The past is never a self-contained entity, something that we can study with scientific curiosity alone and then slide a stone slab over. It continues to shape and influence our lives and is fluid and indomitable, like an intent that cannot be thwarted, a memory that persists. The Lahore Biennale 01 took the visitors to a number of historical sites but one of the exhibitions that prompted the keenest, most comprehensive engagement with the past was a collaborative show titled, I, too, am a part of this history, held at the Faqir Khana Museum in the old city of Lahore.
Curated by Zahra Khan, the group exhibition was conceived as a means for 24 Pakistani visual artists to examine their relationships with their collective past and make works in response to this dialogue. With its troves of miniature paintings, textiles and carpets, coins and manuscripts, and pottery and other artefacts dating largely from the 18th to the 20th century, the Faqir Khana Museum is like an illustrated volume of some of the most eventful chapters of the history of the subcontinent. Its collections come from a period which saw the drawn-out crumbling of the Mughal dynasty, the rise of the Sikh Empire and the growing dominion of the East India Company in the region.
In accordance with the fateful machinations and changing allegiances of the period, many objects in the museum have dark, rich tales of intrigue behind them. There are valuables that have passed hands and crossed frontiers in secrecy, as anyone from the Fakir family would love to tell you. Stories abound, corroborated by a frayed shawl or a miniscule copy of a scripture or a small, alert portrait. Contrarily, some items have lacunas in their stories, inviting freer speculation and fancy. It is a fertile space where fact and fiction absorb and feed each other.
At Lahore’s Fakir Khana Museum, a collaborative group exhibition gave artists a chance to explore their history in relation to their present
In keeping with this spirit of amalgamation or bricolage, Aakif Suri contributed to the show a large, undulating sculpture — made of wooden legs and pegs — that hung like a skeletal banner in the courtyard of the haveli. Evoking the osteological displays of natural history museums but, in fact, crafted with the posts of the kind of wooden furniture that is produced locally, the sculpture could be read as a subtle reminder of the dangers of single-sourced or hegemonic historical narratives. It could also, on the other hand, be interpreted as a nod to the resilience of traditional modes of artistic production. Link by link, vertebra by vertebra, they form the backbone of our visual culture.
Hasan Mujtaba and Saud Baloch explored notions of erasure and overwriting, marginalisation and powerlessness, through their installations. Mujtaba arranged for an inadvertent palimpsest of visitors’ footprints to be made on the floor of the central courtyard. Meanwhile, Baloch’s composition of barely perceptible handprints hung high up in a gilded frame on the ruined wall of a stairwell, catching you unaware as you descended the stairs. The faintness and urgency of the handprints provoked a sharp mix of curiosity and unease and felt at home surrounded by so many chronicles of a shaky past, so many symbols of power and subjugation.
Suleman Khilji’s deeply empathic and strikingly beautiful mixed-media work, titled ‘Shabeeh-i-Yousuf Masih’, also marked a thoughtful dialogue with the Fakir Khana and effectively used the vocabulary of a historical museum to address current socio-political concerns. Displayed like the ageing, precious folios in museums — elevated, encased and illuminated — Khilji’s hand-coloured prints all carried the same image of a buoyantly posing man (representative of the artist’s troupe of idiosyncratic, endearingly confident characters from the peripheries of his everyday life in Pakistan). But the image faded across the seven prints, or grew more pronounced (depending on how you chose to look at it). It was an icon disappearing, becoming a trace and an after-image. Or it was a spectre gathering blood and definition.
In a country where Christians live in perpetual fear of arbitrary violence, where their rights as citizens and their rights as humans are consistently ignored, and they exist as if in an obscure patch between being and not being: Khilji’s poignant work spoke volumes. The word shabeeh (literally meaning ‘image’) is packed with religious baggage and brings to mind the miraculous formation of a picture, or an adumbration, of a hallowed being. But it also evokes evanescence and the twinge of loss you feel as you begin to forget the details of a dream. Khilji’s work serves as a plea against forgetting, fitting magnificently into the context of the Fakir Khana Museum. For what are museums if not bulwarks against forgetting?
Also interwoven with the treasures of the Fakir Khana are works by Sana Kazi, Noor Ali Chagani, Farida Batool, Ali Kazim, Mohsin Shafi, Sana Durrani, Wardha Shabbir, Sophia Balagamwala, Aisha Abid Hussain, Affan Baghpati, Saba Khan, Rehana Mangi, Quratulain Shams, Ahmed Faizan Naveed, Ali Baba, Mamoona Riaz, Irfan Hasan, Hurmat and Rabbya, Maha Ahmed and Aamir Habib. Although it was evident that not everyone partook of the opportunity to research and respond to the museum’s collections to create new and compelling artworks, Zahra Khan’s inventive display scheme — distributing the new unnoticeably among the old — made the exhibition exciting, meaningful and emblematic of the past’s enduring hold on us.
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 8th, 2018