The ways in which people choose to memorialise hardship, conflict or upheaval offer illuminating insights into the human psyche and post-conflict justice and also provide valuable information about a society, government or culture. Attention to the role that memory plays in helping people move beyond tragedy is especially pertinent when citizens make an effort for transition to recovery after devastation. However, what of a nation that exists in a state of denial and consciously chooses to ignore the markers of history. The latest Art Chowk show in Karachi, titled, ‘Amnesia? The loss of cultural memory’, dwells on this ‘indifference’ to the past.
Five young artists shortlisted for the show interpret the premise with highly individualistic viewpoints. These artists are National College of Arts, Rawalpindi, graduates Ayesha Kamal and Abeerah Zahid, Rabeya Jalil who is currently on a Fulbright Scholarship at the Columbia University, Sana Ali from the Rhode Island School of Design and Zara Mehmood, a teacher at American University in Dubai. Here curator Aasim Akhtar answers questions related to the making of the show.
As a curator please briefly narrate the premise of ‘Amnesia…’ with reference to your mention of ‘orchestrated erasure’—Pakistan’s refusal to ‘look critically’ at past events and impoverishment of ‘the present by denying the past any role through the works of memory’.
There has been an uncanny attempt at erasing the political past from people's lives in Pakistan by whitewashing history. The term 'Amnesia' does not quite connote 'forgetfulness' as 'oblivion' here. Should art be informed by the socio-political happenings in a society or should the artists continue to churn out 'pretty pictures' without any ostensible commitment to dissent? Should art be evocative enough to provoke a debate around identity and crisis or should it continue to grow, impervious to contemporary issues?
The divergent voices in 'Amnesia' layer up images and meanings to call up psychological projections where melancholy and despair are tempered with hope and awe, without necessarily being autobiographical.
How did you shortlist the artists for ‘Amnesia…’ were you looking for a particular kind of art practice that would best translate ‘The loss of cultural memory’ visually?
To begin with, I decided to shortlist younger Pakistani artists whose process of work demonstrated an unstinting investigation of pictorial space, perspective and multiple points of view in representational painting—younger men or women who had an 'alternative' or 'subliminal' approach to art making rather than the illustrative/narrative brief. It has been a matter of sheer coincidence that all five finalists to participate in 'Amnesia' turned out to be female!
The works on show serve to dismantle some of the more persistent misconceptions about painting and art making in general.
Generally meanings have to be extracted from abstruse artworks and the ‘Amnesia...’ pieces, disparate and coded when seen independently, cohere and reveal themselves when viewed in relation to your statement/essay The bruised garden. Is this relationship between art and text a deliberate exercise?
It almost appears to be a deliberate exercise in this particular case because when viewed in the light of my curatorial practice, the theoretical model is as significant as its visual interpretation. The artists have put many different images together to create another kind of image in the viewers’ eye. The term 'Amnesia' captures the artists' way of creating an overall, meaningful pictorial space of multiple illusions, using discrete, summary and evocative fragments. They have created nonlinear, symbolic narratives with an integrity of purpose, visual acuity and voice that is entirely their own. Now that Pakistani art enjoys global viewership what in your opinion is the role and responsibility of a curator?
Even before one begins to consider its global viewership, Pakistani art and its curator should try to relocate it in a modern, urban context where simultaneity of historical antecedents and contemporary voices find a common ground. It's a tightrope to straddle risking a fall at each step. Academic training and background in museum studies and curatorial practice with all their ramifications is also essential before one embarks on this precarious journey. One should be made to realise that drilling holes in the walls is not curatorial practice!