Gul-e-Lala: Exploring Love and Romance, Mohsin Shafi at 1646
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Gul-e-Lala: Exploring Love and Romance, Mohsin Shafi at 1646

Artistic creation has always been recognised as a process capable not only of transmitting emotions, messages, and values but also for promoting the maturation of critical thought in those who participate in the production1. In Europe, this awareness reaches full maturity in the artist residency experiences activated in the last decades2. Supported by short-term mobility exchanges, the most recent experiences not only accelerate the encounter between cultures but also demonstrate the aptitude of artistic and cultural production for the construction of bridges between people and places.

Artists’ residencies have become intrinsic to many artistic careers. They play an important role in facilitating and catalysing artists’ ability to move across the world. They have also developed into important elements in the (local) contemporary art scene connecting the local with the global art world. They also tend to become intense opportunities for discussion and dialogue.

Residencies for artists and curators have gained increasing significance within the ecosystem of contemporary art in the recent years as crucial nodes in international circulation and career development, but also as invaluable infrastructures for critical reflection, cross-cultural collaboration, interdisciplinary knowledge production, and site-specific research.

Amidst the pandemic, between September and November 2021, Mohsin Shafi, an interdisciplinary artist from Lahore, Pakistan came to The Hague to pursue his ideas and questions of desire and association alongside a milieu of longing for unending tulip fields and to memorialize romance. In parallel, Shafi has been exploring both conventional and avantgarde philosophies of nostalgia and susceptibility.

Employing South Asian Urdu poetry as a channel for dialogue, Shafi emulates his countenance with solitude, amativeness, and passion for his ideas of romance from preceding days and privy remembrances. He centers on the prose and poetry written as lyrics for Pakistani and Indian films. Shafi’s fascination with South Asian music and films goes back to his infanthood. Most of the poetry in songs, particularly those from the 1950s to 1990s era, were scripted by celebrated Urdu poets. They were either derived for the film scores, or in some cases they were expressly written for the films. His personal pursuit of creativity enthused by South Asian music started in the year of 2019. He was able to work on it again during his residency at 1646 in The Hague in 2021.

Witnessing Shafi’s studio space in person, one can appreciate his research and work as invaluable adjunct to a cultural exchange, as it also permits the resident artist to develop a deeper understanding of his host society and culture. He has also created an opportunity for giving an insight into his own cultural background and has consequently brought about an exchange that could increase understanding between countries and cultures.

For the duration of his residency at 1646, Shafi principally enjoyed the libretto from the film Silsila (1981). At first the film was a mercantile letdown, but over the years, it attained idolization amongst many and is widely acclaimed to be a classic South Asian film. Silsila, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar and Rekha, is still one of the most talked about and coveted films for many reasons: one being the Amitabh-Rekha love story in real life. However, many do not know that this film made the career of legendary lyricist, poet and writer Javed Akhtar. Shafi translated these songs in English for his Letters installation. These fascinating pieces were hung on several bridges during his walks in the Netherlands.

Likhay jo khut tujhay (letters I wrote to you) is a display of found objects comprising of collected objects from flea markets, shells picked up from the beach, books, ink jet prints on paper, writings with ink and pencil on various papers.  The objects were collected from second-hand stores in The Netherlands. According to Shafi, he was looking into the simplest ways of expressing love from the 1980s. Cassettes were displayed with letters and vintage frames were installed on the walls. Shells were picked from the beach in The Hague. These were not just haphazardly found; the artist spent an entire day at the beach seeking closure and picking up the razor shells— a spiritual and emotional ritual for Shafi. The pieces of text written during his time at the 1646 were personal, some were translated lyrics from Urdu to English, and some were just handwritten dialogues taken from the film Silsila. Shafi wanted all these texts to have a very personalised context and hence transforming the format to guise as letters. He even folded some of the papers, as one does to put letters in envelopes.

