“NO ENTERY”, declared the misspelt sign, losing authority just as we crept past it to arrive at the residence that would be home to us for the next mo
“NO ENTERY”, declared the misspelt sign, losing authority just as we crept past it to arrive at the residence that would be home to us for the next month. It’s quiet save for wind rattling through trees and the occasional birdcall. One can almost hear the sun strike fiercely upon earth, holding it in place lest the towering hotel construction nearby loosens it another time. June is kind to Murree: it eases out its icy wrinkles and conceals its slippery red mud beneath blankets of grass flecked with daisies and dandelions. Sophia Mairaj (artist in residence) is flitting through these, collecting fragile samplings of this and that and pressing them between her books. When she leaves a week later, I am not certain if she carries lesser baggage or more.
Everything here has a name: mohabbat booti is the one that clings and bicho booti bites. How else would you introduce things to a stranger and Murree is a town chock-full of them, forging temporary liaisons that last only as long as the season allows. You keep wondering if you are one of them. Something makes you queasy about the idea of tourism: its spirit of imperial adventurism even in the face of ecological catastrophes; of wanting to see, in relation to yourself, something that is not yours and then of wanting to tell of it. How fresh can your novel insights possibly be as a result of this dabbling and how much of this export will matter to the town?
We are to use the Murree Museum and Archives as a studio space. While me and Saba Khan (artist and host) are thus absorbed quietly in our own work, Usman Saeed (artist in residence), hauls the frames from the walls onto a pile on the floor. What follows are two hectic days of aligning our curatorial compasses; of anticipating audiences, their movements and reactions; of arguing over yellowing maps, photographs, documents and other objects; of towing these from here to there and then back again; and finally of hammering nails and putting up the display all over again in time to catch the weekend rush. The Murree Museum and Archives is now open to public and on its very first day gets at least 80 visitors.
You find it unsettling that the photos you now carefully hang are mostly taken at a time and place where the colour of your skin would have allowed you to stand neither here nor next to the photographer. Over chai one day, Saba spills that General Dyer, perpetrator of the infamous Jallianwala Bagh tragedy had a summer home in Murree. You imagine him lounging in it, swatting at flies with comparable spite or more likely perhaps, with comparable boredom. Another man claims that Murree was the first to light fires after the partition taking advantage of the circumstances to resolve over matters of land holdings. You do not know how many accounts must be recounted before the tale is finished. You do know where you stop short.
In the following weeks, we initiate a program inviting children both from schools and the streets to populate and employ the space in a way that the ‘publicness’ of the Museum is not simply tied to its physical locale and its accessibility but also to the psychological dimensions of ownership and the contesting claims to it. Sometimes, we read a book or draw. At other times, the children choose to amuse themselves however they please. Soon enough, there is no need to ask them in anymore. A few always stop by as they walk back home from school or from a day at pulling passenger carts across the Mall, selling soap bubbles or daisy crowns. Their work is displayed alongside other artists at the concluding exhibition of the residency.
Some of the children pick garbage all day. Making chai one day, Usman admits to the same guilt as yours: you cringe sometimes at a whiff and cringe inwardly again at yourself.
We keep stumbling into the discreet lives of Murree that will persist beyond the season, like metallic old snow. A man at a hotel on the choked Mall road guards an ancient weight machine that can no longer read. He won’t consider encasing it in glass. Upon his roof, invisible to his guests, he tends to an exquisite garden. We talk about everything but our names. ‘Come back on the 10th of July’, he says, ‘most of these plants will be in bloom’. Our calendars don’t match.
A library sits atop a monstrous slickly painted sign for a restaurant. Inside the books are all labeled clumsily by hand and carefully locked behind milky glass. You cannot casually skim until you expressly demonstrate interest. Poetry is not whispered with reverence here but screamed out loud at ill attended events.
At night, insects throng to your selfishly lit lamps and easily outnumber all the people you are thinking of. ’Deal with it’, Saba tells you half amused, the other half, unimpressed. Every morning, the studio is littered with their tiny carcasses. ‘Short life spans’, explains Saba as you imagine one dropping mid flight. Whoever collects them gets to keep them. On your walks sometimes, skeletal clusters of water pipes emerge from roads and buildings wherever they wear thin. Often leaking, often patched, and always charging forward in vain hopes of battling the scarcity of water. Out run it before you run out.
You spot a wild boar that is sniffing at garbage by the side of the road only to leap back into the forest as the first stone hits it from a passerby who then finishes cursing before walking on.
At the conclusion of the residency, we put up an exhibition that showcased the works produced in this time. The event drew diverse audiences from all over Pakistan, many of which were equally intrigued by the fact of art as the object of it. The Murree Museum and Archives is a serious and yet unintimidating institution that can, in the long run, serve to decolonize knowledge about this town by shifting its production away from the metropolises – the Karachis, Lahores and Islamabads – to Kashmir Point, Murree. As small participants in this process, we had to be careful to not ‘Columbusize’ it for the rest of the world: to not discover it anew on our terms for the sake of the world beyond it but to listen and pay good attention. Above all, the residency at the Murree Museum was an exercise in humility.
All a tourist can ever do with their guilt is to take it back home.