Re-Configuring the Drawls and Tangs of History
Re-Configuring the Drawls and Tangs of History

Muse is the Latin word for thought. Greek mythology’s thrilling legend explains that the term “muse” refers to any of the nine sisters who were the patron deities of the humanities, sciences, and the arts. Apollo and the Muses, by John Singer Sargent, 1921, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, shows them all with their father, Zeus, and Mnemosyne—the Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, Urania.1 The world’s first museum is considered to be the Capitoline Museum in Rome; subsequently, The Vatican in Rome, The Royal Armouries in London, The Kunstmuseum in Basel, The Ashmolean in Oxford2 and then the thousands of these public places of muses we know now; perhaps a reader of this piece visited some or many of them. The museum doesn’t have to be bound to the architecturally designed building constructed out of brick and mortar, it is about sharing unique ideas in visual, material, and textual forms. A well-operating museum acquires and maintains artifacts of historical value, utilises them carefully in developing displays for the general public, and makes its collection available for investigation and study by serious researchers and scholars. So, what’s the need to decolonise the museum’s galleries, which has been identified as an essential and long overdue task? An average visitor needs clarification while reading didactic text panels and instruction manuals telling the history. The artefacts are complicated, linear, and challenging to comprehend—but the concerns are not limited to this claim.

Since many creative thinkers and practitioners have used the term ‘muse’ in multiple dimensions in the last few centuries, proliferating knowledge, an exciting publication on an ambitious project  The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect by Kynaston McShine, explores a rich, varied, and complex relationship between artists and a museum—capturing one’s attention almost instantly in terms of interpolation.3 Glen D. Lowry, Director, MOMA, intensely suggests in the foreword of this vital publication, “Museums are generally understood to be places of the institution and the creators of the objects that offer learning and inspiration, the home of the muses”. The observer and the observed are trained with the idea of the institution as a public space dedicated to the diffusion of knowledge—full of Wunderkammers—the cabinets of curiosities for contemplation and pleasure. An intramural or extrinsic intervention isn’t extraneous; it is an essential activity primarily responsible for bringing a prudent change through dialogue or deed—though it mustn’t be punitive but collaborative by all means. One may think out loud the rationale behind the recent incident where the beloved Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the National Gallery in London was splashed with tomato soup by climate activists. The destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan reminds the proverbial statement ‘Out of Sight and Soon Forgotten’. One also wonders what an individual thinks before drawing an absurd inscription on the walls of Lahore Fort, which comes under vandalism. One may ask, who belongs to an outsider culture; beyond the mainstream? This is a critical quest when considering the authorities’ institutionalised standards, especially in the public realm. Recent use of the term ‘De-Colonisation’ is widely considered the action or process of a state withdrawing from a former colony, mainly British, leaving it independent; if we look into this phenomenon academically and critically, it is also a process of freeing an institution and a sphere of activities from the cultural or social effects of self-determined stipulations—rules and regulations to suggest a new approach—ways of looking and thinking.

Similarly, a fascinating project, Be (Coming)The Museum, had its curatorial premise mapping the different parallel streams and traditions derived from Neo-Futuristic approaches while examining the odd fringes and the outsider cultures beyond the mainstream. Co-curators Asma Mehmood and Shelly Bahl conceptualised this provocative endeavour after working in and around the arts, and around cultural and museum studies for decades4. They designed the pop-up exhibition comprising eight new site-specific interventions by versatile artists and designers at Lahore Museum. Once the visitors enter the Lahore Museum (an architectural marvel designed by Bhai Ram Singh5 and structured by Sir Ganga Ram6) and approach the Miniature painting gallery, after observing some cabinets of novelties, they come to witness a ginormous exposed ceiling with wooden beams and planks which narrates a story of the past—indicating something missing. A mural, Quest for Knowledge, commissioned by the Museum and executed by the eminent Pakistani artist Sadequain in 1973—comprising forty-four seamless panels—was there once. As the mural is down now and under restoration in the museum’s workshop area, an architect and pedagogue, Sadaf Noori Malik, saw the opportunity to employ a fascinating projection mapping technique, to create a visually simulated experience using motion graphics with synched sound, in the exact spot. Through Beyond Other Realms, Malik re-imagined and conversed with the metaphysical visual narrative found through the lens of sacred geometry. Through an immersive experience, viewers were encouraged to look for symbols in Sadequain’s imagery that allude to the mysterious structure of the cosmos, as well as how the arrangement of recurring shapes results in a variety of geometric formations that resemble various organisms found throughout the galaxy, planets and constellations, as well as microorganisms and molecular structures. In the accompanying soundtrack, heavenly bodies overlapped the time extending into the ideas of ecstatic infinitude. During the last decade, it’s been a bandwagon for museums and historical domiciles to turn visuals and data into immersive experiences using virtual and augmented reality. Much unique content has been generated across the globe to entice the new generation of spectators and onlookers to develop scholarships or to enjoy. However, in Pakistan, the magniloquence of technology never reaches the public sector on time for multiple reasons, and the delay elucidates this in all the forefronts.

