An Interview with Curator Sabah Husain
agar firdaus bar-rū-e-zamīñ ast
hamīñ ast o hamīñ ast o hamīñ ast
if there is paradise on earth
it is this, it is this, it is this
Following the exhibition If There is Paradise on Earth… inspired by Amir Khusrow’s verse, artist and curator Sabah Husain and myself had an extended conversation on the concept of the exhibition, held at the Lahore Fort in March 2022.
Sabah’s minimalist art practice has long been a research-based one, beginning with the music series in the 1980s in which she explored the complex permutations of sound in sub-continental classical music and their relationship to mood and spirit, to folios from the Baghdad Manuscript in 2017 and the body of work shown at the current exhibition. This in-depth exploration of form and concept in art resulted in the organisation of exhibitions with discursive and other cultural events, held under the umbrella of the Lahore Arts Foundation Trust, of which she is one of the founding members.
Ilona Yusuf: What prompted the choice of venue for If There is Paradise on Earth…
Sabah Husain: I’ve always wanted to use a heritage space to exhibit art, most particularly the Lahore Fort, for which I have great affection. Its multi-layered history begins with Emperor Akbar, but structures were added by his successors, each one using different motifs and more and more sophisticated embellishments.
In 2018, I organized an independent exhibition under LAFT (the Lahore Arts Foundation Trust), which took place before the Lahore Biennale. We used the Manuscript Gallery in the Jahangir Quadrangle to display sixteen mirror panels, which I had designed for the Karachi Biennale 2017, to show the achievements of Nur Jahan, beloved wife of Emperor Jahangir. Very little is known about her now, but she was powerful and accomplished in her own right, and aesthetically gifted. I extracted the images from the gardens she created in Agra, including her father’s tomb,the floral motifs used, and the poetry she wrote. The footfall was amazing: we had close to ten lakhs of visitors.
IY: Was the exhibition on Nur Jahan the inspiration for the current show, then?
SH: Yes, it was. Amin Gulgee saw it and said it would be great to have a show of many artists there. Together, we put together a curatorial council for Art Lahore 22, LAFT’s first mega event: along with Amin we included Dr. Marcella Neesom Sirhandi, Dr Tehniyat Majeed, an art historian at LUMS, the journalist Zahid Hussain, and myself. I wanted to have people other than artists on the panel, because it’s good to have interdisciplinary debate and input on how you curate shows, and different perspectives on how new media such as film or installation interact with traditional genres.
IY: What’s your vision when curating an exhibition on this scale?
SH: The idea behind an exhibition like this, which takes over two years to plan and take shape, is that you can ask for the artworks to be site specific, that is, designed to be shown in a particular space such as the Lahore Fort, which is a heritage space, therefore an alternative art space. Also, this lengthy time span gives the artists time to think about and research the work they will produce. In other words, they have time to focus. I say research because now art also encompasses research based, archival, or social practices. Most of the work was done specifically for this exhibition, in terms of the concept, whether political or environmental.
Organizing an exhibition on this scale, of local and international artists in a public space, connecting regional and global artists, encourages interaction. Between the artists and their works, between students who are often unable to travel to see work produced in other countries, as well as local people writing on art, and of course for the public. Not all people can appreciate the work shown, but one must take a step and bring it to a bigger platform than the closed spaces of the galleries.
IY: Was it an open call, or did you solicit work from selected artists?
SH: It was not an open call, we selected artists after looking at their most recent oeuvre. We had online interviews with the artists before making decisions.
IY: Let’s talk about the theme…
SH: We chose the couplet by Amir Khusrow because it is many faceted… besides the idea of earth as paradise, there are the many contemporary environmental and societal issues. The artists had the choice to work on any element of the theme. If we think of earth as paradise, from which we have food and water, and if we are not focused on what we do— especially in the post-Covid world—we are talking, in a sense, about Paradise Lost, or behesht e gum gashta. We are talking about destruction. But we are also talking utopia.
IY: In choosing artworks for this show, did you have particular genres in mind? I noticed a wide range of mediums: there were several film installations, ranging from Jamil Dehlavi’s Qaf, which is both a geological as well as a philosophical, odyssey, to Timo Nasseri’s video of painting with light as it falls from windows to create subtly moving patterns on walls and floors; and Larissa Sansour’s wry, cerebral sci-fi film on Palestine, The Nation Estate; works combining poetry with visuals, as in Mouna Saboni and Seher Shah’s work, not to mention your own; along with more traditional forms such as modern miniature painting. The artists also ranged from local practitioners, foreign artists and several local senior artists.
