Live- in for art

October 17, 2021

Tasweerghar’s annual art residency programme concluded recently with an exhibition that saw writers and photographers coming together

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Clockwise from top: The residents engage in free conversations, and generate work based on those; Ahmed Umer and Hajra Ahmed; Laiba Aslam and Maham Shah — Images: Supplied

Circa 2015, Rabbania Shirjeel, a qualified photographer, was disgruntled by the way the medium of photography was being treated in Pakistan. She had observed a lack of seriousness towards teaching and promoting it as an art form. She set up Tasweerghar, a non-profit organisation, in her hometown Lahore, which was to serve as a community space for photographers where they would come together, exhibit their work and network.

Tasweerghar also provided a studio setup for commercial photography that included fashion shoots, portfolio package and product photography. Besides, space and equipment could be rented out. What, perhaps, set it apart from any other community space in the city was the fact that it offered an annual, interdisciplinary art residency covering accommodation, meals, recreational activities, working space and an exhibition. It encouraged people of all age groups to apply.

For their recent residency programme, uniquely titled The Lens and the Pen, or Alfaaz Aur Tasweeron ka Tor Jor, Tasweerghar attempted to forge a creative unity between visuals and writing. Applications were sought from photographers and writers only.

Talking to TNS, Shirjeel says that the resident artists and writers “work in a safe, non-judgmental space to exchange and share skillsets, and explore possibilities with partners across sectors outside the world of art.” This, she insists, is “often supported by a curatorial and a technical team.” The programme culminates in a public exhibition “allowing for positive community-building and expanding a discourse on the South Asian contemporary art.”

Shirjeel is quick to add that Tasweerghar is “a place for education and learning, a community of like-minded people who get the opportunity to collaborate and create a dialogue.”

The said residency programme, which lasted 17 days, was helmed by Shirjeel, Fatima Butt and Rakshanda Atawar. As many as 12 writers and photographers from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds came together under one, hauntingly beautiful roof of Tasweerghar in Wapda Town.

The place is surrounded by foliage. Inside, the walls of the rooms are lined with paintings and photographs. The ambience eventually becomes fodder for fresh ideas.

The residency took place in collaboration with Nofal Omer’s Pavilion, which is a similar place in Lahore and aims to merge poetry with performing arts.


As many as 12 writers and photographers from a variety of backgrounds came together in the hauntingly beautiful, red-brick building of Tasweerghar in Wapda Town, having walls that are lined with paintings and photographs. Outside, the place is surrounded by foliage.

According to Shirjeel, the theme (The Lens and the Pen) of the residency programme originated from the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. The programme paired up a writer with an artist. They were asked to debate and understand the position of one medium vis-à-vis the other.

One of the six pairs — composed of Laiba Aslam, a visual artist, and Maham Shah, a writer — responded philosophically to the concept in their photographs which look more like recluse spaces. Judging from their work, the artists appear shy. Besides, they seem to find refuge and comfort within the crevices of inanimate architecture, away from the interrogation of the human eye.

Sometimes experiences are too weighty and horrifying to be depicted directly. Therefore, an empty space evokes a feeling of unsaid words and latent desires. The works printed on transparent fabric when viewed in the middle of the night are layered, sensual and hauntingly present yet absent.

Another pair — Ahmed Umer, a photographer, and Hajira Ahmed, a writer — explored the themes of love and loss of the deceased, of words said and unsaid, of waiting for answers, of rituals and messages to bury the grief. In their photographs showcased at the display, each of them seem to find a way to express their sorrow through text or texture, on paper or a leaf. The process entails assigning meaning to matters associated with the deceased. Places and objects are imbued with meaning allowing the individuals to feel closer to their dear departed, as memories and emotions related to the persons are brought back or enhanced. At the same time, the absence of the person is also accentuated. These images have a resonance — personal and universal.

Perhaps, the most striking thing about the residency is the residents’ nuanced responses. Eventually, they don’t seem to be merely documenting it or judging it but have captured the essence of this extraordinary re-working of the photo-scape, bodies, and their reminiscences. Consider, for example, the sensitive rendering of desolate locations in Sehrish Mustafa’s polaroids. These are narratives on memories buried deep that come to the surface of subconscious at various points of contact. To quote Laiba Aslam, “The residency [programme] had so many interesting aspects to initiate the process of collaboration between writers and photographers with detailed conversations and generating work based on those conversations.”

The writer is an artist and lecturer at Kinnaird College. She also has a food blog on Instagram: foodie_treks



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