The locus of remembrance

July 12, 2020

Naade Ali’s series of still photographs, titled The Other Horses, is a mesmerising ritual of grief

A portrait of Sardar Badhshah at Nisar Haveli, 2014..

Throughout his career, Naade Ali has been fascinated by the emotions that adhere to faces and bodies, emerging from or turning into shadow. The grouping of mourners etched out of darkness in Ali’s photographs of the Ashura processions anticipate the devices of painting, with its mini cyclones of visceral, enterable space punctuating an overall design.

These poignant and insistent photographs are among the most electrifying in the history of the medium. Wherein classical art, the tableau of reverent faces fits within a carefully structured, hierarchical whole, the figures in Ali’s crowd sequences are cropped. The space they occupy is entirely ambiguous, as is the time, which feels gently stretched and obscuring like a veil. They are blurred, so that shadow bleeds into light, and light into shadow. We know nothing about their emotions – about whether they are reverent or afraid, ecstatic or unthinking. They belong irrevocably, to the present.

The Other Horses is a series of still photographs that Ali began in 2015, and is still continuing to make, whose theme is the expression of emotions. All spring from Ali’s revived interest in ritual and performance. Like paintings, they are vivid, lifelike, and silent. Unlike the paintings, they are never still, but always changing.

The Other Horses is a surprising aspect of Ali’s art, which for years has been devoted to exploring an unseen world of feeling, of memory, of unfulfilled yearning for wholeness. The mystical literary genres of the Subcontinent - the marsiya and noha, munajaat and manqabat - have helped put a foundation under his work and define its purpose.

Kafani at Haveli of Billo Shah, Taxali Gate, 2018.

Naade Ali regards art as no mere aesthetic matter. He intends his art not for decoration or diversion or education but for transformation. It is useful for developing a deeper understanding - in a very personal, subjective, private way - of your own experience. Having learnt something new about the experience of emotional pain, Ali has struggled to deal with that experience – the causes of his own exaltation and suffering; to show people actually experiencing emotion, and to allow the viewers to linger over that experience and respond empathetically, Ali chooses to revive his inspiration and turn the camera to the devotees.

While working across cultural boundaries, Naade Ali remains deeply engaged with his religious heritage. The Other Horses is a mesmerising ritual of grief. Where in the earlier works, there were many emotions and no single point of focus, here there is an object and a sequence of powerfully individual reactions to the sight. Death and loss must be the unseen cause, and the scene has the flavor of a solemn public event. Naade Ali writes of our underdeveloped culture of mourning, and our need for a grief that makes us more human in the light of his work. The Other Horses has the potential to show the way towards a greater capacity for mourning one’s loss in a communal setting.

The horse definitely plays a primary role in Naade Ali’s portraits of the Ashura procession: its pristine white coat largely covered by a rich crimson velvet tasseled cloth. Horses once held a slightly mystical connotation for man. Physically, with their perfect movement, they seemed to contain an element of divinity. Seated astride them one could move at great speed -- almost fly. Naade Ali’s suite of images entitled The Other Horses brings a new confidence – another rebirth. Looking back to the past to find the best interpretation of horses in cultural history, Ali focuses in on Zuljinah – Hazrat Imam Hussain’s favourite horse.

Naade Ali regards art as no mere aesthetic matter. He intends his art not for decoration or diversion or education but for transformation. It is useful for developing a deeper understanding — in a very personal, subjective, private way — of your own experience.

The camera, that struggling participant/observer searching the void for evidence of life energies, attains to a level of metaphysical insight that touches and beholds “the glories.” It is this blazing aureole of glory which unites Naade Ali, photographing Zuljinah on gelatinous nitrate to create the flashing ecstatic, wildly exposed close-ups of the Ashura procession on the tenth day of the first month in the Islamic calendar Muharram. We experience capture and release. The camera captures an image and the image captures a soul, a soul caught between waking and dreaming, between life and death, between this world and another.

The heartache and loss come in waves during this time. The grief returns without being summoned. The endlessly repeating cycle becomes its own form of observance and meditation. We look at individuals destined to repeat certain gestures, gradually being formed as much as informed by these gestures.

This underlying sense of communal suffering and aspiration, the sense that private life is, in fact, public, illuminates the images. We are presented with a virtual community whose grief and joy are perceptibly simultaneous. The locus of tears is described by the great eleventh-century mystic Al-Ghazali:

The locus of remembrance envelops him, and tears expand instantly

The achievement of this suite of photographs, however, is that the pieces touch our inner lives. They sound out our capacity for attending patiently to nuances of feeling. By displaying other human beings and thus ourselves in extremis, Ali bypasses the rational intellect and causes disturbances against which we are normally well-defended. Disturbed, we are no longer mere spectators. The result is not merely an engrossing group of images but, for many viewers, the quality of slowed mind that can absorb those images and ponder their personal significance.

Ali is interested in the role that tragedy can play in a society and the effect that creative imagination can have in self-destruction. “Self-annihilation,” Bill Viola has said, implying the egoistical self, “becomes a necessary means to transcendence and liberation.”

Anyone, whether critic or novice, is likely to experience sheer wonder at the visual allure of The Other Horses. They are eerily lifelike, luminous, and mesmerising in their movement. The immateriality and hurried movement of these images leave us, in Arthur Danto’s words, “Free to think of them as souls…undergoing transformation into a state of purification and renewal.”

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

The locus of remembrance