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Conversations in Curated Spaces:

Creation in Translation

Sumbul Natalia

Creation in Translation [case study 01] is one of the four projects for Curator’s Residency 2023 hosted by Vasl Artists’ Association in collaboration with the British Council and Gasworks, held at the Zahoor ul Akhlaque Gallery at the National College of Arts, Lahore.

As I stepped into the grandeur of the Zahoor Al Akhlaque Gallery on a hot summer day, I could suddenly feel a gush of calm take over me. That is the power of curation. A thoughtfully curated exhibition has the ability to transform disparate elements into a cohesive, engaging, and enlightening experience for the viewer. Effective curators can illuminate overlooked perspectives, provoke thoughtful dialogue, and provide new insights that challenge and expand the audience’s understanding.

The exhibition delves into the intricate processes of memory and history-making through a collaborative artistic lens. Held first at the Theosophical Society Library, Karachi, in April 2024 and now here, this exhibition was the inaugural case study of a research project that explores innovative methodologies of co-design.

View of part of the show

The Curators’ Residency programme was designed specifically for emerging curators based in Pakistan. Four young curators were selected through an open call in June 2023, one of which was Ghazala Raees. In the first three months of the residency, the curators worked closely with the advisor, Quddus Mirza, and attended several lectures and talks on curatorial practices around the world.

This exhibition, which was a research project of Ghazala Raees, digs into the complex processes of remembering the past and making history through the lens of art and co-design methodologies. The curatorial prompt for this required eight selected artists to collaborate, exchanging anonymous texts of personal memories and creating artworks inspired by these narratives.

The curatorial note for this exhibition highlights the multilayered nature of history, positioning it as a field subject to various interpretations and uses. Historically, some have viewed history as an immutable truth, while others have seen it as a destructive weight or a canvas for multiple narratives. This exhibit questions these perspectives by examining the mechanisms through which memories are transformed into historical narratives. It highlights the processes of transition, translation, and reinterpretation that underpins the creation of history, raising critical questions about what is remembered, what is forgotten, and how these choices shape collective memory.

Each artwork in the exhibition stands as a testament to the fluidity and subjectivity of memory. The eight artists began their creative journey by writing about a personal, sentimental memory. These texts were swapped among the group anonymously, with each artist tasked to create an artwork inspired by the memory they received. This process resulted in a diverse array of pieces that not only reflect individual interpretations but also engage with broader themes of historical narrative and memory preservation. The artworks collectively demonstrate how personal recollections can be re-contextualised and imbued with new meanings, illustrating the transformative power of artist collaborations.

Anushka Rustomji’s series of drawings, created in response to the text about the gulmohar tree by Nisha Hassan, is a mesmerizing exploration of life, decay, and the intricate bond between nature and humanity. Using acrylic, charcoal, gouache, ink, pencil, and perforations on paper, Rustomji’s work portrays a deeply reminiscent narrative that transcends mere botanical depiction. The fasting Buddha with the head replaced with flowers and branches talks about a passionate amalgamation of spiritual asceticism and the natural world's transient beauty. Her depiction of plants with human spine-like branches underscores the inherent connection between human fragility and nature's resilience. These drawings not only capture the essence of the gulmohar tree’s vibrant yet ephemeral existence but also evoke a sense of introspection about the passage of time and the emotional resonance of loss. Rustomji’s ability to blend botanical elements with human anatomy and spiritual symbolism creates a powerful visual dialogue that is both haunting and beautiful, inviting viewers to reflect on the impermanence of life and the profound connections that endure beyond physical decay.

Anuskha Rustomji's work

Ayaz Jokhio’s series of sculptures, inspired by the haunting poem given to him by Haider Ali Naqvi, about the interplay between man and nature by the sea, presents a contemplative exploration of coastal landscapes and their transient beauty. Using air dry clay and acrylic paint, Jokhio meticulously crafts three distinct yet thematically interconnected pieces. Each sculpture, with its delicate details and textured surfaces, mirrors the poem's themes of decay and reclamation, where man-made relics succumb to nature's timeless dance. Jokhio's work beautifully embodies the coastal waltz of ebb and flow, portraying a powerful narrative of coexistence, resilience, and the inexorable passage of time. Through his sculptures, Jokhio wants his viewers to witness and reflect on the delicate balance between human creations and the natural world, and the ever-changing landscapes shaped by their interaction.

Part of Ayaz Jokhio's installation

Nairah Shirjeel’s vivid artworks, inspired by the deeply personal text by Ariba Akhlaque, powerfully capture the profound sense of loss and the lingering presence of memories within physical spaces. Using dyed and rusted polyester fibers, silicone, and plant skeletons, she crafted delicate sculptures housed in small specimen jars, each one a testament to the intimate and ephemeral nature of grief and memory. The curator’s decision to place these jars in a large, old wooden cabinet with glass doors further enhances the sense of reverence and preservation, transforming the cabinet into a shrine of personal history and emotion. Each jar, with its precisely crafted contents, offers viewers to peer into the encapsulated fragments of a life once lived, evoking the raw, visceral moment of receiving tragic news and the ensuing blur of existence. Shirjeel’s work beautifully intertwines the tangible and intangible, illustrating how spaces and objects become imbued with the essence of those who once inhabited them. Through her sculptural pieces, she offers a contemplative space for viewers to reflect on their own memories and the silent, enduring stories told by the places and objects left behind by loved ones.