SH: So, in terms of medium and diverse interpretations of the theme: Jamil Dehlavi’s film is very beautiful cinematography, of lava pouring out and destroying the earth. Larissa Sansour’s short, dramatic sci-fi film has strong political undertones—Palestinians are living the high life in a skyscraper which looks out on the Dome of the Rock; it also references the environment, in the tree growing in an enclosed apartment. Mouna Saboni, too, talks about Palestine, using her poetry embossed onto photographic land and seascapes; along with her installation of transparent vinyl hanging panels printed with poetry in English, French and Arabic which form the shape of a face. Like Mouna Saboni, Seher Shah combines her poetry with images, using a series of etchings of enclosed, claustrophobic city spaces in Delhi.
Ayesha Vellani’s black and white photographs show the desecration of the environment and the effects of drought on land and animals, while Malcolm Hutcheson’s work showcases water shortages, and the lives of sewage workers.
Timo Nasseri’s work begins with black on white drawings, or white pen on black, inspired by stars and the galaxies, and goes on to create intricate geometric structures.
I asked the miniaturist Ahsan Jamal to work on portraits of poets and writers from both sides of the border, using the theme of Partition. In the artist’s imagination, Ghalib came to Lahore during his life, so he is shown with Badshahi Masjid in the background. The accompanying painting is of Amrita Pritam, the powerful poet from India who writes on Partition.
Wajahat Saeed uses embroidery to create contours through which one can make out the shape of drones; while Asif Khan uses a drone camera to record images that focus on rhythm and pattern in every-day activities such as rice planting, seen from the air.
Marlene Hausegger produced a very modern installation work of pipes with neon tags, displayed in the Summer Palace. It was in complete contrast to the space, but it is an example of the interesting juxtaposition of elements which exhibitions like this bring; as in Waheeda Baloch’s neon symbols denoting spirituality or paradise. The large expanses even in enclosed areas in the Fort give you space in between, where perceptions move from one installation to another in a very interesting manner.
L-R: Installation & Performance by Amin Gulgee; Like a River of Red, It Flows by Wajahat Saeed; Two views of Installations by Waheeda Baloch; Detail of work by Timo Nasseri; Photography by Malcolm Hutcheson
Three of the international artists, Mouna Saboni, Timo Nasseri and Katia Kameli are of mixed heritage. I thought their work would express a different perspective because they have the sensibility of two contexts.
With reference to local senior artists, I wanted to honour the ustads because throughout their careers they have been part of the cultural and artistic life of the city. So I chose small works, sketches, one from each artist: the architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz, Bashir Ahmed, who was the first head of the miniature department at the National College of the Arts; and Ijaz ul Hassan, artist, activist and art critic.
IY: What about your own work? As an artist and a curator, how do you choose spaces and the artwork that will fill them, and which concern comes first?
SH: For me, poetry is important because it’s about memory, about a particular time, use of language and idiom. I find Khusrow amazing because of the way he connected various languages: Urdu, Persian, Brij Bhasha, Purbi. So many centuries after his death—seven hundred years ago—his poetry is still recited all over Central and South Asia. I wanted to present it in a visual form, using the verse ‘Sakal bun phool rahi sarson,/ Sakal bun phool rahi...../ Umbva phutay, tesu phulay, koyal bolay daar daar, / Aur gori karat singaar….
I used script on mirror panels, which reflected light and pattern, in this case the geometric lattices of the fort screens. So the work is definitely site-specific, because the panels were designed with the venue in mind. I had already made the Nur Jahan installation, so I knew how the light would play on them and highlight the architecture. Incidentally, I had made works on paper but didn’t display them because I decided to focus on the mirror panels.
IY: How do you feel that the spaces interact with the work? For instance, Amin Gulgee’s sculptural installation, accompanied by trays of spices, is displayed in a hall painted with frescoes depicting scenes of plenty, with dishes overflowing with fruits.
SH: Amin had the large sculptures in bronze from before but the way he combined them with spices was new. He came to see the venue and chose this space, because he wanted an area large enough to display the work as well as the performance, which took place at the opening. He needed a place with two sides open and two closed. The sculptures depict calligraphic writing, not words but letters, except for one that depicts bound hands. And the spice trays on the ground were a spice garden, based on the idea of the Muslim chahar bagh, representing the four gardens of paradise.
IY: You also mentioned recitation of Heer under the pipal tree near the Fort café. What was the response to this?
