Brief narratives, short lives

The Places We Live, Stories We Tell exhibition features 34 works by 16 artists

Brief narratives, short lives


nce an art critic described a young artist’s work at an exhibition as “really bad.” Some of the others present on the occasion were upset by the comment and disagreed with her. She responded by saying: “I could express the same opinion in a 1,200 words newspaper article. Here, I had to be brief. What is the matter?”

Sometimes works of art, particularly pieces referring to a particular time, are more effective as well as long lasting if they are short. Often, they provoke an instantaneous response. A case in point is the seven videos included in a recent exhibition, Places We Live, Stories We Tell. The group show, curated by Ali Raza is being held from May 2 to 17 at Studio 1 Gallery at the Lahore School of Economics. The exhibition features 34 works by 16 artists, most of them associated with various art schools in the country.

Among the seven video works, projected on the same screen one after another, the shortest is of 43 seconds duration and the longest of two minutes and 14 seconds. The videos vary in terms of technique – from generative art to digital media; and from animation to multiple videos. Seated in front of these exciting, engaging and compact pieces, one recalls with a sigh of relief the arduous task of witnessing videos stretching into hours, forcing a majority of impatient spectators to leave in the middle.

Brief narratives, short lives

The most prominent feature of videos on display is their concise content conveyed in a precise method. Each of the works tells a separate story; a few just hint at it. Ammar Faiz’s Jugnu, shows a humble barber looking at himself through a circular, broken and murky mirror. The intimate activity of setting hair and shaping moustaches, with the help of an almost dysfunctional article narrates the story of a section of the population, doomed apparently to spending their entire life amid a whirlpool of horrible conditions.

Another, an unforgettable example of generative art is the 59 second video, Of Flow, by Sousan Qadeer. Consisting of a clock like image, with its two hands moving and gathering the units of time (the second, minute, hour etc) in a pile, collecting the written demarcation of time synchronises with the passage of actual time. While watching the video, a spectator enters the screen; simultaneously the time-bound image settles in his/ her brain.

Arslan Nasir’s Machar Colony Luxury Villas is also touching, but in a funny way. It serves to realise the crucial realities of our times and surroundings. The video starts with advertising a new housing society at Machar Colony (an impoverished neighbourhood of Karachi), by floating images of an open sewer, overflowing drains, polluted water and heaps of trash. It proposes that the prospective investor weigh its unique features. The pitch is reinforced with found footage of luxury apartments, villas and penthouses that could be from any location, from Los Angeles to London, Lisbon, Lagos or Lahore. The issue of deprivation, degradation and desperation of a dispossessed people could not have been communicated in a more persuasive manner. The video fuses a subtle mocking overtone with an otherwise serious commercial campaign.

Brief narratives, short lives

Employing the language of graphic novels, Jan has produced three works in pen-and-ink and watercolours on paper, responding to the current situation of Gaza and the West Bank. Verses from some Urdu marsiyas/ nohas have been inscribed next to the portraits of the bodies of the deceased in Gaza.

The type of people who live these days in Machar Colony are also present in Suleman Faisal’s meticulously rendered sculptures made of UV resin and plexiglass. Encased in one of the two translucent red glass boxes, a tiny figure is cleaning the floor with an ordinary broom, next to the other box with a man carrying a Jerry can. The two sculptures remind one of popular decoration pieces sold in shops and markets frequented by those who are represented in the work; besides the colonial museum glass cabinets for displaying odd professions and exotic individuals. Faisal, has been toying with the medium and material for a long time. It appears that – after fabricating magnified tools, wearable items and domestic goods inside some similar looking plexiglass containers, in his latest work reducing the scale of the central object/ figure has created the illusion of a precious item for public consumption; an impression caused by the reddish glow.

Gazing at Faisal’s boxes one is enveloped by their atmosphere. The feeling is like looking at the mixed media work of Anil Waghela and Shakila Haider, where one comes across fractured narratives and tries to join the disintegrated segments into a familiar whole: a metaphor for our social order. Components in the two artists’ work have an affinity, since the two blend visuals from diverse sources/ traditions, i.e., a Hindu goddess, a Persian hero, a local street boy, a European maiden to produce puzzle-type pictorials. Standing in front of these mixed media constructions, one tries to distinguish and decipher separate elements and recognises the way our society is splitting into disagreeable components of an eligible entity. Dissection of a coherent picture has resulted into ill-fitting parts: sects in conflict, ethnicities at war, alienated social classes and domestic disintegration.

One can identify these concepts in a number of other works from the exhibition, for example the fragments of a household (family members, pieces of furniture, outside structures/ views), placed (digital prints by Asma Mundrawala). The break is also illustrated in a work by Shakila Haider, a transparent small cube partially filled with tiny packages composed of maps printed on paper. An artwork that portrays how the curator, Ali Raza, reflects on human endeavour and “…. hegemonies, power struggles, conflicts and many more. The trajectory continues in contemporary times…” and is emphasised in national, religious and racial segregations.

The most critical, crucial and cruel divide nowadays is the battle between Israel and Hamas, claiming lives of thousands of poor and displaced Palestinians, who are targeted, bombarded and blocked by Israeli forces. The plight of the poor souls – strongly felt in some parts of the world (mainly Europe and North America), and strategically ignored in other regions (primarily the Muslim countries of the Middle East), has inspired Haider Ali Jan. Employing the language of graphic novels, Jan has produced three works in pen-and- ink and watercolours on paper, responding to the current situation of Gaza and the West Bank. Some verses from Urdu marsiyas/ nohas have been inscribed next to the portraits of the dismembered bodies, scattered limbslamenting females, crying kids, consoling fathers and comforting moms in his Salam-i-Akhir1 and Salam-i-Akhir2.

The titles, the insertion of text and the stark vocabulary of black and white convey a reality evident in our heads, but fragmented in our day to day existence. Haider Ali Jan has named his third work, War is Ugly. It is a sequence of nine portraits of a child reacting in various ways to the atrocities of a war that has ended up being a dated subject in our comfortable realities. Perhaps the reality is ugly.

The writer is an art critic, curator and a professor at the School of Visual Arts and Design at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Brief narratives, short lives