The Familia exhibition, organised by Nashmia Haroon at Tagh’eer Lahore, features the works of four photographers
In her seminal text, On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote: “Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty…what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful.” For a photographer looking for a subject, what could be more universally beautiful than family?
Walking into the exhibition titled Familia, viewers come face to face with four photographers whose creative practices have been touched by the beauty they found at home. The exhibition is the brainchild of Nashmia Haroon, a painter and photographer by profession, who owns and runs the creative space called Tagh’eer Lahore. For her, this has been a long time coming. A project exploring her own family had been going on for close to seven years and she found the strength to display such a deeply personal body of work in numbers. Her work is up at Tagh’eer alongside three other powerhouse photographers - Arif Mahmood, Ayesha Vellani and Matt Kushan - all with unique approaches towards the theme.
Walking into the show, one immediately gravitates towards Ayesha Vellani’s Moments from the Padi Series. Reminiscent of Punjabi landscape paintings, these images record the life of a family of rice farmers, set in scorching fields. Dorothea Lange’s iconic image of the Migrant Mother comes to mind, except that this series seems like the exact antithesis to the pathos of that picture. Though the urban audience in the gallery differs vastly in lifestyle from the subject, we instinctively relate to the camaraderie between these women, cloaked in their bright fabrics, arms entwined, sickles in hand; the men working the golden fields, finding respite in the shade and that shared joke; the doe-eyed child holding on to his siblings. Behind the lens, Vellani blends into these moments, making us part of a family that is neither hers nor ours.
On the wall right across, viewers see a completely different mood. Monochrome images by the maestro, Arif Mahmood, talk immediately to us in the language of loss. The Phase 8 Project is a series of photographs Mahmood has created over many years documenting the loss of his parents, one after the other. Mahmood took these images as a form of catharsis - even though faced with the dilemma of exposing his loved ones in their vulnerability, he deemed it necessary for his own healing. Flowers on a grave, an epitaph, a bed with a painting like a tombstone and finally a dance against the sky - the images, lit like Caravaggio paintings, read like a book narrating a life shared with loved ones ebbing and flowing between sadness and joy.
Nashmia Haroon’s series, In the Presence of the Artist, also focuses on her own family and friends. In one piece, she employs a snapshot-like aesthetic to create a grid of seemingly random family pictures - her husband and son asleep in bed, a group photo of the extended family, a baby in the kitchen with the house help. In reality, these are all staged photographs with the photographer’s presence behind the lens causing a glaring absence in the image. Another poignant image, ghost-like in its double-exposure, converses with family members. The images seem to be speaking the truth until their reality starts to unravel at second glance, leaving the viewer disconcerted with a nagging reminder that all photographs are memento mori - a way to record those gone by.
One cannot help but notice the four images titled A Week by Matt Kushan, devoid of any figurative presence. In a show about family, this seems odd at first, but then these still lifes - of peeled cucumbers, birthday hats and candles, salted guavas and sliced chikoos - start breathing life into his daughter and wife. Kushan, who moved from the US to Lahore seven years ago, noticed how ritualistic the cutting and sharing of fruit was for Pakistani families, something he subconsciously started emulating. This assimilation of culture extends to craft - the photograph becomes a sculptural object with its bright handloom fabric mounts and locally hand-carved frames. His imagery, like a repetitive weekly routine, is so banal it’s surreal, like the Satyajit Ray films that Kushan loves.
For these four diverse image-makers, a photograph is more than just a document. It is the telling of a story, a moment of vulnerability, a revered object to be held and a spark of new meaning when the image crosses the bridge between the artist’s lens into the viewer’s eye.
In all of their varied approaches - from the clinical simplicity of Kushan to the deep, dark sorrow of Mahmood, from Haroon’s own flesh and blood to Vellani’s permeation into another family - the viewer’s eye always encounters the beauty it seeks. Familia remains open at Tagh’eer Creative Space from 10am to 5:30pm every day this week.
The writer is a practicing faculty member at Beaconhouse National University.