Mother earth and mother tongue

January 10, 2021

Even after independence, ‘educated’ citizens have remained ashamed of their first language – and tend to reduce it to conversing with servants.

We, in a physiological sense, are the extensions of our mothers. Bodies once part of another flesh; so, wherever we go, grow, we contain our mothers within us. We especially carry one part of our mother, her tongue: the first language we learn to speak. Later on, for various reasons, many of us forget our origins and neglect our mother tongue.

People have varying attitudes towards their mother tongues. In a colonial society it is sometimes forsaken in the hope of gaining a more respectable position. In many schools established by imperial rulers in Asian, African and Caribbean countries children were barred from speaking their mother tongues. Guadeloupe author Maryse Conde remembers: “The child who spoke Creole [native language] at school was humiliated… and made to stand in the yard”.

Even after independence, some of the ‘educated’ citizens have remained ashamed of their first language – and use it only to converse with their servants. Many who see it as a hindrance to upward social movability virtually put it in an old people’s home.

Most of the people belonging to the colonised nations, like serpent of the biblical account (as noted by the Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito) are “bilingual animals”. The educated people easily switch from their mother tongue to national/official language and from that to imported/imposed medium. On a mental plain this involves a travel between mother, father and the boss. For dreaming, swearing and talking to oneself, there is no better language than the one we were fed with milk as infants. The importance of mother tongue becomes more pronounced once we are removed from or mothers as when were in a different, distant land.

Huma Mulji’s sculpture, The Mother’s Tongue, was the lead cast of human tongue with a synthetic gold leaf, suspended by a string. An organ that, like language, belongs inside the mouth, appeared to have been severed, made public and hung on a chord (at her solo exhibition, Skyfall, December 15 to 24, at Canvas Gallery, Karachi). The cut-removed-and-dangling representation was a comment on the status, fate and future of mother tongue in the country and elsewhere.

In her art, Mulji makes us notice other erasures, too. Her works speak of censorship and self-censorship, observing the act of transformation and the infrastructure of power. In many cases, when people are taken away from their mother tongue, they are also deprived of land - the mother earth. In her series of seven inkjet prints titled, The Logo Commission, the artist produces pseudo emblems for various establishments in the housing development business. These pieces, executed as drawings, collages and scrawls on graph paper, suggest an increasing demand for urban housing schemes.

She has drawn designs suited for residential societies planned and protected by those associated with the armed forces.

Having taught at BNU Lahore (2015-2018) and renting a house in Lahore’s Cantonment area (2016-18), Mulji must have closely observed the developments. On the way to BNU – her former workplace – one passes the Fazaia Housing Scheme, with its outstretched eagle wings as the main entrance. She would likely be also familiar with the DHA and Bahria housing.

In one of her prints, Mulji has created a sign for Forces Estate and Builders. Other symbols include ‘Fazaia Housing Scheme’ featuring a fighter jet with crescent and star; and ‘Shaheen Enterprises’ with variations of falcon from a real-life bird to some stylized forms. Made to look like a repository of ideas and images, these works remind one of how land trade has superseded other forms of lucrative investment.

Besides commenting on the ‘infrastructure’ of housing societies, Mulji’s prints unearth the web of desire when it comes to ideal existence. In her ‘Palm Punjab’ and ‘Muhafiz Meadows’, a Californian setting is sold to consumers/citizens of the Islamic Republic. Dwellings with slanting roof tops surrounded by palm trees, with a car and a few dogs ensure what Richard Hamilton mapped in his collage: Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956), the utopia of a modern day salaried person/medium level merchant.

In another of her works, Mulji presented a circular logo for ‘Pakistan Property’, split into four sections containing the crescent and star, a map of the country, outline of a train, and the symbol for a motorway. In its appearance and colour, the design looks like an official insignia. A lie, which, like the dictator says in Garcia Marquez’s novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch, “doesn’t matter if it’s not true now, because sometime in the future it will be true!” The truth, it seems to suggest, is not about factuality of these emblems and signage, but their linkage and deriving force.

Huma Mulji’s work is about layers of discourse, decrees and delusions that make a human being blind to immediate reality. She presents the view of an erased mountain in the series of prints, Skyfall; recollections of a magnificent hilly landscape (not much different from it description in words, its photograph, its presence in folk imagination). In her prints, one can recognize ‘The New Silk Road’ as a path that has been trodden for years. Like a recently launched housing scheme, an economic corridor may promise economic salvation – for a few. Mulji has used visuals from industries/factories, to nudge the viewers to be mindful of the resources that would be consumed for an economic renaissance.

Her New Silk Road (textile dyes and block printing on duck canvas) appears to be an attempt to question the grandiose narrative of progress and economic growth. Whether in the political history or the record of land acquisition the past is preserved with many a false detail. Stuffed, like the taxidermy sparrow (2018) from her Canvas exhibition, or digital embroidery on cotton and denim that looked like smudged writing, we recall lines made with a bled ball point pen. In Piano (Azure and Lapiz) and Ode to Piano Pen (Cobalt), Mulji has produced a page not comprehensible due to a stained text that reminds one of a pre-computer era. Probably the real concern for the artist is the disappearance of language; since writing with a biro has turned as outmoded and cumbersome – and incomprehensible, as speaking in your mother tongue.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Mother earth and mother tongue