SH: I wanted more music events than we eventually had, but the turbulent political situation didn’t permit it. But Saeen Manzoor Hussain recited Saiful Muluk, and Heer. A lot of people came to listen, students and the public, and they would record videos and take Selfies. Because of the enthusiastic response, I asked Saeen Sahib to repeat the recitation over and over throughout the day, with breaks, on each weekend. The fort can and should be used for such events on a weekly basis.
IY: There were several discursive events around the exhibition. Were these well attended, who made up the audience, and do you see an interest in such events outside members of the art world?
SH: The discursive events were part of the program. We had the print show and collateral events at NCA and the Lahore Museum, and the discursive sessions were at NCA, Punjab University and BNU. These were between the bachelors and masters degree students, faculty and artists.
School and college students visited the Fort, and Malcolm Hutcheson and Timo Nasseri conducted tours. I did curator’s tours for many people too. We had students from seven institutions: Lahore College University, Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design, the Institute of Arts and Culture, Kinnaird College University, Government College University, Punjab University, the National College of Arts and Beaconhouse National University.
Besides art students, chemistry and physics students who had heard about the show came to see it. There were people who got in touch from Azad Kashmir for instance, and from Sindh and Peshawar. It was March and colleges organize field trips, which usually include historical monuments. I would see large groups of young people and invite them in to see the show.
The idea of a contemporary show in a traditional space is so effective. It would be wonderful to have heritage sites used for cultural events, especially for our young generation.
IY: Two of the venues listed on the programme are places newly conserved by the Agha Khan Cultural Service, and they are listed as being part of the exhibition.
SH: The Agha Khan Cultural Service works in tandem with the Walled City of Lahore Authority. They have conserved many spaces in the Lahore fort; the famous Shah Burj with its picture wall was the first. The naqqashi, brick work and jalis were restored starting in 2019.
Part of our exhibition was in the Royal Kitchen, and along with our artwork there was an exhibition of photographs documenting the restoration of this area, which was previously overgrown with trees and required extensive unearthing before conservation. The Barood Khana showed photographs and a film on conservation, and the AKCS-P organized tours for students and delegates.
Art isn’t just about being in your own studio. Social practices, music, literature, installations and conservation of historical monuments, are all components of the whole.
“The idea of a contemporary show in a traditional space is so effective. It would be wonderful to have heritage sites used for cultural events, especially for our young generation… there is no building (Lahore Fort) on this scale elsewhere in the subcontinent. We need to take advantage of this beautiful site, and we need support to do so”–Sabah Husain
IY: Organising an exhibition on this scale must have made huge demands on your time, not to mention the logistics of display.
SH: The Walled City Authority, which works with the government, gave us the spaces in the Fort for a month. The government provided security inside and outside. And the embassies and our partners abroad projected the show.
We were fortunate that LAFT managed logistics including the generator as the electricity supply was unstable and we needed regular power, especially in the underground Summer Palace, for light and for video projections. There are so many things to consider in an event of this scale, from moving the works to the site, displaying them using custom made screens, wall and floor lighting, and so on. These are expensive, easily damaged works, and everything needs to be well thought out and managed, necessitating a large team.
I feel that in the future, government and cultural organisations should interact with private ones such as LAFT or the Biennales to make things run smoothly. For instance, The Walled City Authority was very co-operative but felt that the government needs to have a share in the responsibility of putting up a show of this scale.
So we can’t mount an exhibition like this as a single entity. It has to be done in collaboration with many kinds of people: artists, the public sector, educational institutions. And of course, funding is a consideration. We were very interested in a couple of artists from France, but transporting their work would have been unaffordable. So, sponsorships for cultural events are necessary.
However, I’m very happy with the outcome. The opening was at the Alamgiri Gate, an amazing space to hold it. Zahid (Hussain) visited the Fort during the Lahore Literary Festival, and he said, there is no building on this scale elsewhere in the subcontinent. We need to take advantage of this beautiful site, and we need support to do so.
Click on the link to view a short clip from Larissa Sansour’s dystopian sci-fi, albeit humorous film, The Nation Estate, exploring a final solution to Palestine…in which Palestine is a skyscraper where the citizens live the ‘high life’:
Click on the link to view more of the artwork:
Notes:  The title of the installation is ‘Nur Jahan the Aesthete Who Ruled India.’  Itmad Ud Daulah’s tomb in Agra was a precursor to the Taj Mahal.  Master, teacher.  The yellow mustard is blooming in every field, / Mango buds are clicking open, other flowers too; / The koyal chirps from branch to branch, / And the maiden tries her make-up,  Painting, drawing.
All photos courtesy: Sabah Husain & LAFT