Beyond Other Realms, Sadaf Noori Malik, Projection Mapping, Size variable, 2023

The vortex is a whirlpool, where the water swirls circularly and hypnotically, attracting whatever enters within the circle towards its core. Visual artist Tashfeen Majeed Joseph’s impressive site-specific installation comprises three hundred clay toys, loosely sculpted with clay, and fire-baked using an indigenous furnace-based technique. I Am Ghoughou Ghora of Ghoray Shah Darbar, displayed in the Pre-Historic & Indus Gallery made much sense. The visual and material journey of Ghughu Ghoray is quite exciting and enfolded in the history of the Indus River region, both at Eastern and Western extents, including Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Mehrgarh, to name a few. Regarding Ghoray Shah Darbar in Lahore, it is widely believed that Pir Bahauddin Jhulan Shah was the youngest saint in history, as he demised just at the age of 10 or 11 years7 ‎. According to the oral myths, this child had an innate interest in horses—when his eminent exaltation as a mystic got famous, his followers started bringing him clay horse toys and figurines to please him; in return, he would pray to relieve them from their suffering. As the Department of Auqaf and Religious Affairs removed the alias Ghoray Shah from the shrine, the crafts production around started declining in all its forms—whether paper, wood or clay. According to Joseph, these relics witness an old way of existence with a specific feeling of materiality that is difficult to relate to now. His work tries to resurrect artisan traditions using media such as Multani Mitti (Fuller’s Earth) and Ravi River clay. An interesting scientific study from Cornell informs that in seawater, clay forms a hydrogel, a mass of tiny spaces which soak up other minerals, chemicals and small molecules from its surrounding area. In early geological history, clay hydrogel provided a confinement function for biomolecules and biochemical reactions, so it can be said that clay isn’t dirt cheap; it’s a nectar of life through the neural theory of metaphor. Joseph’s provocative poetry complemented his clay toys’ proclamation that these ‘outdated’ toys are taking back their real state and our collective aesthetic imagination. It is a delight for a critical observer to know the reading choices of an artist—Joseph was reading Museum of Innocence, written by Orhan Pamuk at the time of this installation.

I Am Ghoughou Ghora of Ghoray Shah Darbar, Tashfeen Majeed Joseph, Fire-baked Clay Toys, Various, Size variable, 2023

Here, artists’ works challenge conventional ways of viewing and interpreting public sculpture. Around the globe, art projects have worked with Queen Victoria monuments to engage with their troubled history, offering a critical reframing that can break the often-weak arguments about removal or retention. Aiman Gillani’s Moving Past Queen Victoria Through a Decolonial Structure used the powerful medium of animation—mapped via projection on the flip side of Queen Victoria’s bronze sculpture exhibited inside the Arms and Ammunition Gallery. The animation shows the amalgamation of elements from ‘The Stars and Stripes’ and The Union Jack’ with some particular blue and red twangs. The combined star and crescent symbolism from the Pakistani flag were also prevalent. Gillani’s work critiques the region’s long legacy of the imperial rule while identifying neo-colonial trends in local and global politics. Pakistan’s contemporary socio-political canvas still shows exposed threads of the colonial mindset engrained in all the policy-making regimes.

“God Save the Queen” was the national anthem of the entire subcontinent during the long reign of an English monarch, Queen Victoria, Empress of India and head of the Commonwealth. ‘A nation’s principles are encapsulated in its national anthem. The well-known Hindu poet Shri Jagannath Azad, a friend of Quaid-e-Azam, composed a new national anthem after the partition that was easily understood by the common Pakistani and served us for three years. Hafeez Jalandhari was requested to rework the national anthem in 1952—he did it entirely in Persian. If the national anthem is composed in a “foreign language,” how can one understand and internalise such values? A language in Pakistan that barely anybody speaks’8‎. The accompanying sound plays the third stanza from the existing anthem on a loop. One wonders if there’s any solution to this conundrum’s enduring problem. Sometimes artistic concerns interchangeably correspond from different parts of the world—mainly through the post-colonial perspective. Sophie Ernst made the statue of the Empress of India, Queen Victoria, speak once through her work Silent Empress. It posed a powerful critique on the limits of freedom of expression and the undiscerning culture of remembrance of European colonial history. This interventional installation was banned, and a sound tag attached to the statue of Queen Victoria in the city centre of Wakefield, England, was removed9.

