Art Within Paradise
Art Within Paradise

As I stood within the Summer Palace (Lahore), a stunning visual connection began to emerge between the arabesque of the fading Mughal frescos and contemporary calligraphy on display— this aesthetic arc effortlessly spanned over half a millennium. The site of the Lahore Fort dates back a thousand years and it was Akbar who, in the sixteenth century, finally fortified it into a citadel we see today. In its detailed embellishments, can be seen the finest of the Mughal artistic lexicon.

Currently, Lahore Art Foundation is hosting an international contemporary art exhibition in the Summer Palace and the Royal Kitchens. The works speak to the entangled histories of the fort and its problematic legacy. The show curated by Sabah Hussain is centered around the temporal and spiritual concept of paradise and inspired by Amir Khusro’s couplet  If there is a paradise on Earth, It is this, it is this, it is this. In place of a didactic text, she offers exquisitely etched verses in Persian and Poorbi that evoke beauty and harmony of the temporal paradise.With mirrors as the medium, the meaning and visuality of the verses expands timelessly to embrace both art and space in their reflection. Amin Gulgee‘s calligraphies in bronze, shimmer and appear to be growing out of trays full of pounded turmeric, chillies and coriander. They allude to the power shift set in motion by the European spice trade and the colonial dystopia that followed.

It was from these very chambers that Maharajah Ranjit Singh resisted the British army and lost. Overnight the regal residence became a garrison headquarters and was brutally ransacked; it’s exquisite pietra dura disfigured and robbed for embedded precious stones by the maundering troops. Arms and ammunition were stored in the Summer Palace which led to the structural damage of these magnificent private quarters. Frescos in the Sheesh Mahal, probably the last wall paintings commissioned here, document court life, religious rituals and the confrontation between the Sikh and the British. The power games, conflict and unrest unleashed by colonialism continue to resonate within the walls and once again take on life through the theme of the contemporary works.

Palestine and Jerusalem, a symbol of loss and longing that has become a part of the DNA of a homeless people, is evoked in Mouna Saboni’s ode to Palestinian memory. The text based work reminds us how the written word can create an imagined paradise that becomes more real than lived reality. A video on Jerusalem by Larissa Sansour propels the visitor into the future where the Dome of Rock of Jerusalem is visible from within a spaceship-like structure. Its theme is also about birth and regeneration but is never fully clear if the Dome has become accessible or is a hologram that placates nostalgia. Ahsan Jamal’s miniature paintings navigate history though portraits staged against iconic monuments. The genre of miniature painting with its strong links to the Mughal Courts and the fort— with its presence in the Summer Palace— reconnects its revival to a resilient history of hybridity and innovation.

The many definitions of paradise appear throughout the show by the twenty-one participating artists. Timo Nasseri’s imaginary constellations bring to mind how the cosmos has always been seen as the pathway to heaven. The mysterious maps reflect a new search through the maze of advanced science, space travel and mythology. The Sufis, however, believe that the path to paradise lies within. Shah Latif’s raga that echoes through the exhibition leads visitors to the video on the home of the most loved Sufi of Sindh. Waheeda Baloch in her video on home and memory knits the disparate yet moving narratives of three homes. The most poignant one is that of Shah Latif’s residence. His humble abode turned by the people into a shrine, to his music, verse and teachings, where visitors come in search for their own paradise.

The absence of paradise is equally potent as ecological catastrophes hold prophesies of a dying planet; Ayesha Vellani’s pictures of a spaces transformed by ecological crisis point to disappearing natural havens of Pakistan. By offering the verse as a point of departure, and the fort as its location, a new lens is created to view the universal idea of paradise. The artists freely interpret the nuanced exchanges between changing, and sometimes unchanging history— like the continuing colonization of Jerusalem. How personal histories shape the understanding of utopia/dystopia in the twenty first century. The fort itself, with its remnants of grandeur, is an important story that has not been fully told, and this exhibition unfolds some of it. The classical musical performances in the Maktab Khana, which are envisioned as a part of the exhibition, evoke the multi-dimensionality of the South Asian creative tradition and Amir Khusro as a verse maker, musician, composer and vocalist. This experience has opened up new possibilities of curatorial intervention that can decolonize and generate new knowledge.

Title image: Video by Larissa Sansor installed in the Summer Palace , Lahore Fort.

Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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