Nairah Shirjeel's installation

Nisha Hassan responded very prudently to the sentimental text given to her by Ayaz Jokhio. Using the medium of drawing and plaster casts, her work presents a deeply introspective exploration of love, conflict, and the human condition. Her drawing, which carefully depicts the anatomy of a human body in the style of a scientific diagram, ingeniously labels each organ with the various emotions that reside within. This visual metaphor not only accentuates the physicality of emotions but also advocates that love, conflict, and despair are integral parts of our very being. The accompanying plaster casts of organs such as the heart and lungs, painted and placed in petri dishes on an old wooden bookshelf, further amplify this theme. The choice of petri dishes evokes the sense of examining and preserving these emotions, much like a scientist studying specimens, highlighting the complexity and fragility of human emotions. The old wooden bookshelf, reminiscent of a repository of knowledge and memories, adds a layer of nostalgia and reverence, suggesting that these emotions are both timeless and universal. Through her artwork, Nisha captured the paradoxical nature of love and conflict within relationships, portraying them as inseparable and essential elements of human experience. Her work urged the viewer to reflect on their own emotional landscapes and the ways in which love manifests and endures through both harmony and struggle.

Nisha Hassan's installation

Zahra Asim’s artworks, inspired by a nostalgic journey through historic and changing landscapes as per the text given to her by Sohail Zuberi, capture the essence of memory and transformation through a unique blend of brass and oil paint. Utilizing brass sheets as her canvas, she paints vivid images of the sea and old city buildings, rendered with a deep sense of perspective and detail. The brass, with its inherent qualities of durability and warmth, adds a timeless quality to these depictions, resonating with the enduring nature of memories. Over these painted scenes, she meticulously crafts and adheres intricate grille patterns, symbolizing the barriers and overlays of time and change that have altered the once accessible pathways. This juxtaposition of open space and ornate confinement heartrendingly reflects the artist’s experience of discovering and subsequently losing access to these cherished locales. Complementing these visual narratives, Asim displays additional brass sheets inscribed with her handwritten Urdu couplets and phrases. These poetic writings, dig into themes of nostalgia, the passage of time, and the bittersweet sensation of standing at the shore, feet immersed in water, as one recalls bygone days. The use of Urdu, a language rich in literary tradition, instils the pieces with cultural depth and emotional resonance. Zahra Asim’s integration of text and imagery creates a multi-layered experience, inviting viewers to not only see but also feel the personal and collective memories that shape our understanding of place and history.

Zahra Asim's artwork

Ariba Akhlaque’s work, inspired by the moving description of an old house steeped in nostalgia written by Zahra Asim, masterfully captures the essence of cultural heritage and personal memories through a beautifully crafted album. Using archival paper and sepia-toned photographs of old Pakistani weddings, Akhlaque documents the rich traditions and intimate moments of these ceremonies. The sepia tones enhance the sense of timelessness, drawing viewers into a bygone era. Each page of the album is thoughtfully ornamented with patterns made from rose and jasmine flowers and in some places filigrees, symbolising their traditional use in bridal adornment and adding a fragrant layer of authenticity to the visual narrative.

Detail from Ariba Akhlaque's installation

The curator’s decision to place these album pages inside and on top of an old heirloom coffer, or sandooq/petti, traditionally given to brides filled with clothes for their new life, further deepens the work's emotional and cultural resonance. This sandooq serves not only as a physical vessel for the photographs but also as a metaphorical container for the memories and stories they represent. The careful arrangement within this cherished family artifact highlights the continuity of tradition and the personal histories carried forward through generations. Ariba Akhlaque’s work makes every visitor reflect on their own familial legacies and the enduring impact of cultural rituals.

Sohail Zuberi’s series, I was nurtured, therefore I am nurturer, beautifully translates the text given to him by Nairah Shirjeel into a stirring visual narrative. His black and white photographs, transferred onto glass, capture the intricate veins of tree roots and the hands of an elderly person. Placed next to each other, the parallel textures and patterns in these images create a powerful metaphor for the interconnectedness of life and the passage of time. The veins, symbolic of both growth and age, evoke the nurturing roles both nature and humans play, reflecting the artist's contemplation on being nurtured and becoming a nurturer.

