Plans to be at the exhibition at five sharp have failed, I rush to the venue in a car with number plates from Lahore, without thinking much about it—not knowing that these idiosyncrasies all add up, albeit only in retrospect. This would have been the second time I was going to experience Farida Batool’s work in person, the first time being a little over a year back at the same exhibition venue. While coursing through Gandhara’s patio, and paying respects to the lone Champa without fail, whose resilience seems akin to ours, my first encounter with the works was through a veil of glass—with a lingering thought on resilience among other things.
Farida Batool’s solo show, by the high wall and closed gates, opened in Karachi at Gandhara Art Space on the 18th of August, and will be on view till the 16th of September. The show is the third, and last, in the series of shows, titled Look At The City From Here, curated by Hajra Haider Karrar to mark the tenth year anniversary of Ghandhara Art Space.
One encounters Marching Masculinities and Oos Shehr Ki Oonchi Deevar together. Hung on an L-shaped wall, in an intimate sunken area, off of the main foyer, the twining of the pieces enables us to read them as “eternal recurrence[s].” It’s a concept that floats into and out of pop culture, in Jim Morrison’s “Light My Fire,” in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, for instance. But it first had an impact on me when I encountered the notion in Nietzsche, who says that the thought of the concept’s burden is the “heaviest weight” imaginable, and in The Gay Science, he suggests that to wish for the eternal recurrence of all the events in one’s life would suggest the supreme affirmation of life. As he writes:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’… Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine’…
Nietzsche noted that to accept the thought of eternal return of the same, one would have to be a lover of fate: amor fati. In Ecce Homo he says that his “formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it—idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary—but to love it …’
Batool’s work signifies an extreme affirmation of fate, whatever it brings, and that, therefore, also affirms life in a most complex way. In Oos Shehr Ki Oonchi Deevar, the grid that Batool exploits in her work is visible in the form of a layered brick wall; there’s no starting point, or an end, to the composition of the photographic print, which further heightens the never-ending nature of construction that the work references.
Mimicking the grid of the wall, Marching Masculinities offers us a “subversive potential for parodies of machismo” with its deliberate cropping of figures (Leo Bersani, 1987). Batool has made this video using existing imagery, available in perpetuity via the internet. Here we are made privy to the state funded, sanctioned, and celebrated displays of masculinities, challenged by the artist, rendering these masculinities banal and queer. Like the perpetually recurring walls that tower over us, these marching bodies, now queered, locked into a video file, will recur perpetually.
These gestures are grand in their scheme, yet deliberately quiet. Reaffirmation of life and fate are again depicted in pieces like Eik Shehr Jo Udaas Hai and Oos Shehr Ka Band Darwaaza—Batool says that despite the accelerated changes in architecture, informed by militant insurgency, little has changed in old Lahore, which in itself is a tale of resilience. The gates might be permanently shut, bricked-in, but the hearts remain open.
It seems that Batool will love Lahore eternally…
Khani Eik Shehr Ki shows the artist walking on paths that she has a connection with. Here we come across another theme that Batool references frequently: desire. Desire can be “for objects, for sex and bodies, for anti-conformity,” and for occupying public spaces (Helen Molesworth, 2012). To be able to perform or enact our desires is what makes us human, reaffirms our lives and bodies, and makes us lovers of fate—and, of course, Batool is no alien to this concept. The artist’s desire to be visible in the public sphere is shaped by “demands of equality” and “ for political and social change” (Molesworth).
