Nwa Abbas Rizvi
The writer reviews a recent exhibition curated by Fatma Shah at 11 Temple Road (Lahore), a residential building that will turn 100 years old in 2022, and in that process unwinds a sinuous narrative about the nature of time, memory and archiving, as well as the totemic value of personal space and objects. The exhibition entitled ‘Imagined Archives—Residual and Remembrance’, featured the works of ten artists—Farrukh Addnan, Affan Baghpati, Nisha Hasan, Ahsan Memon, Maheen Niazi, Saba Qizilbash, Dua Abbas Rizvi, Sana Saeed, Sahyr Saeed and Imrana Tanveer—who responded to its location, the spaces and the ephemeral presence of its residents and objects. This piece is part of Hassan Tahir Latif's final curatorial stint for the website this year.
One of the first things that you learn when you start to acquire a vocabulary for personal expression, is to realise that not everything that has a name is tangible. There always appear to be things at the periphery of all that you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, a shadow, a space, a word at the tip of somebody’s tongue—things that you feel exist but those that you cannot encompass in any realcapacity as well as you would like to. Then when you start to grasp at some knowledge of these things, such as life and death and purpose, as you all do, what follows closely at the heels of these elusive realities is an estimate of memory. Why doesn’t a person that exists in your mind exist in real life? Where did the person you remember disappear off to? How did you end up here, in between these particular four walls, when you could have sworn you went to sleep in a place you can only access when you close your eyes?
You start to realise that not everything that is tangible alone is precious—there are things that you can’t tuck away safely into a locket around your neck forever that are all the more precious. First you become scared. You start saving restaurant bills, candy wrappers, bottle caps, ticket stubs, hoping that the memories associated with them would manifest in their forms through time, that one day when you return to the box that kept these safe you’ll find a memory buried in the totems as though a small thing you can grasp, and taste, and savour. But ink fades as paper crumbles and metal rusts. So you become desperate. You start holding on to things, to people, to places that are somehow connected to the memories you have grown so attached to. But once again, you find that things break, people leave, places change, and you continually leave behind or are left behind in memory.
Why doesn’t a person that exists in your mind exist in real life? How did you end up here, in between these particular four walls, when you could have sworn you went to sleep in a place you can only access when you close your eyes?
Once in a while, you consider living transitorily, leaving no mark and remaining unmarked. But you find yourself evolving more often than not to accept the nature of the past, the present, and the proof of time having passed in the form of memories. You allow them their evanescence, sometimes sweet, sometimes illusory, sometimes fraudulent—precious still. And instead focus on the collection and recollection methodologies for these memories, the whole process turning into an archival one.
For some, the process of archiving becomes the careful organisation of memories into imaginary file cabinets that contain the sorted forms of even the most trivial of recollections that anyone can efficiently locate, recall, and use for whichever intent that necessitates the process. For some others, the process becomes rather organic, with memories for starting to exist in their minds as a world onto themselves in which the owner is more than welcome to partake at any given time, as though becoming cocooned in a wealth of comfort, love, and security. For some others besides still, the process might go on to take any additional form that caters to someone’s personal relationship with memories. But what remains the same for all is that everyone strives to maintain a working association with their memories, both in their minds as well as real life. And this forms a threading to and from what is tangible and what is not to create a stitching pattern, which attaches a being to everything they have been.
In one particular case, Fatma Shah epitomised this threading by opening the doors of her ancestral home, 11 Temple Road, for the amalgamation of not only manifestations of her memories with her remembrance of them but also those of ten other artists and their evocative discourses. A beautiful home, 11 Temple Road seemed to emit its own sunlight as a result of having survived beyond the progression of time, even perhaps against it. Its outer walls marked as if a halo around the property, setting it apart from the other houses on the street—the only one amongst many, whose inhabitants included but were not limited to those who still breathed.
Memories even now appeared to recline in the recesses of a quaint window seat that opened into the front lawn of the house, walk to the motor-run white fridge that opened to reveal a turquoise interior in a kitchen that oversaw a lovely atrium, and disappeared into private rooms that webbed outwards from this heart of the building. They appeared to just have gone out of sight, having left an item of little significance on what seemed to have been the family table surrounded by antiqued ice cream churners, or have climbed up the only tree in the little communal opening that would speak volumes of the secrets of the house if it grew a tongue amongst its roots, or have tripped up the stairs in the wake of the sound of their names being called out still ringing in the corridors. And amongst the business of such memories constantly being conjured, intertwined, and experienced in some infectious capacity, they found artwork to have been scattered as though in a profound attempt to encapsulate what reminiscences could be tapped into or become encapsulated by them.
If I was to employ my own mind mapping of what I saw, and which only exists as a subjective memory now, I would recall walking into the house and I would tell you about the first object in the line of my vision —a glass cabinet, a proofing cabinet maybe, that housed not dough ready to be pulled out and cooked but dough in every stage of decay, as if left forgotten. But forgotten unwittingly, in a rush, as if the one who went through the trouble of making the dough and then aligning it in lines to proof properly also rather obviously intended to return and see the process to completion, yet was called away for a second that turned into an hour that turned into a year that turned into an age gone by. The effect of a visual such as this one by Sahyr Sayed remains two-fold. On the one hand, it struck as absurd to have pieces of dough of that amount set up in the middle of a room to no particular end. On the other, it started to congeal with the characteristics and atmosphere of the very house and flow as if entirely natural, halted in time, and a participant in the memory of the house itself, an intruder maybe but one so impossible to detach from the societal spaces for women across the board that it seemed to have made itself perhaps even too comfortable.
