway of Pakistan.’
Kazmi was surprised to see the countless abandoned mansions anchored across Greater Kharian built from the wealth earned abroad. Fuelled by the aspirations of the extended family eventually living together under one roof, these mansions remain unoccupied due to various circumstances.
Oslo offers a better standard of life with an unhindered provision of basic resources, the earnings are exponentially higher, and cultural acclimatisation makes it difficult for second and third-generation Pakistani immigrants to return to a life where security and supply of necessities remain uncertain. Yet many Norwegian-Pakistanis continue to invest their earnings from Norway into building their forever dream home in Kharian that they, or their family, may never live in.
She began drawing comparisons between the mansions and the modular, compact building blocks in Grønland occupied by Pakistanis. She questioned why they continually erect these mansions with the forlorn intention of living there. Who takes care of these massive houses in their absence, and how are they tended to? How are they content with living in small flats in a different city when they have an opulent residence awaiting their arrival?
Kazmi documented the buildings in Kharian and Grønland for their aesthetics and for the disparate living style they illustrated. Photographs from Kharian display ghostly interiors — piled beds recoiled to a corner, drawn curtains repelling any light, and drapes on furniture warding off the neglected dust.
She echoes the draping by layering tracings on food paper to ideate protection and preservation of both memories back home and unfulfilled dreams. In Grønland, an apartment number affixed to the building is as big as the window through which an unidentified figure glances back, making them almost insignificant against the number allocated to them.
Kazmi considers both Oslo and Karachi as her homes, making the themes she addresses of immense relevance and familiarity. The work, in parts, reflects on her and how she navigates as a Pakistani settled in Norway.
It is particularly evident through the assorted photographs, texts, and audio notes displayed on a table. Recipes in Norwegian and Urdu accompany Norwegian language learning books and Norwegian to Urdu (and vice versa) translation books. In an audio piece played on headphones, she repeats various words and elementary phrases in Urdu and Norwegian as someone trying to learn a foreign language would.
Poetry titled ‘Yellow Clouds’ and ‘Snow/Barfi’ reflect the rarity of sunny days and harsh, months-long winters in Oslo. Kazmi and many other Pakistanis living in Norway encounter a drastic shift in the weather from Pakistan’s and find difficulty adjusting to the long sunlight hours in summer and stretched nights during winter.
The process of making Pakistani sweets becomes a poetic metaphor for Kazmi. In a diptych, castles made from this pair a drawing that mentions various materials used in building construction, resembling an ingredient list. The artist also intersperses the gallery space with recipes of local confectionary items and poetry that vividly describes the lengthy and laborious process mithai-making entails.
For Kazmi, it is similar to building a new life and realising life’s dreams. The exhibition addresses how we aspire and the arduous dedication we invest in achieving our dreams. Through the lens of the Norwegian-Pakistani community and dissecting the concept of a “diasporic home”, the artist also shares the dreams we forego while seeking a home and a sense of belonging — and the wistful affection with which we look back at them.
Sarah Kazmi’s solo project ‘Sweet Dreams / Meethay Khwaab’ is on display at the AAN Gandhara Art Space and Museum in Karachi from October 13-December 16, 2022
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 11th, 2022
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