Desire “appears in the rift that separates need and demand” (Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontails, 1973). “It is by nature about lack: one desires what one does not have” (Molesworth). The work serves as a moving record of a woman’s desire to re-/claim public space—a space that does not come to her as a matter of necessity because of the gender bias that we find amidst our surroundings, a space she has to fight for, a space that has a million sets of eyes, a space that comes with a gaze that sexualises and objectifies. However, Batool also talks about her gaze—and about how she tries to follow a man with a strong back, a strong silhouette. To me this points to the fact that in a world structured by interventions of desire, gaze is neither exclusively male nor female. It is made possible because of desires writ large upon political and social landscapes; and by rendering the gaze visible, acknowledging it, making work about it, in a way, signals the queering of the gaze itself. Keeping in mind the multiplicity of the gaze, and the medium with which the work has been made—lenticular prints—gives us a narrative punctured with multiple views, images that are always in flux, not-static, further reinforcing that there are not just two of each, because these concepts are merely sociolinguistic constructs.
Directly across Khani Eik Shehr Ki is another piece, titled Dekhna Mana Hai. This work is a lenticular print, composed of winking male eyes. Again, the images are not static; the eyes wink and remain open, depending on the movement of the onlooker. The eyes convey a myriad of emotions in their quietness—some are intense, while others are blank, and some might convey a sense of loss, and others of tragedy.
The way these two pieces are displayed further heightens the binary between male and female. The eyes cast a gaze on the female subject diametrically across the space. However, the most poetic interpretation only comes into play when the onlooker interrupts the male gaze by situating himself/herself between these two pieces. Once this has happened, it is not impossible to imagine the queering of the gaze, of what the body, and the mind desires. The show, for me, finds success in these subtle moments, easy to miss, but which, once discovered, afford us an opportunity for critical inquiry and making meaning.
The upstairs gallery presents Batool’s interpretation of body as fragmented, in the form of footballs dispersed on the floor (World Cup), suspended between two wall pieces: one gives us an image of coiled barbed wires (Oos Shehr Mien Mohabbat), while the other depicts five gajras on a wooden rod (Oos Shehr Ka Eik Choraha).
Batool’s “interest in expressing parts of the body as fragments […] testifies to a loss of site, in this case the site of the rest of the body” (Rosalind Krauss, 1979). The body gets fragmented for multiple reasons—some violent, some existential. The footballs are made using printed images of the human body, both male and female. Batool mentioned that she had asked the manufacturers (of footballs) to piece each one as they deemed fit, and the results are lyrical. A football might contain a combination of both male and female body parts; one might see bright cadmium red nail colour and patches of body hair on the same football. This work calls upon notions of queerness, of bodies that are in flux, of desiring bodies that might not be the norm—one is allowed to interact, touch, fondle, and boot these footballs, and even choose which one(s) to interact with particularly.
The curatorial strategy ingeniously situates these fragmented bodies between desires (signified by multiple gajras) and systems of control (signified by barbed wires). Contemporary bodies are informed by mediations between the two.
Batool is affirming life in all of its complexities with her work, no matter how difficult, painful and joyful it may become for her. If political forces in the world silence her or attempt to silence her, (as they appear to be doing to most of us), she must continue to speak, she must communicate, she must say what she needs to say, she will go with that flow; she will do what she needs to do no matter what the risk is; because she is a lover of fate, amor fati.
Constraining free speech that harms no one is a political act that one must resist if one is to accept freedom and make use of it as a human being. If others, the dominant majority, for instance, or those more powerful than we are, our heads of state, or corporate masters that determine cultural trends and try to make cultural slaves of us all, consuming slaves, suggest that who or what we are or where we think we must go with our lives is not appropriate or right and suggest, too, that we must not go there, that we must not go with flow, that that is forbidden, we must not allow that; we must resist. This sober thought because resisting takes courage; we may be at our loneliest loneliness going with flow, going as we go, going as we must go. And, in our own time, we, too, will have been going as we must go, and that, may just have been our tremendous moment.
Omer Wasim has been teaching and practicing in Karachi, Pakistan, since 2014, and is currently an adjunct faculty in the Liberal Arts Programme at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.
 The piece further delves into the anatomy of Lahore. Batool stated that Lahore, like many of its counterparts, is always in flux. However, this work locks Lahore in time, preserving the graffiti on the wall, which would have been eventually whitewashed by the city officials.