Discomfiting Memories, Ancestral Homes
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Discomfiting Memories, Ancestral Homes

F.S Aijazuddin recounts how acclaimed author Ved Mehta, son of Dr. Amolak Ram Mehta, visited his father’s home in Lahore at 11 Temple Road not, as assumed, “to reclaim property, but to reclaim his childhood”1; the house was then allotted to the two sisters of Dr. Mubashir Hasan. On the eve of partition, the family migrated to this home from Panipat. Ved Mehta led an extraordinary life. He lost his sight at the age of three; despite his handicap and with the encouragement of his father, Amolak Ram Mehta, he went on to receive an MA from Harvard University and published short stories, hundreds of articles, biographies and autobiographies.

Dr. Amolak Ram Mehta was a senior public health official in the government of India and his rather colourful life has been captured in the first of twelve volumes titled “Daddyji.”2 Dr. Mubashir Hasan co-founded the Pakistan People’s Party, a democratic socialist political party, along with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He served as Finance Minister in the Bhutto Administration and after retiring from politics became a founding member of the Human Rights Commissions of Pakistan. While Mehta went on to make a name for himself in literature, Dr. Hassan went on to make history not only in politics but also as a campaigner for peace in the subcontinent. 3

It is a pity that ancestral homes with their rich and varied histories, such as in the case of 11 Temple Road, are often sidelined or lost in the annals of time. The built environment of these spaces contributes much more to the fabric of the city than we think; to its former inhabitants, such as Mehta who visited to relive a poignant fragmentary memory, or even to the generations that have followed, it is a receptacle of collective memory, lineage and fabled ancestry. What constitutes or makes a place unique (place distinctiveness) and place continuity (how relationships are linked and maintained in relation to space) 4 are two key features that contribute to developing a sense of place in heritage. In a city like Lahore where partition and stories of migration are still embedded in the memories of many of its inhabitants, this definition of “a sense of place” is more complex; it is ensconced in a dual sense of longing that is often undercut by a determination to forge ahead and build a new future.

It is fitting then that a space which was already a repository of memory for many of its former inhabitants was recently transformed into a gallery space to exhibit the works of ten young artists and, perhaps, to ask these same questions. The discourse surrounding memory and shared histories is also reflected in the title of the exhibition, Imagined Archives, curated by Fatma Shah at the ancestral home of her in-laws located at 11 Temple Road, Lahore.

Fatma Shah debunks the idea of melancholia alone as anachronistic when considering the past and is passionate as she discusses how her motivation with regards to the history of 11 Temple Road, in particular, lies not in focusing on victimhood or tragedy but survival and resilience. Shah is particular about focusing on objects as she recounts how “it is the survival of objects that gives us insights to lives lived here”.

The intention behind this show, she says, is to draw in a wider audience in order to highlight the unique histories associated with the site. Shah feels that a strong curatorial premise which would involve artists whose practice was also already evolving along these lines would be the best way to commence this ongoing project. For Imagined Archives each artist was asked to reference the history, archives and memory of the house as they produced their respective works. For viewers entering the space, on the other hand, the experience of exploring the house and its stylistic details is overlaid with an air of expectancy and discovery. Each room carries a unique story— it beckons with art that lies hidden among pantry cupboards, emerges from walls or reveals inquisitive details about the space it inhabits. On the whole the exhibition attempts to unsettle absolute claims about history by writing in its casualties and vulnerabilities. Many of the artists salvage from memory but it is all recounted piecemeal; in this space its recollection is cast in a new light.

Sahyr Syed’s Invented Nostalgia series engages with the domestic role of females as home makers. Syed’s works in mixed media are small and seem to be implying that they should be “preserved” rather than framed in their glass cases. The recurrent motif of little rotis (flatbread) in various delicately collaged compositions made from beads, wires and paper dabbles in kitsch. Her sculpture titled Invented Nostalgia II stands out the most. Rows of actual identical dough balls, greyish brown, flawless in shape and appearance, but also most unassuming and unappetizing in their appearance and presentation, rest lined in rows and contained within a broken glass cabinet.

