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Studio Visit: Murree Museum Artist Residency

While driving up to Murree, the entire mountain thundered upon us. A torrential monsoon poured down, streams made way, spontaneous waterfalls roared down. As the mountain dripped on to the sinuous road, we zipped through boulders and rocks, the water gushing against the car.
The dense mist puffing out of the forest meant a slower internet today and more dampness. Damp sheets, damp towels, damp clothes, damp shoes. This is the month of August, the most wet month.
This season other than the struggle with the wet mountain, I was in the idyllic hills with six talented and self-driven artists. It was a privilege. This was our second year as a residency.
Last year we were also trying to save a museum that had no funds. The museum did not last because the government was distracted by more grandiose dreams such as bus projects, roads and restaurants.
With Murree rents soaring high due to the sizzling heat of the plains and incessant load shedding, our donors Huma and Shahid Qadir have been most gracious in donating their cottage.
On arrival day, old taxis glued and taped together in one piece, rattled down our steep incline. Each artist pulled out a large bag of a few clothes and more art supplies. Madyha Leghari, our project manager, collected the two international artists and brought them up to the mountain.
Rain poured down, but there was no water for bathing. We harvested rainwater and pumped it up to our tanks. Bathing everyday was strictly prohibited.
Long walks up and down the ridge, old churches discovered, filthy corner shops with stench of garbage and sewage.
One of us got sick. The local hospital reluctant to give a verdict, the sick had to be taken down the hill, only to find out it was just a bout of serious food poisoning. I always wonder how precarious the lives of people of Murree are, with such basic health facilities.
We took the trek down to the khud, to visit the earliest inhabitants of Murree, the Gujjars. Small huts made from sticks and old pieces of cloth, their deceptive, fragile frame are actually weather-proof.
A trickle of water was supplied only twice a week. The great and powerful water man monitoring every pipe and connection. Caretakers of rest-houses eager to get their tanks filled up for the new guests. We were the last on the hill to be supplied. Today you will get no water, the motor has failed, this only means fewer baths.
Early morning, the birds chirp. Hiroshi is up, painting in the cool, gloomy sun coming from the large glass windows. Strokes of acrylic are painted onto the plastic, hung out to dry. Drying is slow because of the moisture in the air. Blowers are moved in to dry the paint. A thin, even layer of acrylic gel medium is applied to paper, the plastic with strokes is put on to it. As it dries the strokes infuse the gel. Plastic on the painting becomes the painting on the paper.
Quddus Mirza arrives, precisely at the time he had given, without getting lost on the way. At four am he is up reading a book. I meet him in the morning, already dressed and still reading Haruki Murakami’s book. He peers out at the view while he catches more from the book. I have already been around the government house and that museum too, he says. It is 8 am. The evening is spent doing artists’ talks. He shares with us a large slide show of works from the past thirty years. Humour and colour are sprawled generously on his canvases.
Shakila Haider, from Quetta, belongs to the Hazara community. Her work explains the complexity and the alienation felt from living in a country that feels it should get rid of them. Often they are forced to flee for survival. Complex maps of survival, country to country, continent to continent.
Seema and Seher work as a collective. They do detective work around a murdered couple’s home in our neighborhood. It happened more than decade ago but their effects still linger in an abandoned house, dust collecting in room after room on a dustless hill.
Kim voraciously draws all that she sees, trees, shoes, caretaker’s home, Seema. Her older works weep with loneliness and poverty. New works bloom with color and hope.
Aziz arrives as a guest writer to write a review, the youngest amongst us and also very ambitious and focused.
On the last day of the residency, Hamid Gul passes away in the same local hospital.
Saba Khan is the founder of the Murree Museum Artists Residency.
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