Only Human


Only Human

An analysis of Sara Khan Pathan’s oeuvre and artistic history would aim at elucidating a set of verbal or linguistic texts so that the more funda

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An analysis of Sara Khan Pathan’s oeuvre and artistic history would aim at elucidating a set of verbal or linguistic texts so that the more fundamental mechanisms of meaning or “modes” of wanting, knowing, or doing can be revealed. To be exact, Pakistan’s socio-political development, unfortunately, has absorbed violence and totalitarianism into primary everyday speech to the extent that not even the force-fields of philosophy and psychology have any degree of sufficiency to prevent the status quo – in 2023 we are presented with the sum total of remaining a feudal, patriarchal and authoritarian society.

Again, we may take wanting, knowing or doing to be the conceptual and existential operations whereby societies and cultures attempt to acquire command over reality, to construct the very metalanguage essential to understand a code or system. As such, it has been quite some time that Pakistani artists have been using those materials that most forcefully symbolise violence and terrorism. Guns, hand grenades, barbed wire and bullets have been used as pictorial symbols extensively and especially during the troubled times in Karachi, of the Nineteen-eighties and early Nineties. In fact, in 2003, there was a joint exhibition by eleven artists from Pakistan, held at Apexart, New York and Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, Germany, and the catalogue of that show stated that “The works featured in the exhibition, as said by Atteqa Ali, offer a critique of Pakistani politics and society. These artists explore volatile social and political concerns, addressing domestic problems such as violence against women, international political dilemmas such as nuclear warfare, and debates on religion and the sometimes-corrupt religious leadership. They use a range of local methods and materials, from the jewel-like technique of miniature painting to elements of the vibrant mass culture. Yet they also embrace global modes, including abstract painting. Even though international audiences may not appreciate what certain images mean for people in Pakistan, recurrent symbols such as guns and bombs will convey the impression of violence.

The dazzling beauty of some of the works and the playful techniques of others will serve to complicate a one-sided reading of Pakistani society. In the end viewers from anywhere will be left with a multidimensional appreciation of life today in Pakistan”: Courtesy Asia Art Archive. Also, regarding the relationship between society, culture and individuals, Clarke writes that “Cultural meanings are inherent in the symbolic orders and these meanings are independent of, and prior to, the external world, on the one hand, and human subjects, on the other. Thus the world only has an objective existence in the symbolic orders that represent it.” (Simon Clarke, The Foundations of Structuralism: A Critique of Lévi-Strauss and the Structuralist Movement: Brighton; Harvester Press, 1981).

At first sight, the symbolic order that seemed to be indicated by the artist was that which has been imposed on the body politic by Pakistan’s political and dynastic elite. This reaction is hardly surprising, since plain experience supports that reading, as it were. In reality, what Pathan wants us to actually understand is not only at a considerable distance from what we might expect, but also antithetical to pre-formed judgments and reactions.
According to the statement given out by the gallery, “The artist captures the fragility of life by transforming empty bullet vessels into diminutive sculptures. The sensitivity of the material symbolizes the vulnerabilities and complexities of human life. The amalgamation of plastic toys adds on to individuality of Khan’s artworks and reveal her quirky take as a sculptor on the tradition of miniature painting and vintage staged photography.
In her own words, Pathan examines the reason given for sometimes doing wrong and for ethical failure – I’m only human – and in essence points out the ease with which this excuse is made, even when the crime or sin is premeditated, and not merely a mistake. Of course, any attempt to seriously analyse our culture’s relationship to guns, bullets and death itself, would require deep study into those fields of psychology and sociology that study mental constructs in the search
for mindsets and habits; the artist did not investigate matters in that direction, but instead, focused on the human aspect of being shot, or hit by a bullet.

Historically, bullets have claimed the lives of both the highest and the lowest in the land. For instance, the artist portrays both Benazir Bhutto Zardari and Liaqat Ali Khan as victims of assassination – in the case of Bhutto, the irony being that her government was involved in one of the most violent periods of the country’s history. On the other hand, a list of ‘ordinary people’ feature in her works, all examples of a normality that existed or continues to exist as a mere cipher overshadowed by the randomness of accidental death.

To completely understand the ultimate project that Sara K. Pathan is engaged with, which is, to be sure, a historical project in the strongest sense, one must take a slightly longer route through human notions of memory itself. It is a fundamental aspect of human cognition; it not only allows us to store and retrieve information from our past experiences, but also enables us to forecast
certain realities. One of the earliest distinctions in memory theory comes from Aristotle, who introduced the
concept of sensory memory. According to Aristotle, sensory memory is the brief retention of sensory impressions, such as what we see, hear, taste, and touch. Sensory memory serves as the initial stage of memory processing, allowing us to perceive and interpret the world around us. In the Twentieth century, the philosopher and psychologist William James argued that our
conscious mental life is like a stream, and within this stream, we have a “short-term memory span” where we hold and manipulate information temporarily for problem-solving and decision-making.

Long-term memory, as the name suggests, involves the storage of information for extended periods. While the ancients proposed the idea of an immortal soul that could retain knowledge from previous lifetimes, modern research distinguishes between explicit and implicit long-term
memory. Explicit memory includes facts and events we can consciously recall, while implicit memory involves skills, habits, and conditioned responses that are often acquired without conscious awareness. Penultimately, episodic memory refers to our ability to remember specific events, experiences, and episodes from our personal past. It involves not just the recollection of facts but also the contextual details surrounding those events. Philosophers like John Locke and David Hume touched upon aspects of episodic memory in their discussions of personal identity
and the nature of the self. Finally, collective memory is a concept that extends beyond individual cognition and delves into the shared memories of groups, societies, and cultures. Collective memory can influence identity, politics, and cultural narratives, and it raises questions about the accuracy and malleability of historical accounts.

Added to the operative modes of memory as explored above, are the thoughts and writings of authors who investigate human memory as a form of world-making. We memorise fictions equally as well as facts; we commemorate events, marriages as well as revolutions and significant military battles. And we even engage in a form of memorising our memories – remembrance itself keeps psychic unity from flying apart.

Theoretically speaking, Pathan, throughout her practice spanning the years since her
graduation from art school, ably constructs true narrativity and metalanguage, by assessing multiple forms of memory, and manufactures a cohesive visuality by using precisely that set of artistic forms (as outlined in the gallery statement) that reflect reality and engage with it in order to represent it. By fusing sculpture at a miniature scale and staged photography, she achieves a
form of idiosyncratic communication that is not based on strident metaphors or propaganda, but on the contrary, manages, in the act of doing art, to offer up to both contemplation and mediation, the rightful place of the panoramic and plainly humane content that lends its trieste
structure to our epoch.


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