Invented Nostalgia II, Sahyr Saeed, mixed media, 2021

They appear to be baked or perhaps hardened with time. The viewer moves around and begins to notice signs of decay and the most miniscule molds festering and disrupting the homogenous order imposed by the arrangement of the dough balls. Subverting the imagined idea of cozy domesticity, the installation compels one to dispel the mawkish associations and tropes evoked by the word “nostalgia” and consider more somber possibilities.

The meticulously rendered graphite drawings of empty landscapes by Saba Qizilbash are not ordinary. Titled Sino-India Border, the series depicts skillfully rendered and detailed observation of natural landscapes that have been riven apart or marked by man either in the name of border lines or developmental infrastructure such as bridges and roads. One sees soil, dirt and land but no human presence. Territorial conflicts regarding borderlines, jingoism and sabre rattling by the powers that be, over the decades compel one to ask: do these realistically rendered sites and routes then lead anywhere?

Sana Saeed’s ghostly faces and figures make their presence felt as they emerge from banal objects and ordinary spaces. Her works are displayed both in the courtyard and the house itself. The more intimate pieces are displayed inside the home. Saeed’s palette is neutral, as if the colors have been washed away with time and enhance the ghostly half presence of her images tucked away in the bric-à-brac and pantry of a room. A figure turned away is “caught” framed in a unique wooden frame. A translucent face pops out of a tray and stares benignly at us. Cropped images that just show legs or a torso of a female march through a household cabinet full of dishes.

Mark Making, Sana Saeed, water colors and pointers on Canson paper, 2021

Saeed’s haunting images reflect upon traces, imprints and departure in a poignant but wry way; rather than mere lamentation their curation compels one to consider the relevance of the spaces in which these residual memories stubbornly continue to inhabit.

Affan Baghpati recontextualizes the function and even appearance of his found objects when he combines discarded quotidian objects to make sculptural pieces that are whimsical, surreal and ultimately call for a revisiting of their origin. Baghpati’s process is equally interesting. He scours flea markets and metal retail markets to find ordinary objects associated with rituals, traditions and functions that are often no longer practiced. Not only are they representative of South Asian identity and aesthetics, they also call for reflection: who bought these objects, used them and how did they arrive at these markets? The choice of objects in one of his three works displayed titled I Wonder if You Know raises questions about identity: what could a pair of wings that mimic classical sculptures in marble, a tiny teapot, a magnifying glass and brass contraptions possibly have in common other than compelling the viewer to recall their grandmother’s antiques? Perhaps that is precisely the point. The sculpture resembles a fantastical hybrid poised to take off, one that is wrought from fragmented memories, questionable sources, irretrievable histories and a desire to question existing ones. Or perhaps it just comments on the fallible nature of history?

Imrana Tanvir’s two channel video projection titled Ifs and Buts debates the veracity of truth by deconstructing it in the performance of the most quotidian tasks. The diptych shows a figure stitching fabric on a sewing machine while the second half plays the same video in reverse where it appears as if she is undoing the stitching. Her installation in the same dimly lit room, titled Pieces, builds on this idea by showing piles of small discarded rags or tukris left over from cutting and preparing fabric. Like Saeed and Baghpati, it is the discarded and forgotten that interest these artists.

Ifs and Buts, Imrana Tanveer, 2-channel video projection, 2021

Maheen Niazi overtly questions ideologies and power structures that have defined the nation’s history and conception. Niazi erects “hanging walls” made of green plastic skullcaps titled Hollow levitation- II, ironically in a room full of windows and skylights. A steel grid whose shape is reminiscent of a prayer mat is placed in the midst of these walls. Interestingly the walls appear delicate and ephemeral since they are hanging in midair. Niazi’s work explores the intersection of religion and culture; the repetition of skullcaps recalls mindless and hollow repetition of ritual divorced from context and meaning while the grid symbolizes their dogmatic and unrelenting nature.

