This place for displacement

September 10, 2023

A number of items in the recent COMO exhibition dealt with duality and migration

This place for  displacement


usan Sontag, in her book On Photography, mentions the Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard’s movie, Les Carabiniers (1963) in which “two sluggish lumpen peasants are lured into joining the King’s Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill or do whatever else they please to the enemy; and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel-Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of monuments, department stores, mammals, wonders of nature, methods of transport, works of art, and other classified treasures from around the globe.”

Photographs, in a way, are a substitute for reality. They contain an element of the physical world – cropped, enlarged, small, static, flat, mute, mutilated, multiplied and occasionally modified - in grey tones. Pictures enable people to carry their memories of the past, places, belongings and loved ones across territories. Sometimes these photos become the documents of displacement - as is the case in Ayesha Naeem’s snapshots of household stuff in the middle of moving residences (In Remains, I Exist), from a recent exhibition of photography at the COMO Museum, Lahore.

Whether pictures of personal possessions in the process of transportation, or some other views, photography by its very nature, is about displacement and dislocation – through camera. The participants of Photograph, that opened on September 1, have dealt with the movement and multiplication of ideas, people, faiths and objects in societies and time.

A person who clicks a camera or uses a smart phone, slices a segment of the surroundings, of the material world, and then places and presents it in a different setting and context. One realises that a number of works from the COMO exhibition negotiate with this and other migrations. In a global village, one is always an immigrant; if not on a foreign soil, then on Instagram and other social networking platforms, because living in some small neighbourhood of Multan, you may have a Manhattan address on your page. You belong to both places.

Several participants have explored this duality. For example, Amna Yaseen’s My History is Your Playground (a title derived from Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows) has a photograph of herself, her body covered in an Afghan shuttlecock burqa. On her head she carries a packet tied in a cloth featuring Marilyn Monroe’s face: a motif replicating Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portraits of the Hollywood star that Yaseen found at a local bazaar. The juxtaposition has created a comparison between two women, from two hemispheres and eras. The American celebrity is from the 1950s and 1960; the attire of the tribal woman can be from the same era or from 2022. The two periods, two places and two roles/ perceptions of women are thus combined in a single picture of the artist as a medieval looking and/ or middle class female transposing the burden of Western media, entertainment, intervention.

Switching identities is a routine activity for a creative individual. Authors transform those into other gender, species, nationalities, professions and ages, yet appear credible. Actors shift their personalities to suit the requirements of the roles they play. A classical Indian dancer transcends into another body. In Aroosa Rana’s digital print, Probability and Predictability, 2020, one recognises these variations, possibilities and potentials. A group of three women repeatedly alter their positions and postures in “a dialogue between mathematics and visual arts.” You look at the composition of the trio, and, later, register the shift in personalities and actions, like interacting with a puzzle. Rana’s work suggests how we are tuned to act in a certain way, and any disruption dismantles the harmonious order of existence. Rana has probed the displacement and disappearances in her pervious work too, denoting the high level state meetings, either by removing the floral arrangements or highlighting the bouquet without the dignitaries (Ephemeral Participant, 2016).

This place for  displacement

By its very nature, photography is about displacement and dislocation – through a camera. The participants of Photograph, that opened on September 1, have dealt with the movement and multiplication of ideas, people, faiths and objects in societies and time.

The displacement could occur in diverse forms; like one in which social migration ends up as marginalisation, illustrated by the fate of minorities in a country, who are discriminated against and targeted. Some of the work in the show comments on the condition of the Christian population prior to the deplorable incidents in Jaranwala. Umar Riaz, the celebrated filmmaker and photographer, has documented humble devotees during Easter, along with an audio of hymns. Listening to these Punjabi rhythms praising a prophet born in Bethlehem and worshipped in Europe, Americas, Australia and parts of Africa and Asia, one discovers that the passion travels beyond cultural, political or economic frontiers. Looking at the faces of ordinary folks from the Punjab, you imagine them praying in a Muslim mosque, a Hindu temple, a Sikh Gurdwara; and remember Karl Marx’s dictum: “Religion is the opium of the masses.”

This is similar to the crowds engaged in self-flogging during the Muharram processions, poetically captured by Nad e Ali, in The Other Horses. The “mourning ritual performed… by the Shia community” is photographed in such a way that you don’t see the believers, but an atmosphere hovering above the frenzy. Ali has magnificently translated the flow and force of religious fervour in his delayed exposure.

Religion is a crucial aspect of one’s life – and afterlife; because you live with neighbours from other faiths, but once they pass away, they are dispatched to their own community’s burial grounds - separate for Muslims, Christians and Jews. These segregations suggest that religion also controls the dead. Vania Mazhar has projected a set of six photographs An Ode to Harley Street Christian Cemetery (Rawalpindi) depicting graves with crosses. Mazhar has arranged these images in the format of a cross “to honour the spirit of the cemetery.”

Like minorities, women are frequently mistreated in male-dominant societies and expected to occupy traditional duties. Ujala Hayat, in her sequence of digital prints, of a woman in varying stages of pregnancy, portrays a girl’s view, often not heard or accepted – to not bear a child. Hayat documents the deformation of human body in the process of fertility. The monochromatic prints at COMO comprise snapshots of a woman in the process of procreation. The artist says that the “notion of a microscopic being growing into a predator inside of me, eroding my individuality, invading my individual space and my physical state petrifies me.” The prints are a case history of how a woman could, or could not avoid the prescribed gender role. Hayat’s command of visual/ virtual vocabulary makes her work more effective. Although digitally manipulated, it appears more real.

Perhaps due to the preference for black and white, which reminds us of the past, that is unchangeable, classic, perfect, the chromatic scheme as well as the scale of Hayat’s imagery connect it with Faheem Abbas’s pair of small works (Two Objects of Desire). Inkjet prints of a fish and a cube, which, due to their density, darkness and diffused quality eventually start melting into each other. The subtlety, sophistication and superb use of minimum means take the work beyond the limitations of a genre, medium and technique. Images by Abbas are about recollecting, representing and reaffirming what we had, and will continue to resurrect, reimagine, re-dream and re-desire.

The remarkably-curated exhibition of photography is about the journey between the personal and the public, from the past to the present, from here to somewhere else; yet every work in the show has been produced using a camera. Today we carry cameras in our mobile phones, but prior to the smart phones, whenever one acquired a camera, the first impulse was to travel and record the journey to distant land. A camera lens, in that sense, served as a passport of imagination, to take us far from our soil, conditions and habits to other realms.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

This place for displacement