Migrant metaphors

February 26, 2023

Locations are connected in the art of Saba Qizilbash through combinations that not only occur in space but also in time

Chachnama — a conquest route.
Chachnama — a conquest route.


he story/ essay/ parable Of Exactitude in Science by Jorge Luis Borges from his book A Universal History of Infamy, suffices the account of an empire (probably the Chinese) where “the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point.”

Maps, regardless of their scale, substitute the physicality of a place, even overpowering reality. I have shared many rides with cab drivers who instead of looking ahead at the road kept gazing at the maps in their mobile app. This can be a nerve-shattering experience for a passenger, but at the same time, a sign that in comparison to actuality, its rendering has become supreme. On several evenings, while in bed, I click on the maps application on my phone and look for a neighbourhood in London, an area in Dubai or a street in Paris. At that time, the two places embrace: my locality in Lahore and the target site in sa faraway land. My body is contained in my city and my soul (eyes/ mind) roam around distant places – in a single/ simultaneous segment of time.

Locations are also connected in the art of Saba Qizilbash. These combinations not only occur in space but in time, too. In the past, Qizilbash, an Abu Dhabi-based artist from Pakistan, has joined elements from her immediate surroundings with the land of her origin. In her meticulously rendered, sensitive drawings, she has created pathways, passages and bridges between the UAE and the subcontinent. These works looked more real than our common understanding of regional orientation, basically due to the artist’s grasp on delineating structures, roads and vegetation. Through her remarkable skill, she has blended lands, different and distant, into single entities. This is a metaphor for migrants, who have left their homelands in South Asia and are now living in the Gulf state. In their speech, dress, food, and habits, a part of them still resides in their native territories.

What happens in the lives of these workers, professionals, expatriates was aptly re-produced in the art of Saba Qizilbash. The narrative, besides denoting lives of certain individuals, unfolds the interests of multinational businesses, political operations and economic strategies. The building of bridges, highways, tunnels, flyovers, underpasses connects people. It also opens up trade and facilitates military manoeuvres, leading to regional/ ethnic animosity and a heightened threat of the ‘other’. These become ventures to admitting and, at the same instance, submitting to unknown places, strange people and odd customs.

Qizilbash’s new imagery incorporates another aspect of history. Drawings and other works from her solo show, Contested Cartography – An Inquiry into Nuanced History (curated by Fatima Shah; and held from February 23 to March 20 at the Gurmani Centre for Language and Literature, LUMS, Lahore) indicate a distinct development in her aesthetics. Qizilbash’s recently earned MFA from the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford (2022) seems to have had an impact in turning, if not transforming her pictorial practice.

Repatriation of Tipus Tiger.
Repatriation of Tipu's Tiger.

Her encounter with the British art education and exposure to a colonial past – in the form of historical artifacts and documents across a few streets (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), or an hour and quarter’s train journey (V&A Museum, British Library, London) has shifted and expanded her approach to connecting cartographies.

The latest work adds a component of history in her maps. The images are not merely plans of a place, but views of towns, constructions, land, from varying passages of time and perspectives. Through joining terrains, bridges, tunnels, waterways – distant both in history and geography – multiple pasts meet in Qizilbash’s work. An impossibility? A probability? In one of her graphite-and-ink-on-paper drawings, two historic figures who conquered the Indian subcontinent stand together while encountering their indigenous opponents – beyond the barrier of time. The Greek on his steed next to the Arab on his horse, face the local ruler, high on his elephant: Porus or Dahir, the two rajas who resisted the invasion.

This confrontation becomes a conversation in Qizilbash’s work. It incorporates several strands of history, importantly without pontification. Her work presents an analytical view. She appears to align all invaders on one side and all local defenders on the other. Pictorially in Alexander and Mohammed bin Qasim, with men on horses and in front of Hellenist constructions against a local sovereign close to humble and depilated structures.

It is interesting that in her work, along with different phases of history distant locations emerge into a single scenario. Drawn with precision, in detail and with a context, these drawings invoke questions about the formation of history, faith, identity and nationality, somehow puncturing all through a simple pictorial device: assemblage. Different individuals connect, diverse locations converge, different eras coexist, only to confirm that these maps of the present and the past are cartographies of a much larger scenario: of ideas about globalisation, trans-nationalism and exploitation.

The artist’s research into India’s colonial past, study of commerce between continents and communities and reading on the resulting enslavement, violence, battles have contributed to the formation of her imagery and content. Routes of trade, conquest and travel are drawn/ composed to render layers of history, glued together with the blood and sweat of workers and soldiers. In an impressive drawing (a triptych titled Repatriation of Tipu’s Tiger) Qizilbash recreates a historic object from the V&A collection, a three-dimensional piece depicting an Indian tiger on top of a Company soldier, sinking its teeth into his neck. In a piece that symbolises the power of Tipu Sultan (the Tiger of Mysore) over his English opponents, Qizilbash tilts the scale of reality.

The tiny object covers the most space in her drawing, while several huge colonial structures built by the British appear as small detail in the background. This is a way of responding to the fabrication of history – the victor’s account.

References to conquest - economic, historic, if not the cultural - based on Chach Nama and other historical texts about foreign invasion of the South Asia emerge in the art of Saba Qizilbash.

Mysore to Muscat.
Mysore to Muscat.

She combines periods and places, thus her Chach Nama – A Conquest Route is composed of ruins of Persepolis, a modern-day bridge in Shiraz, parts of Turbat and Uch, thus presenting a composite view. Her Mysore to Muscat includes the coastal line from south India to Arabian Gulf, as well as the map/ mechanical drawing of Wellesley Bridge of Seringapatam (built in 1804), to denote economic corridors, trade routes and passages of power.

History, whether written from the perspective of the conqueror or the defeated, is a construction; a bridge, a corridor to let people walk arrive at the intended truth.

By assembling the elements of the past, Qizilbash unpacks the edifice of history. While historical accounts convey and confirm certain happenings, they also suggest other versions. She creates her imagery not by drawing lines, but by deleting marks that confer and complete the narrative. Her drawings, produced by erased lines, can be connected to desire, design and account of the powerful for erasing history.

A drawing produced by an artist is often revised, improved and corrected by rubbing out imprecise lines, thus reverting back to the truth. Saba Qizilbash’s work is an attempt to excavate the truth – of history and art.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Migrant metaphors