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Borrowed Identity

Hasnat Mahmood’s recent exhibition ‘Search The Collection’ at the Canvas Gallery offered an opportunity to engage with his views on the world through his artworks. What appears muted at a distance due to the pastel shades and light handling of pencils and graphite creating a very subtle impression on paper, speaks loudly of the fineness of rendition and of the artist’s intellect at close quarters. Whether carrying a single image with some text or offering a continuous narrative where different sections of the composition are engaged in a dialogue with each other, every work invites the viewer to stand and reflect on the theme presented. Rooted in the historical past carrying social, cultural and political undertones, the imagery brings back several discourses to attention.  The viewer’s familiarity with Mughal miniature paintings and their subject matter heightens this act of sharing while raising questions of ownership and pride in the past.

This familiarity and engagement with the historical past is not restricted to Mahmood and his Pakistani viewers’ heritage connected to royalty alone. It also presents occasions to muse over moments of Punjabi cultural activities now mostly forgotten. His Jhara vs Anoki, Made in Pakistan is one such work that offers a chance not only to remind the viewers of a neglected sport but is also a statement on the ongoing contest between the local and the foreign. Jhara, the Punjabi pehelwan, standing as a victor with his trophy presents a moment of joy over past achievements and as light at the other end of the tunnel urging the lost tribe to follow for deliverance.

A series of Image Courtesy V&A Museum Made in Pakistan are displayed in the first room of the Canvas Gallery on the left. These works feature images of Mughal royalty in their regalia and splendor. The contradiction here is the subtle shades and monotones of Mahmood’s pencils and the featherlike rendition that gives each image a look of expended energy and lost vigor. The titles add an interesting dimension to these images by inference to the rich collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Each frame is a statement on the fate of the owners at the hands of the East India Company in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the Subcontinent and the passage of their possessions into the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).

The first among these images is that of the imaginary portrait of Mumtaz Mahal, created as a miniature painting on ivory set in an oval frame at Delhi in the nineteenth century. Set in a set of seven or nine similar images on the lid of a box or a frame and sold as, here this image has been picked out and rendered in a solitary position to highlight the opulence and glamor associated with Shah Jahan’s court in particular and the Mughal dynasty in general. Each frame lighter in shade than the previous one is a comment on the wilting of power and its vanishing traces. A concept that can applied to frame any event or moment at both macro and micro levels.

Some of Mahmood’s images point towards postcolonial theories discussing the aftermath of colonial experience that at various levels resulted in the otherness of the ‘natives’ from themselves. Dealing with both the material and visual culture, Mahmood uses images of the British royalty caught in a solitary moment or surrounded by their ‘subjects’ to question their roles in the lives of British ruled Indians vs the admiration accorded to them by independent Pakistanis. The scribbling in circular motion as text next to the turban jewel in Turban Ornament is a critique of precious objects belonging to South Asia in Western museums. In Mahmood’s views these objects signify South Asia’s past glory and their present position is no less than hostages held for centuries without the possibility of returning home.

Mahmood’s work speaks volumes about his skill and expertise over the medium he uses. His training as a miniature artist adds to the delicacy of his works. What appears to be an effortless rendition where the pencil and paper contact had little external pressure, the fineness of detail and his exquisite handling of line emphasizes the high quality of his work.

We are all well acquainted with miniature paintings featuring Moghul emperors and their magnificent thrones where thy sit resplendently attended by their viziers. Mostly these images are accompanied by text in Persian originally most Mughal miniature paintings were intended to be book illustrations. During his time at NCA, Mahmood must have engaged with this imagery a dozen times, however, the strict use of monochromes or graphite on wasli, each title ending in ‘Made in Pakistan’ in this exhibition invites a different interpretation of this exhibition altogether. The artist not only wants the viewer to set free from the preconceived notions of how we have learnt about history and what we have learnt about such court paintings, but he wants to understand how by giving a separate identity to the work, the whole narrative of the work changes, which is open to personal interpretations.

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaykh to King, Made in Pakistan also invites a similar dialogue with the viewer.  The artist made this series with a particular mindset; it was a part of a larger series of work on which Mahmood has been diligently working since 2010. The idea behind the series was to address that issue of exploitation as Atteqa Ali eloquently discusses in her opening essay for the exhibition. She explains how the artist critiques the exploitation of labor by multinational companies in developing countries where lowest possible rates are paid to labor. Ironically, this labor is dependent on the very same companies that exploit them for their livelihood and have no choice but to remain in the vicious circle.

With this exhibition, Mahmood has brought forward a variety of issues entrenched in both colonial history and current times. They are a nuanced commentary of socio-cultural issues tinged with political undertones that define Pakistani nation’s current existence as colonized people of the past. His work invites a re-visit of contested ownership of objects and identities and questions pertaining to visions of selfhood and nationhood. The print culture taking over the once laboriously created manuscripts and the machine age replacing the handwork once celebrated for its unique and exquisite rendition is another facet of ideas projected by Mahmood’s artwork. This exhibition was received well and successfully generated a discussion about ideas of ownership, belonging, alienation and identity among the viewers.

Hasnat Mehmood: Search the Collection ran at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, from 5-14 January 2016.

Amina Ejaz is an Art History graduate from the University of Edinburgh and has recently started working as a lecturer at NCA.



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