Detail from Sohail Zuberi's work

The curator’s thoughtful presentation of these glass photographs in the open drawers of a large, old study table adds depth to the viewer’s experience. This arrangement suggests an intimate exploration, as if one is delving into a treasure trove of memories and family history. The table, a symbol of wisdom and legacy, augments the narrative of the artworks, aligning with the themes of heritage and the continuous cycle of life. Zuberi's work captures the warmth and nostalgia of the evening scenes described in the prompt text, particularly through the use of diffused light and detailed imagery that echo the comforting glow of a cherished lamp. His photographs ask viewers to recollect their own memories and the nurturing relationships that shape our existence, making this series a deeply moving tribute to the bonds that sustain us.

Haider Ali Naqvi, responding to the small poem given by Anushka Rustomji about encountering a solitary lion in the wild, powerfully engages with themes of communication and primal existence. Naqvi’s piece features a large, dyed granite slab, mounted on the wall with metal spacers, creating a striking visual and tactile experience. Engraved on this granite is a paragraph rendered entirely in sign language, a choice that underscores the fundamental, often unspoken connections that can transcend verbal communication.

Haider Ali Naqvi's work

The inclusion of a decoder alongside the granite slab allows viewers to translate the sign language, inviting them to engage more deeply with the text and the experience it describes. This interactive element of decoding mirrors the introspective process the poem suggests—being stripped down to one's essential being. By using sign language, Naqvi adds a layer of complexity to the piece, emphasizing how communication and understanding go beyond the literal and into the realm of the experiential and intuitive. The artwork challenges viewers to consider how they perceive and interpret not just language, but the essence of their own humanity when faced with the untamed and the profound.

This exhibition, which was a research project of Ghazala Raees, digs into the complex processes of remembering the past and making history through the lens of art and co-design methodologies. The curatorial prompt for this required eight selected artists to collaborate, exchanging anonymous texts of personal memories and creating artworks inspired by these narratives

Additionally, the exhibition features an animation display titled Whereabouts Unknown/Ata Pata Maloom Nahin by Sophia Balaghamwala. Being played on a small television screen, in the adjacent section of the gallery, Balghamwala’s animation added a rather introspective dimension to the exhibition. With a POV of some missing artefacts from a collection, she presents a very compelling and gripping narration accompanying the visuals. The animation explores themes of displacement and the fragmentation of memory, resonating deeply with the exhibition's overarching inquiry into the construction of history.

The choice of the Theosophical Society Library and then the Zahoor ul Akhlaque gallery at a historical art institute, as the venue for this exhibition is particularly fitting. Like museums, libraries and educational institutions play a crucial role in legitimizing and disseminating knowledge. By situating the exhibition in this context, the curators draw attention to the politics of display and the ways in which institutions influence our understanding of history. These settings also reinforced the exhibition's exploration of visibility and invisibility, highlighting how certain narratives are preserved and others are marginalised.

Creation in Translation [case study 01] succeeds in emphasizing the active, participatory, and evolving nature of knowledge creation. It compels viewers to reflect on their role in the ongoing construction of history and to recognize the underlying patterns that shape this process. By presenting history as a series of transitions, reinterpretations, and creative exchanges, the exhibition challenged visitors to reconsider their assumptions about the past and to engage more deeply with the narratives that define our collective memory. As the first iteration of this research experiment, the exhibition sets the stage for further exploration and analysis in this exhibit, promising new insights and unanticipated avenues for understanding the complex relationship between memory and history.

All photos courtesy of the author.


About the curator:

Ghazala Raees is a researcher and emerging curator working as a Lecturer in the Department of Cultural Studies, National College of Arts, Lahore. She received her Bachelors in Visual Communication Design from NCA and went on to study Critical Media and Cultural Studies at the School for Oriental and African Studies, UK. Her practice explores the potential of exhibitions as mediums of expression, emphasizing on the ideas of reading ‘exhibitions as artworks’. She recently curated Consolidated Spaces at Haam Gallery Lahore, an exhibition derived from June Collective artist residency. She was assistant curator for Allomorphs of an Antecedent, a site-specific exhibition by The Roadside and was on the curatorial team for Be(Coming) The Museum, exhibited in at Lahore Museum. She was a co-curator for Supavenezia exhibited at AplusA Gallery, Venice. Under The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, she conceptualised and executed Maazi ki Saa’aatain, a collateral exhibition to LB02 at the National History Museum. She was awarded a scholarship by NCA to pursue a summer program in curatorial practice at the School for Curatorial Studies in Venice.

About the author:

Sumbul Natalia is a Lahore-based visual artist, writer, researcher and curator. She graduated in Communication Design from College of Art and Design, Punjab University and went on to do her MPhil in Cultural Studies from the National College of Arts, Lahore. Since then, she has taught at several art institutes. Sumbul is also the co-founder and curator at the Karbath Artist Residency Program. She currently serves as a lecturer in the Visual Communication Design Department at the National College of Arts, Lahore and is also a PhD scholar in Art and Design at the Punjab University.Sumbul’s writings and reviews have been published in various magazines including ArtNow, The Karachi Collective, Nigaah and ADA magazines.


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