From intention to intervention

February 12, 2023

‘Be(Coming) Museum’, conceived and designed by Asma Arshad Mahmood was held from January 14 to 28 at the Lahore Museum

From intention to intervention


isiting a museum is like going to a graveyard. You maintain a respectful silence; in your utmost serious stance you don’t consume any food or drink; you concentrate on departed people in one or another manner; you discover your strong attachment to the past generations. Both places are well kept, cared and conserved, revealing regard for those who now belong to the realm of death.

Whenever a person enters the family cemetery, he/ she thinks about making the district of the deceased beautiful, comfortable and respectable. Naturally, this is not for the dead relatives, but for their offspring. People plant trees, grow flowers, put grass, erect marble mausoleums to glorify a site of burial. No wonder, one of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal, is a mausoleum; like the Egyptian pyramids (which provided stuff for museums inEgypt and around the world).

I recall watching a video installation of Bill Viola, made of two old fashioned TV screens, one showing the artist’s mother gasping her last breath; on the opposite was the recording of Viola’s newborn baby inhaling his first. One could describe a recent project in Lahore, Be(Coming) the Museum, in the same lieu. Eight artists (selected from an open call) created works in response to the collection of Lahore Museum, like Viola, blending the past with the present.

We lazily use terms, past and present, to describe two fractions of time, but the two terms embody more than a period-related connotation. What is placed in a museum is precious, sacred, perfect and irreplaceable, compared to what is used today and thrown tomorrow (as trash). An ordinary bottle can become a museum piece a thousand years from now. Objects that we frequently admire and get inspired from at the archaeological and ethnographic galleries of a museum were not produced as things to look at, but had a utilitarian aspect. It was only the later generation – disconnected from the initial function, who introduced a feature of beauty into rudimentary items of specific and immediate consumption.

Today, all crude, course and earlier attempts of human fabrications adorn our museums, not on the basis of their aesthetic elegance, but due to their link with the past. If one walks through the Lahore Museum’s gallery of the Indus Valley Civilisation, one observes broken pitchers, shards of pottery, seals, dices, toys and necklaces, tings that had a practical use – like our refrigerators, computers, mobile phones, TV sets, toasters, electric kettles and other gadgets. Once removed in time, these would acquire new significance - almost sanctimony.

Tashfeen Majeed Joseph, one of the eight artists participating in the Be(Coming) Museum project, interacted with the historic terracotta toys displayed at the Indus Valley Gallery. He reproduced their likeness and placed these – not far from their four thousand year old ancestors – in a circular movement on a base.

Clay figurines of Majeed Joseph, stylised and simplified horses, were also derived from the shrine of Pir Bahauddin Jhulan Shah Sarkar (aka Pir Ghoray Shah) of 14th Century in Lahore, where devotees offer small terracotta horses. These clay items are traditionally forged and sold by nomadic tribes of the Punjab. So when Majeed picks this motif, he not only reminds us of a lineage of form, but also acclaims a marginalised – and ahistorical –people: gypsies who could be decedents of the populace of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Majeed Joseph adds another layer to the historic narrative. Terracotta figurines placed in the clockwise and anti-clockwise formation had inscriptions on their bodies; from the famous Punjabi poem of Amrita Pritam, in which she invokes the legendary bard Waris Shah to comment from his tomb on the carnage of 1947. In Pritam’s verses there is also a mention of making clay animals, which Tashfeen Majeed Joseph has successfully assimilated in his installation.

Whether one identifies with the script, or ignores the literary reference, the focus is on how a contemporary artist engages with the heritage. In that sense, his installation became a believable addition/ intervention because of its material, appearance and treatment; since the work was not distanced from the historic pieces, physically, culturally and metaphorically.

Be(Coming) Museum, conceived and designed by Asma Arshad Mahmood, the artistic director of CCAI, in collaboration with co-curator Shelly Bahl, was made possible by the Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts and Design at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore (and held from January 14 to 28 at the Lahore Museum). BNU SVAD faculty members Risham Syed and Waleed Zafar were the curatorial advisor and assistant curator for the exhibition, a wonderful initiative, as it provided the venue and reason to interact with archaeological and anthropological exhibits.

Wardha Naeem Bukhari, a participant, had selected a few classical miniature paintings and transformed them into bands of flat colours. By denoting the amount of each hue used in the paintings, the work became a sort of translation, from figurative elements, landscape and script to stripes of even shades. It reminds us how changing times alter a text. If one reads the introduction/ preface and the table of content of books written in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, one realises how flowery and elaborate expressions in those have been reduced to simple, matter of fact versions in the later-day publications.

Bukhari had converted classical and exquisite miniature paintings into rectangles of colours, joined and displayed next to their sources of inspiration.

The conversation between the past and present was evident in Aimen Gillani’s ambitious intervention, too. In her projection, mapping animation, she erected a replica of the wooden structure/ stand behind Queen Victoria’s imposing bronze, and projected blocks of blue and red and other hues along with the visual of the royal crown and the emblem of the crescent and star. Gillani’s installation, Moving Past Queen Victoria Through a Decolonised Structure became a critique of the colonial heritage as well as the impossibility of a free/ independent nation-state in the age of globalisation.

Ali Arshad, taking part in the project, produced a small sculpture of open lotus leaves in marble, supporting a glass bowl that contained water and gold fish. The fish circled in the round transparent pot that resembled the large Buddhist Stupa installed in the centre of Gandhara Gallery. The historical structure and a contemporary artwork coincided to reaffirm the unity beyond differences and distances of time and place.

New York-based artist Shelly Bahl, tried to bridge gaps between faiths, perceptions and participations by placing sheets with the image ofSaraswathi, titled Journey to the Muses, a site specific work in the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Gallery of the Lahore Museum. Not far from the main character of Bahl’s art piece was its origin, the statue of goddess Saraswathi in a glass cabinet.

A visitor to the project in the Lahore Museum may have recognised that there was no difference between ancient objects and present-day art pieces, except of time, since both assumed an air of otherworldliness. In public, as well as private, collections, we come across things created as sacred objects, now revered as art. Likewise, the art of today is exalted like holy items from the past.

Challenging these hierarchies, another participant in the project, Luluwa Lokhandwala, in her intervention – which in reality was an invitation – collected a bunch of roses and marigold flowers in a steel bowl with a metal bell, joined with the temple sounds. The work displayed in the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Gallery, due to its colour, fragrance and sound, reaffirmed that museums are no longer history’s graveyards.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

From intention to intervention