The Images of Our Times

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The Images of Our Times

When Andy Warhol famously proclaimed that “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”, the American Pop artist did not have an idea of digital photo

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When Andy Warhol famously proclaimed that “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”, the American Pop artist did not have an idea of digital photography and mobile phones. Technical facilities which made everyone, not famous tough, but a creative person, an artist, a photographer. Now there is no need to learn photography, or being taught how to use a camera, or trained in the processing of a negative in the dark room/lab. You just have to purchase, borrow, steal or snatch a smart phone, and you can become a known image maker beyond your limited hemisphere – a celebrity on Insta, Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks.

This proliferation of pictures, made by men, women, trans; old, middle-aged, grown-ups, adults, kids – belonging to multiple ethnicities, nationalities, complexions, languages, faiths, professions, social structures, if on the one hand democratised this form of art, it also led to a number of inquiries: about the nature, relevance, and role of photography in contemporary times.

One example/answer can be found in Susan Sontag’s book On Photography, where she mentions the Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard’s movie, Les Carabiniers (1963) in which “two sluggish lumpen-peasants are lured into joining the King’s Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of Monuments, Department Stores, Mammals, Wonders of Nature, Methods of Transport, Works of Art, and other classified treasures from around the globe”.

Photographs in a way are reality’s substitute, though these contain an element of physical world – cropped, enlarged, small, static, flat, mute, mutilated, multiplied, and occasionally modified in grey tones. Pictures enable people to carry their memories of the past, places, belongings, and loved ones across territories. Sometimes these photos become the documents of displacement; like Ayesha Naeem’s snapshots of household stuff in the middle of moving residences (In Remains, I Exist), from the current exhibition of photography at the COMO Museum, Lahore.

Whether pictures of personal possessions in the process of transportation, or some other views, photography in its nature is about displacement, and dislocation – through camera. The participants of ‘Photograph’ (opened on 1st September 2023) have dealt with the movement and multiplication of ideas, people, faiths, objects in societies and time.

A person, who clicks a camera or uses the smart phone, slices a segment of surroundings, of material world, and then places and presents it in a different setting and context. One realizes that a number of works from the COMO exhibition negotiate with this and other migrations. In a global village one is always an immigrant; if not on a foreign soil, then on Instagram and other social networking platforms, because living in some small neighbourhood of Multan, you may have a Manhattan address on your page. Truthfully you belong to both places!

Several participants have explored this duplicity. For example Amna Yaseen in her My History is Your Playground (a title derived from Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows) photographs herself, with body covered in an Afghan shuttlecock burqa and on her head a pack tied in the cloth with patterns of Marylin Monroe’s face. A motif replicating Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portraits of the Hollywood star, which Yaseen found in a local bazar; hence created a comparison/contrast of two women, from two hemispheres, eras. The American celebrity from the fifties and sixties, while the attire of Pathan woman also can be from the fifties and sixties – or from 2022; so two periods, two places and two roles/perceptions of women are combined in a single picture, of the artist, as a medieval looking, and/or middle class female transposing the burden of western media, entertainment, intervention.

Switching identities is a routine activity for a creative individual. Authors transform them into another gender, specie, nationality, profession, age, yet appear credible. Actors shift their personality according to the character’s requirements. A classical Indian dancer transcends into another body. In Aroosa Rana’s digital print, Probability and Predictability, 2020, one recognizes these variations, possibilities, potentials. A group of three women repeatedly alter their positions, postures in “a dialogue between Mathematics and Visual Arts”. You look at the composition of the trio, and, later, register the shift in personalities and actions, like interacting with a puzzle. Rana’s work suggests how we are tuned to act in a certain way, and any disruption dismantles the harmonious order of existence. Rana probed the displacement and disappearances in her pervious works too, denoting the high level state meetings, either by removing the floral arrangements or highlighting the bouquet without the dignitaries (Ephemeral Participant, 2016).

The displacement could occur in diverse forms; like one in which social migration ends up as marginalization. Illustrated by the fate of minorities surviving in the Islamic Republic, who are discriminated and targeted. Incidentally a few works from the show represent the condition of Christian population prior to Jaranwala’s deplorable incident. Umar Riaz, the celebrated film maker and photographer documents humble devotees during the Easter, along with an audio of hymns. Listening to these Punjabi rhythms praising a prophet born in Bethlehem and worshipped in Europe, Americas, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia, one discovers that the passion travels beyond the cultural, political or economic frontiers. Looking at the faces of ordinary folks from Punjab, you imagine them praying in a Muslim mosque, a Hindu temple, a Sikh Gurdwara; and remember Karl Marx’s dictum: “Religion is the opium of the people”.

Like the horde engaged in self-flogging during the Muharram processions, poetically captured by Nad e Ali, in The Other Horses. The “mourning ritual performed … by the Shia community” is photographed in such a scheme, that you don’t see the believers, but an atmosphere hovering above the frenzy. Ali has magnificently translated the flow and force of religious fervour in his delayed exposure.

Religion is a crucial aspect of one’s life – and afterlife; because you live in a colony with neighbours from other faiths, but once departed, dispatched to your community’s burial ground. Separate for Muslims, Christians or Jews (when they were part of Pakistani population). Knowing these segregations, one can deduce that religion also controls the dead; even more. Vania Mazhar has projected a set of 6 photographs An Ode to Harley Street Christian Cemetery (Rawalpindi) depicting graves with crosses. Mazhar has arranged these images in the format of a cross “to honour the spirit of the cemetery”.

Like minorities, women are also mistreated in a predominantly male Muslim society; where females in many instances, are expected to occupy their traditional duty: marriage, child bearing etc. Ujala Hayat in her sequence of digital prints, of a woman in varying stages of pregnancy, discloses a young girl’s view, often not heard or accepted – for not having a kid. Hayat presents the deformation of human body in the process of fertility. The monochromatic prints at COMO comprise snapshot of a women in a process of procreation, and the artist shares that the “notion of a microscopic being growing into a predator inside of me, eroding my individuality, invading my individual space and my physical state petrifies me”. Her prints are a case-history of how a woman could, or could not avoid the prescribed role of her gender. Hayat’s command of visual/virtual vocabulary turns her works meaningful, and even digitally manipulated, appears more real.

Perhaps due to the preference for black & white, which reminds of the past, that is unchangeable, classic, perfect. The chromatic scheme as well as the scale of Hayat’s imagery connect it with Faheem Abbas’s pair of small works (Two Objects of Desire). Inkjet prints of a fish and a cube, which, due to their density, darkness, and diffused quality eventually start melting into each other. The subtlety, sophistication and superb use of minimum means make his work beyond the limitation of a genre, medium, technique. Images by Abbas are about recollecting, representing and reaffirming what we had, and will continue to resurrect, reimagine, redream, and re-desire.

The remarkably curated exhibition of photography, is about the journey between personal to public, from the past to the present, from here to somewhere else; yet every work in the show is produced with the camera. Now we possess cameras in our mobiles, but prior to the smart phones, whenever a person got a camera, the first impulse was to travel and record the journey of distant lands. Lens in that sense served like the passport of imagination, an asset as important for human beings for centuries, as a mobile phone is today.