The LBF project is an attempt to shift the focus to the way art is perceived
useums, in a way, are not different from zoos. Both showcase entities for public amusement and information; both transport their exhibits from distant lands, to safeguard, often better than the way these were kept at their original locations. Both are based on the concept of diversity, since they accumulate items that otherwise do not exist at a single place. Both are established to enhance knowledge, preserve life and continue culture. At the same instance, the two establishments communicate power of their owners besides the value of their stock.
So a child is able to see a llama, a peacock, a macaw, a polar bear, a camel, a kangaroo and a kiwi at one venue, away from their original habitats. Likewise, a grown-up can spot masks from Ghana, portrait heads of Yoruba tribe, Indian Tantric images, Greek carvings, Chinese clay army, Aztec faces in jade, Mexican tapestry, Dutch paintings, Mesopotamian tablets, Egyptian sarcophagi, Gandhara statues, Italian frescos, Turkish manuscripts, Spanish figurines, all in one building, such as the British Museum in London, Louver in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
This is a great facility for humans, but if one probes deeper, only for those who reside in these mega-cities of the first world, or can afford the journey. On the other hand, a young curator or critic from Basra had to travel to these far off places to look at a certain historic artefact from his/ her distant past. Likewise, many Indians arrive in the UK to study Mughal paintings, and Sultanate illustrations in the collection of V&A and the British Library. A Latin American scholar may have to go to Zurich to undertake research on the Inca pottery.
This condition is an aftermath of colonial pillage. Artworks, craft pieces, idols and documents were looted, acquired, confiscated or received as a favour from countries conquered by the European nations. Napoleon’s expeditions in Egypt, or the British rule in India are just two examples of this phenomenon. Recently, there have been efforts to rectify some of these misdeeds, with debates and demands to hand over the displaced works of art to their original homelands. The argument accompanied the campaign for returning Elgin marbles to Greece was supported by Christopher Hitchens in an article, Give Them Back Their Marbles (Spectator,January 1, 1983). The eventually evolved into his 1987 book The Parthenon Marbles.
In her (2008) preface to Hitchens’s publication, South African Noble Laureate Nadine Gordimer, questions “whether more people see the Parthenon marbles in isolation from their living context in London, than do others who see them in Athens, is a criterion for the privileged”. She recognises that if “there is no site in our world where the direct experience of seeing them is achievable for everyone, where else should they be but where they were created?”
Now, in 2022, there is a possibility to liberate museums from their landlocked condition. With the advent of technology, there have been ventures to create galleries, platforms and sites that house artworks that come from a range of sources, and are simultaneously accessible to everyone who uses the internet. A man freezing in Siberia, a girl sitting at her office in Manhattan, a student riding a train in Mumbai, or a collectors based in Brasilia can visit the new display of a renowned museum, a recent exhibition at a prestigious gallery, latest creations by an artist on his/ her Insta, at the same instant, despite their differences in time, address, culture, class, training, income, taste, gender, ethnicity and religion etc.
The calamity of Covid-19 was also instrumental in promoting collective experiences without bonds to one place. People reduced to their homes were connected around the world, for their office work, university classes, business deals, pleasure activities. Pandemic just confirmed – or speeded up – the way the future is converting from physical to virtual. It was observed that if the real experience was dangerous, it was also restrictive, whereas a virtual contact was convenient besides being unconfined.
The Lahore Biennale Foundation has initiated the Virtual Museum “a digital platform for artists, academics and creative practitioners to re-examine our shared cultural language and artistic legacy”. The project was launched on September 2 at the National College of Arts, with an exhibition “inviting a diverse group of curators, collaborators and artists across the board to respond and contribute to 75 years of Pakistan’s rich, multifaceted history post-independence”.
Anticipating the shift in our lives as well as the politics of possessions, Lahore Biennale Foundation has initiated the Virtual Museum “a digital platform for artists, academics and creative practitioners to re-examine our shared cultural language and artistic legacy”. The project was launched on September 2, at the National College of Arts Lahore, with an exhibition “inviting a diverse group of curators, collaborators and artists across the board to respond and contribute to 75 years of Pakistan’s rich, multifaceted history post-independence”.
The LBF project is an attempt to shift the focus on the way art is perceived – and not only in its physical/ virtual manifestation, but in its understanding of aesthetic practices as well. Thus, curators have approached their works in multiple formats. For instance, Tanvir Hasan in her Architecture Through Time and Space has conducted a series of interviews “with the first generation of Pakistani architects who qualified after 1947. It records their experiences and interests and explores the development of contemporary Pakistani architecture.” It includes names like Arif Hassan, Kamil Khan Mumtaz, Nayyar Ali Dada and Yasmeen Cheema.
Once the medium modified, the message altered too, as was witnessed in the work of Masooma Syed. Her project combines a work on paper with a sequence of moving images, that incorporates visuals from settlements away from the centres of art. The periphery is represented through works of artists belonging to Mehrabpur in Sindh, Chittagong, a small town in Kerala, Goa, Kabul, Tato Pani of Nepal, Kandy, Gwadar and a village in Jaffna. This is a means to redirect one’s attention from the main narrative of art, and to present the power and potential of what takes place beyond that. The title of the project Taoos Chaman, is derived from Naiyer Masud’s Urdu short story Taoos Chaman Ki Myna. Pigeon taking off near a historic wall in Ayaz Jokhio’s video and other such unusual recordings, photo-essays, performances “explore the plurality of South Asian culture through the stories of migrants, marginalised individuals and communities”.
Literature, whether read online later or printed, was oral in its most ancient form, hence a temporal substance. In Daastan-i-Urdu, Ali Usman Qasmi and Mahmood-ul Hassan chronicle and examine the publication of Urdu books. A story of Urdu literature could not have been better told. Their work makes us comprehend the range, scope and wealth of Urdu literature. However, (and interestingly), the earliest contributions to Urdu literature (in print from) started with colonial times/ needs, by the establishment of Fort William College to convert/ translate/ print classical Urdu texts. Another dimension of oral/ sound is curated/ composed by Sarah Zaman in her Ilm-i-Mausiqui, combining classical, folk and contemporary legacies through indigenous music performance at the launch.
The fascination with local is also evident in Manduva by Sarmad Khosat, with pastiche of Pakistani movies (Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi), collaged to highlight narratives of romance, violence, and female representation. Made to appear caricature-like, these loosely joined segments are well suited for an inquisitive and an exotic eye(view). These are some of the perfect specimens of how one treats, dissects and dismembers one’s heritage for an audience at home as well as outside. In that respect, Farida Batool’s The Body and Beyond has dealt with domestic issues in a more serious, complex and imaginative tone; addressing the women’s movements in Pakistan, including footage from diverse sources, the female resistance against military dictatorship and Aurat March processions. Batool has weaved episodes from our history through interesting, shocking and thought provoking imagery – along with her images of eyes in a grid – ready to gaze, scrutinise, survey and search.
The entire Virtual Museum project is significant at a time when you buy your grocery online, join Google classrooms, have Zoom meetings – and art and museum are expanding the boundaries of physical spaces. Thus what is posted and survives today exists as electro-magnetic waves, although its impact is more powerful, wider and lasting than a physical encounter; confirming Rashid Rana’s observation made in 2020 that “virtual is the new real.”
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.