Laila Rahman, Saher Sohail and Natasha Malik curate a show entitled Unmaking Histories.
“What is History but a Fable Agreed Upon?” Napoleon Bonaparte (maybe).
To offer history as a story instead of the study of truth is to render your entire premise of existing hierarchies a farce. The quote above has been attributed to various historical figures in various forms, from Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, to Napoleon Bonaparte, to Ralph Waldo Emerson. It has served many a purpose in explanations and justifications of how and why history should be approached: but its own history is what makes it most relevant as an anecdote to study the subject it suggests. The deeper we look into the historical past of this statement, the more convoluted the origin gets. The only understanding we come away with is that our past comes from literature, art, oral tradition and the practice of history being written by the victor. The victor in many cases is not just an individual, but also a social construct that gets reinforced by collections of half-truths, partial accounts and fabrications of events, rulers and places, with a self-serving agenda. Thus, historical accounts are open to manipulation and interpretation but seldom have been reinvented as alternative structures serving the ‘other’, as could be seen in the show.
Ascending the staircase, you are accompanied by Ayesha Jatoi’s wall text, referring to a horizon silently sitting somewhere beyond the human hierarchies of power structures; locked hand in hand, both land and sea. Greeted by the ominous sounds of the Natasha Jozi’s performance piece, you enter the main exhibition space and the tone for the show has already been set. It is not a space set up for lightness of mood but for solemn contemplation, with Malcolm Hutcheson’s digital prints about the maleness of power and the related individuals in an unequal social structure, quietly nudging at you. The problems of modern masculinity set in an urban environment are lost in the suppression of feminist thought. Unlike Emaan Mahmud’s not so subtle jabs at the patriarchy, describing the phenomena of machoism and the unattainable ideal of being a man, as defined by how they keep their women. Her performative satirical posters are comical statements in their colourful displays, but the irony lies in the truth they carry and the fragility of machoism they expose.
Veera Rustomji’s silk prints bring in the theatrics of role-playing, where her alter ego takes on personalities based on global, iconic men. Her performances take place in popular areas of London and these printed silk drapes serve as documentation for those performances with the artist in heroic poses and elaborate costumes. Imitating men that have occupied real estate in our minds through their legacies and place in history and media, Rustomji relives their roles through her own body in an attempt to insert the female into the frame of reference of a conqueror and a heroic figure. Beautifully failing to relive those characters, she reinvents a new and alternative reality breaking down the gendered history of heroic iconography.
Farazeh Syed and Fiza Khatri’s paintings approach the female body and redefine our reasons for looking at them. Toying with concepts of beauty and objectification, they take the power away from the viewer to decide what it is that they find pleasurable. Khatri’s figure empowers herself by cutting her own hair in a bathroom or with another female figure, not posing for an audience, while Syed’s paintings redefine femininity as something powerful and multidimensional, confident and sexual, in a position of calm and self-satisfaction, but in no way on display for the pleasure of the viewer alone. These works are very self-aware and sensual, but at the same time nonchalant about any expectations of muses being on display.
As Natasha Jozi’s performance videos reignite a new relationship of the female body with nature through rituals and an instinctual inner compass, Farida Batool’s video repossesses the historical figure Scheherzade from One Thousand and One Nights. Jozi’s characters make it clear that nothing about how we relate to the world around us can be drawn on what we already know. The past is no longer enough to inform our present movement—just as Batool’s contemporary Scheherzade creates new stories and memories of walking and seeing while juxtaposed against a corpse being dissected the entire time. It still carries the same allure of mystery and the constant reminder of death around the corner as the original One Thousand and One Nights, but reinvent them for the contemporary age with sincere urgency.
Institutional amnesia and appropriation of histories is addressed in the works of Anushka Rustomji’s performative drawings, Abeera Kamran and Sumaya Kassim’s interactive piece on museum archives, and Noor us Sabah Saeed’s video on the discovery of the location of the Rig Veda River Sarasvati—reflecting on how geological findings of Saraswati in Pakistan might affect our national narrative and how the Ishtar Gate’s relocation to the Berlin Museum affects Babylonian history.
Kamran and Kassim’s work addresses the effect of the relocated cultural artefacts and recategorises them from the point of view of consumption and palatability for the ‘western’ viewer. Museums across the world are not just dismissing the histories of conquered places by treating ancient artefacts like commodities, but also colonising mindsets by presenting them from the point of view of the ‘white man’ rather than the people it comes from. This denial of the legacy of a place and people get recreated in Anushka Rustomji’s perforated surfaces on metal that stencil erasable symbols and structures in dust and chalk on floors, both temporary and elusive. While in other places, they act like ghosts of places long gone with backlit perforated white paper.
In the same strait lies Saba Khan’s journey to the Indigo industry, created through materials that are active signifiers of a lost and unrecognised history of unsung heroes and victims of colonisation. Her fragile drawings made in dust on indigo dyed tapestries allude to the flying carpet of the East as seen through the Western lens and are not just reminders of a past not buried, but also of a present not fully realised.
Fazal Rizvi’s recreation of Tipu the conqueror's story through ‘Tipu the Tiger’, Zoya Siddiqui's deconstruction of ‘Shaani’, the movie, from the lens of our post-colonial interpretation of it and Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani’s poetic investigation of the colonial history of the railway infrastructure in Pakistan all point to deeply embedded patterns of state violence and post-colonial trauma. To then reinvent a world that is more reliant on longing, as in Amna Suheyl’s depiction of migration and displacement in a very personal account, that stems from a personal journal of one and continued by another as a continuation of life, offer a moment’s rest from the upheaval offered up by the rest.
The show rounds off with the dystopian view of Madyha Leghari’s solemn world. A world where the complete loss of hair in all humans bodies acts as a signifier for a pathological regression in the human race, and longing for familiarity is met with sensory deprivation.
A beautiful show creating, recreating, deconstructing and disrupting existing histories, but never failing to realise new possibilities and new horizons along the way.
Saulat Ajmal, b. 1984, is an artist, educator, writer and curator. She went to Virginia Commonwealth University for her Masters of Fine Arts and Hunter College New York for both her undergraduate degrees: Bachelors of Fine Arts and dual Bachelors of Arts in Sociology and Studio Art. While she has studied and practiced in the US for most of her life she now lives in Lahore, Pakistan and teaches at the National College of Arts as a permanent faculty member. Her practice includes paintings, performances and installations that investigate the overlapping of social constructs such as feminism, religion, sexuality and the idea of the ‘other’ in a rapidly evolving global society. Where form and function are at odds with rationality is where her works enter the space of the feminine sublime. Her writing and curation furthers this research through the lens of contemporary art and criticism and culminate into public events and publications.