Hollow Levitation- II, Maheen Niazi, plastic caps, 2021; The Grid (on the floor), re-bar steel, 2020

Ahsan Memon directly references the architectural history and lived space of 11 Temple Road itself. Of his two works, his sculpture in relief titled Found Utensils is arresting in its appearance. The flattened mass of aluminum and steel utensils that is sliced in half not only alludes to the fact that 11 Temple Road is one half of what was once a duplex semi-detached home but also reflects upon the trauma of separation that was an ultimate consequence of partition. The displacement of people places and objects was marked by division and strife. Ownership of the utensils is therefore unclear. The placement of Found Utensils on a wall, in the open courtyard, reinforces the idea of arbitrary lines and divisions. The murky enchantment in Found Utensils is enhanced by ligh, that is emitted from behind, but appears as if it is radiating from within the sculpture itself, as if it is on the cusp of parting and revealing a grand narrative.

Found Utensils, Ahsan Memon, aluminium and steel, 2021

Nisha Hasan’s installation I Buried Her Where She Fell is an ode to the past that the inhabitants of 11 Temple Road left behind. Hundreds of pristine white shoes, tiny in size and delicately cast in plaster-of-paris lie abandoned in three rows of a built-in cabinet space of sorts. They are bathed in luminous yellow light, glowing as if they have emerged from a wakeful dream. Latif Hasan Girl’s School was established in Panipat by the family residing at 11 Temple Road. Years after partition the headmistress wrote to them asking about the ownership of the land and the fate of the school. It was decided that the school was to continue running. The sculpture pays homage to everything the family left behind when they migrated.

I Buried Her Where She Fell, Nisha Hasan, plaster-of-paris, 2021

Hasan’s other works also derive from the archival memory of former inhabitants of the house but she intervenes and visually reinscribes it. One of them, A Rose Garden My Mother Had Lovingly Planted and Tended refers to acclaimed author Ved Mehta’s fond memory of a rose garden his mother had planted in the house. Hasan’s installation consists of fallen roses coated in white plaster of Paris set against the peeling green wall. It is unclear whether they have fallen from the painting featuring three figures, one of whom is a groom wearing a veil of flowers, or if the disintegrating paint of the walls itself is recounting the memory. Hasan’s work is seductive in that it attempts to reclaim and fashion a liminal space that exists between memory and desire.

A Rose Garden My Mother Had Lovingly Planted and Tended, Nisha Hasan, plaster-of-paris and pigment, 2021

The Barsati, a habitable room with toilet and kitchen located on the roof of the building, contained works by two artists, that were noteworthy. Farrukh Addnan’s works are displayed both on the ground floor and at the entrance of the room. The work displayed on the roof of the building is striking. Grids of squares stretched out on canvas and overlaid with fading and sometimes incongruent squares of gold leaf recall layout, architecture and most importantly elusive light. The patches of gold leaf glint or become luminous depending on the time of the day, not unlike the experience of watching sunlight gradually emerge, reflect and fade on a rooftop. Reflecting on the transience of time, the mapping of the home patched together in gold is a solemn ode to the brevity of life and memories.

Dua Abbas conflates personal archival history of her grandmother’s photo albums and herself with that of the former residents of the Barsati where her work is displayed. The unique arrangement merges the voices of two different generations; it is one that reflects the aesthetic and home-making of matriarchs and domestic homemakers but also allows Abbas to conjoin her reflections and either compliment or undercut their voices with her commentary.

In The Book of Day, The Book of Night shelves lined with casual arrangements of books, decorative objects and hand embroidered doilies are inflected with pithy aphorisms neatly displayed next to her grandmother’s photo albums. Rather than ceding to cloying nostalgia, the one-liners on the white cards serve as a critical rumination on race, gender and society. The textual observations of her grandmother’s photo albums belie their ingenuous narration and it is retained in the casual presentation of the installation; it resembles an unassuming corner of the house.