It brought into account a commentary on the role of women, or gender as a whole, in a purely domestic setting, and commented on the meticulous effort that goes into the making of the very fabric of a household as it does also go unnoticed more often than not, and unappreciated, and unaccommodated till what remains is only a memory of what could have been, a memory of what was attached to the real representation of it that leaves little to wonder.
I would then go on to tell you about the second combination of works that caught my attention and seemed to strike a note higher on the scale of representations that appear absurd but with time, begin to make more sense than I would have ever given them credit for and look more at home than maybe myself in the present, in that moment as far removed from all simple and complex methods of creating and interacting with already constructed memories as possible. These would be Affan Baghpati’s ‘axial projections’ created from discarded household items found in retailers’ or flea markets and bazaars.
These would be the hybrid creatures of implication made out of common objects given new meaning and purpose after they lost their utility or functionality in some regard. This, too, to the extent that it wasn’t only their real serviceability that seemed to have been lost in time, but also their unreal connections to any memory, any instance of importance that claimed them, marked them, and helped them stand out in a place where all could-have-been totems end up due to human boredom, forgetfulness, and even loss of life. They became bittersweet when pitched against a house whose every flaking tile and fluctuating wire continued to play a role and was made heavy by the sheer poising of memory on their personified shoulders. Bitter because these models stood against a standard all objects might attempt to attain—one of reverence almost. And sweet because when repurposed, they appeared to have been reborn and fixed in a way that might ease the pain of their prior wounds.
Distracted from my attentive perusal of the visual elements available to me, I would then go on to tell you about the cause of distraction—a sound. And not just any sound, but a sound that was an auditory cue in itself as well as an indicator of the fact that up till that point, all interactions with memory, of the house and of the artists and of one’s own self, had been hauntingly silent even though in retrospect anyone could swear to have been surrounded by the buzz of life any house should boast of. This would be the work by Imrana Tanveer, a continuous pattern of stitches of a sewing machine on a piece of fabric, employed wholly in its mechanical process and the resulting complementary sound, time and time again. The rather robotic whirring constituted the meaninglessness in a lack of identity, its cacophony jarring but not altogether unpleasant as its meaning and purpose seeped deep within one of the greatest factors of recollection in the shelter of 11 Temple Road: the partition of the subcontinent and the consequent mass migration that was a road of horror leading up to the attainment of a dream that outweighed suffering and even made it an incumbent exercise for all those who looked to freedom. As well as the manner in which the adverse effects of this trickled down consciousness by generational consciousness to people of those families who still struggle with the consequences of it.
This realisation took me to the atrium where the same aspect was represented even more poignantly in the form of domestic utensils—so communal and so essentially a part of routine as to be rather unforgettable—flattened out to convey that where there were items that were chosen to be saved and carried for their memorial value, there were also those that were chosen to be left behind to rot through time in a state of dormancy so cruelly opposed to their intended capabilities, especially so in times of urgency and desperation. The very feelings depicted in the violent crushing of these objects by Ahsan Memon, for the most part, brought to mind connotations of a home being destroyed, of domestic bliss being invaded, and families being ripped apart, be it by force or circumstance. Beyond that, they dredged from personal memory all contradictory instances of happiness, togetherness, and love that juxtaposed beautifully with tremendous loss to get the particular message across very heartrendingly.
And then it took me to the upper floor of the house where, secluded in a corner, seemingly cut off from the exhaustive channeling from one idea and its exhibition to another in a series of rapid movement, was a chair set in the middle of a room flanked by balconies that framed the outside world charmingly, as if to say that no matter how bad it got in anyone’s mind with the constant maintenance of memories and the emotions associated with them, there was always the knowledge that one had got so far in a world that was so real.
This was not only a place away from the accumulating visual and auditory sensory overload, but also one that seemed to have taken to sitting on the periphery with the pure character of the house, waiting for everything to pass and guests to arrive on their own, like magnanimous grandparent of a large and excited family who does not partake in the rush at the doorway but waits for children to filter their way to them naturally before they regale them with stories of the past for hours on end. It’s no surprise then that this expression of memory by Dua Abbas Rizvi took the simplest and the most familiar form—one of recording through photo albums and captions for further recollection. They might have featured personal pictures from another family that may or may not have been torn by the events of the partition, but they endured to be cues for entrance into that very file cabinet anyone might not have had time to access, the very world anyone might have neglected entering as a result of the pressing onward progression of time.
This space was where the tress that grew in the ground below summited, where birds nested, where the tops of houses shone in the sunlight, and a church’s spire showed in the distance. It must have been where somebody else at some point in time must have also stood breathing in the fresh air, as if to say that it was okay. There must have been others before as there will be others in the time to come. And it was rather poetic that there wasn’t anywhere further to go from that point forward. It gave the impression to be the point where the house wrapped up its memories in on itself like a cloak and prompted you, anyone, to now move into the present and then into the future till time looped in on itself again and you happened to come back into the haloed structure of it to find it just as you had left it, only more grown with the inclusion of new memories, like new members of a growing family.
All photos courtesy: Hassan Tahir Latif
An emerging Pakistani author and translator, Nwa Abbas Rizvi has a B.A. Hons in liberal arts (English literature) from Beaconhouse National University. Currently residing in Lahore, she is an educator by day and a sleepless writer by night with a focus on near-awakenings heavily restrained by the common drudgery of life. Her writing is grounded in images (sometimes photographed) and she draws most of her inspiration from the web of a profound ordinary around her.