The catalogue ‘Look at the City From Here’ is not just a publication connected to three exhibitions held at the Gandhara Art, but holds significance as an independent and important document to understand the contemporary art of Pakistan. Three shows, of Risham Syed, Bani Abidi and Farida Batool, curated by Hajra Haider Karrar, included a comprehensive and impressive body of works from various periods and phases of these artists.
Along with artworks, the book/catalogue contains essays by different authors on the artists. It contributes towards compilation of brief and scattered story (or stories?) Pakistani art. A reader – or a viewer (because of several reproductions of art pieces) gets to know about the similarity and differences in the practices of three artists who are contemporary in every aspect of the word (they happened to be in the same class of Painting Major course at NCA). The aspect of history is crucial because in our midst we are not too concern in recording or preserving the past. Even though we are eager and quite prepared to invoke – rather construct past, as we desire it to be. Newly fabricated history (the tendency and practice of this behaviour can be witnessed in reading labels and signboard of some antique shops, which proudly propagate and claim to prepare antique items on customers’ requirements!) suits the demands of present as well as provides a way to look at (and locate) one’s own time.
What we see in the past is a combination of various narratives in order to comprehend contemporary situation. Adnan Madani, in his essay on Risham Syed from the catalogue, states: “Perhaps it is the nature of being a Pakistani artist today to be unable to speak without summoning a multiplicity of gazes. A fractured country remorselessly rewriting its history and geography naturally produces such reflections and anxieties”. These reflections and anxieties can be witnessed in the works accompanying his text, like ‘History as Re-Present-Ation 3’ created with vintage Victorian chair on a stand and a small painting of the city placed on a stand. In Syed’s series of ‘History as Re-Present-Ation’ one can find glimpses of our present, which in most cases is troublesome, terrible and full of turmoil, but one is also aware of the way these views are interpreted in a different tone with the passage of time.
A similar kind of sensibility is spotted in the art of Bani Abidi, mostly video projections (which can be imagined only by looking at the stills printed in the book!). However in her digital prints, one can sense how the artist comments upon history and its fabrication. Her series ‘The Ghost of Muhammad Bin Qasim’ captures the feeling of past being relived as a sign and segment of present. Since, in the true sense of Don Quixote, a character from Karachi imagines himself to be the Arab conqueror of Sindh from the seventh century, dresses up in Arab garb, rides a horse – and frequents present day tea stalls, streets with modern block of flats, and visits historic monuments such as Minaar-e-Pakistan and Lahore Fort (both constructed many years after the Arab invasion of India).
History, forged and edited after the actual events, is mostly picked from various sources, both official and people’s. One is not sure about which version to stay for posterity, yet in order to understand an age in its full complexity, one needs to consult diverse sources, such as constructions, city streets, popular culture, and how ordinary people survive in an urban environment. All these are evident in Farida Batool’s works, which due to their medium (Lenticular prints) suffice a sensation of passing through multitude of rudimentary products, mobs, or walls which bear the marks age, or signs of modern usage (like a display of clocks for sale). Her work encompasses history as well as present day discontent, which is apparent in today’s cities, but is not purely an urban scenario or situation. Her work, like of Syed and Bani, conveys how a society is threatened from within, while its erects barriers and boundaries – metal gates in the installations of Syed; barriers in the prints of Abidi; and barbed wires in the images of Batool.
Interestingly the three artists, part of the catalogue/book are females, but their works deal beyond the perimeter of gender demarcation or discrimination. Something that was discussed in the remarkable essay (the Introduction) of Iftikhar Dadi: “Finally, it must be noted that the work of these artists departs considerably from the symbolic visual language deployed by many feminist artists of the 1980s, who were facing what they perceived to be a more centralized patriarchal state structure. By contrast, the works in Look at the City from Here suggest that power – whether statist, patriarchal, or class-based – is exercised through a complex ensemble of partial and haphazard architectonics, furnishings, and bodies.”