Dua Abbas Rizvi, The Book of Day, The Book of Night, digital C-Type prints on Arches (Aquarelle) card, 2021

In An Archival Impulse Hal Foster writes that artists who work with archives are, in effect commenting on the slippery nature of truth and of the archival material itself. He also goes on to elaborate on how artists are often drawn to “unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects— in art and history alike— that might offer points of departure again.”5 While Imagined Archives is an apt summation of the kinds of unfulfilled beginnings and incomplete projects that the featured artists are interested in, their concerns are inextricably linked with imagination that simultaneously intersects with the weight of history that is contained within the house. Be it the trauma of partition or the anxieties of homemaking, the house functions as an interlocutor that hides and reveals the incongruences between history and memory.

Some have chosen to imagine 11 Temple Road as a space from another time or realm meant to be read as a great mystery shrouded in metaphors and fantastical retellings that deserve to be explored and venerated, the kind narrated in Sussana Clarke’s Piranesi where expansive and mysterious halls, extensive sculptures, birds and nests inhabit parts of the house which is a world unto itself, where clouds and stars can be witnessed in its upper stories. Others have chosen to interpret it as a space swirling with the imprints of its former residents and overlaid with stories of resilience and tenacious determination; a kind of setting for a success story riddled with post-colonial angst like that in A House for Mr. Biswas where VS Naipaul narrates the story of a man on a relentless quest to try to find a home to truly define and call as his own despite the odds being stacked against him. Whatever the case, Imagined Archives encourages one to consider the untapped potential of thinking and curating outside the white cube; thus, forging connections and building narratives which correspond with lived spaces that ask difficult questions is not just restricted to mere nostalgia or retinal pleasure. Shah is hopeful about the future. She believes that subsequent editions of what she will attempt to do here will focus on encapsulating activities that encompass the spirit, aspirations and politics of issues imagined by Dr Mubashir Hasan. She also hopes to have events in the future that involve writers and poets.

Imagined Archives and its curation promises possibilities: that conception and curation of art in alternative spaces can yield unexpected results which can pave the way for greater exploration and imagination.

The Group Show ‘Imagined Archives’ was curated by Fatma Shah and showcased at 11 Temple Road, Mozang, Lahore, from 13th November to 20th November 2021

Bibliography

Aijazuddin, F.S. “A forgotten son”. DAWN.COM, 2022. Online. Internet. 5 Jan. 2022. . Available: https://www.dawn.com/news/1601363.

Foster, Hal. “An Archival Impulse”. October 110 (2004): 5.

Fox, Margalit. “Ved Mehta, Writer Who Illuminated India, Is Dead at 86”. Nytimes.com, 2021. Online. Internet. 5 Jan. 2022. . Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/10/obituaries/ved-mehta-celebrated-writer-for-the-new-yorker-dies-at-86.html.

Graham, Helen, Rhiannon Mason, and Andrew Newman. Literature Review: Historic Environment, Sense Of Place, And Social Capital. Ebook. Reprint, Newcastle: International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies (ICCHS), 2009.

Rehman, I.A. “OBITUARY: The man who dreamed of people’s power”. DAWN.COM, 2020. Online. Internet. 5 Jan. 2022. . Available: https://www.dawn.com/news/1541006.

Endnotes

  1. F.S. Aijazuddin, “A forgotten son”, DAWN.COM, 2022, online, Internet, 5 Jan. 2022. , Available: https://www.dawn.com/news/1601363.
  2. Margalit Fox, “Ved Mehta, Writer Who Illuminated India, Is Dead at 86”, Nytimes.com, 2021, online, Internet, 5 Jan. 2022. , Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/10/obituaries/ved-mehta-celebrated-writer-for-the-new-yorker-dies-at-86.html
  3. I.A. Rehman, “OBITUARY: The man who dreamed of people’s power”, DAWN.COM, 2020, online, Internet, 5 Jan. 2022. , Available: https://www.dawn.com/news/1541006
  4. Graham, Helen, Rhiannon Mason, and Andrew Newman. Literature Review: Historic Environment, Sense Of Place, And Social Capital. Ebook. Reprint, Newcastle: International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies (ICCHS), 2009
  5. Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse”, October 110 (2004): 5

Zohreen Murtaza is a permanent faculty member in the Cultural Studies Department at the National College of Arts (NCA). She regularly writes on art and has contributed towards various publications including the daily newspaper Dawn.

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