Likhay jo khut tujhay – 6 (work in process), September – November 2021. Image courtesy Mohsin Shafi

He later acquired the help of a local choir from Lahore, dubbed The Colony (with whom he anticipates working with henceforward). This would also be to finish soundtracks for a short video film that Shafi recorded in the austere tulip fields within The Netherlands. The songs from the film Sisila were shot in the Duin-en Bollenstreek, a region in Western Netherlands, that landscapes coastal dunes and the agronomy of flower bulbs. By virtue of the absence of tulip season during Shafi’s residency period he was not given access to the tulip fields. In the meanwhile, he accumulated an unabridged assortment of writings from emails to letters, poetry and dialogues from the film including his individual particular literature. Subsequently, all the work is encompassed with text, audio and a wistful silent black and white motion picture. Shafi, the artist, saunters with a spectacle of a larger-than-life love letter, holding and walking in a tranquil setting in The Netherlands. The black and white film itself is understood as a way of engaging directly with social reality, the specifics of space and even the politics of memory.

This would also be to finish soundtracks for a short video film that Shafi recorded in the austere tulip fields within The Netherlands. The songs from the film Sisila were shot in the Duin-en Bollenstreek, a region in Western Netherlands, that landscapes coastal dunes and the agronomy of flower bulbs. By virtue of the absence of tulip season during Shafi’s residency period he was not given access to the tulip fields. In the meanwhile, he accumulated an unabridged assortment of writings from emails to letters (that he wrote to the team at the Keukenhof Gardens), poetry and dialogues from the film including his own writing.

Subsequently, all the work is encompassed with text, audio and a wistful silent black and white motion picture. Shafi, the artist, saunters with a spectacle of a larger-than-life love letter, holding and walking in a tranquil setting in The Netherlands. The black and white film itself is understood as a way of engaging directly with social reality, the specifics of space and even the politics of memory.

For Shafi it is beguiling how films keep thriving around us way past their screen time and how various associations support the prolonged existence of certain films; in this particular circumstance Bollywood’s involvement with the tulip garden.

A corresponding thought he has is about the practice of the run-through of Bollywood songs in a foreign country, while the rest of the film is set on indigenous ground. Shafi finds it ludicrous and almost amusing that in films (from Pakistan or India) romantic songs stage both the hero and heroine against lush green landscapes, mountains, lakes, flowers and nature; mostly away from any urban setting. He wonders if it has anything to do with finding privacy, in our respective lives, for any intimate encounters.

Mohsin Shafi’s Recital at 1646, The Hague / live reading of personal and fictional letters / November 17th 2021. Image Courtesy 1646

Towards the end of Shafi’s residency, he chose to recite his letters and present his research at 1646 for the organization itself. He called the evening Gul-e-Lala (Tulip Flower) as he was proficient in conversing about his yearning and musing for the tulip flowers. The open studios followed for visitors to experience his space; where Shafi had an opportunity to showcase his work, answer questions, address topics on his research and perhaps even dispel a few myths and fables. As his entire project was about these songs that are picturised in The Netherlands over the last fourty years or more, and especially the songs of Silsila that were shot around the Bollenstreek or Bloemenroute (flower route) of Holland. For Shafi it is captivating how they became iconic among Bollywood buffs such as himself and they surpassed the boundary of generations.

Mohsin Shafi’s residency at 1646 (The Hague) ensued between 24th September – 30th November 2021. The Open Studios for visitors took place from 19th November – 30th November.

Endnotes

  1. Read, H. Educare con l’arte. Saggi di Cultura Contemporanea; Edizioni di Comunità: Cremona, Italy, 1962.
  2. European Union. Policy handbook on Artists Residencies, Open Method of Coordination (OMC) Working Group of EU Member States Experts on Artists’ Residencies 2014. Available online:
    https://ec.europa.eu/assets/eac/culture/policy/cultural-creative-industries/documents/artists-residencies_en.pdf
    (accessed on 14th December 2021).

Shireen Ikramullah Khan is a Pakistani artist, art critic, educator and museologist with a background in painting and printmaking. She completed her undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts in Lahore in 2006. In 2009, she completed her Masters in Art Gallery and Museum Studies from The University of Manchester, which included an internship at the Manchester Museum to profile gallery visitors and assess improvements. She is an active member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics) and writer for several art publications worldwide. Based in Europe since 2017, Shireen continues to maintain her own visual art practice, participating in several exhibitions across Pakistan and other countries. She is, in parallel, working with international artists to curate shows in Pakistan as a means of building stronger bridges for sharing of culture and knowledge.

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