Creative practitioners frequently devise new strategies to work with potent ideas floating in the air. Sometimes the site informs the artist to create something extraordinarily relevant. A trans-disciplinary artist, Ali Arshad’s installation Refined Soliloquy was developed with some found objects and life—a couple of goldfish floating in clear water in a fish-bowled aquarium alighted over the lotus flower container made with white marble—all enclosed in the dedicated glass cabinet. Arshad posed a critique on the ways of displaying objects of historical value, usually kept in the Museums locked behind cabinets according to the strict geographical and archaeological bifurcations. Therefore, the details go unnoticed. Arshad concentrated on the Miracle of Sarasvati, which is on show in the Gandhara Gallery. He looked into Ashtamangala—a sacred suite of eight auspicious symbols and teaching tools. ‘These symbols point to qualities of enlightenment in various South Asian cultures and communities. The white lotus flower symbolises spiritual perfection and total mental purity’10. Goldfish have historically been kept in feng shui aquariums. They are associated with riches and success due to their gold hue and are considered highly fortunate. A non-profit organisation that receives public or private funding and whose primary purpose is to preserve and display collections of physical artefacts does a great job of that; the critical question is whether they work in favour of promoting a different kind of interactivity.

Refined Soliloquy, Ali Arshad, Pair of Goldfish in Aquarium on Marble, Size variable, 2023

Analogously, Karachi-based visual artist Luluwa Lokhandwala’s site-specific installation with soundscape, tilted Deva— which means shiny, exalted, heavenly divine being and a deity in Hinduism— brings back small holy gestures to the museum. Lokhandwala re-envisaged the museum as a secular site showing the preserved objects of artistic or historical value and sacred objects of worship. Her interactive intervention attempted to reintroduce ritual practice into the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Gallery by placing a thali (a large round metal tray) full of marigold flowers, rose petals, dia lamps and a handbell. The whole installation was set up beside a miniature model of a large Hindu temple—a symmetry-driven structure in a glass cube.

Deva, Luluwa Lokhandwala, A Metal Tray with Flowers, Dia Lamps and a Bell, Size variable, 2023

Conspicuous and thought-provoking installations of Shelly Bahl, a New York-based artist who visited Lahore for the first time, have dealt with longing for her ancestral land, which was united once. Due to shrewd politics performed almost theatrically, in the last few centuries, a strange sense of regionality has evolved, leaving the minds of just and peaceful people numb. As Asma Mahmood mentioned contemplatively in her curatorial notes, ‘Identifying our place, finding our tribes, and the profound connection of mitti (soil) with its far-flung people is deep. It grounds us and ties us to the proverbial homeland.’ Relatedly, suppose one travels to India from Pakistan or vice versa, in that case, it seems like two different doorways of the same house—the gatekeeper’s fancy. Bahl reconnoitres the destiny of unique religious and culturally iconographies in post-colonial and capitalist societies. She examines the politics of being in a third culture, with the representation of the female body in the hyper world of commercialised media. Bahl then re-visits and re-imagines the truths and fiction grounded in particular cultural histories with wide-ranging artistic concerns related to identity, diaspora, cultural hybridity, and gender politics. Bahl’s work Takeaway, a wallpaper scroll spread out on the steps of a display stand on both sides of an altar, bore symmetrical quadrilateral shapes referencing delicate mandalas in ink, maybe inspired by tantric art and mantras. Bahl embraced flexibility, balance and constant change—showing complex hybrids. One can arbitrarily relate the patterns with Lasya—a female dance form that originated in India, innovated and performed by the goddess Parvati, described as gentle and graceful. An image of Shiva sitting in the centre can be spotted with the famous illustration of his eyes on the corners. The Trishul, (trident), is commonly used as one of the principal and divine symbols in Hinduism. The melted wax figures in her work Songs of Lament: Ceremonal-Trinity were kept before the four-headed Lion Capital of Ashoka—these were burnt down and fused in pools of red and white. According to Bahl, the historical objects held in museums still have exciting stories to tell even after defacing due to colonial plunder and post-colonial neglect.

Takeaway, Shelly Bahl, Various, Ink on the Wallpaper, Size variable, 2000
Songs of Lament: Ceremonal-Trinity, Shelly Bahl, Melted Female Wax Figurines on a Ceramic Plate, Size variable, 1994 / 2022-23

Re-visiting or re-remembering traditional art practices’ history, aesthetics, and evolution in the visual culture has been a compelling concern for academics and scholars. Dr Wardah Naeem Bukhari’s installation investigates the rich and layered language of ornamented miniature painting borders and their far-reaching influence on indigenous visual vocabulary, architecture, textiles, and other valuable objects. Bukhari, through her work Aesthetic Hybridity in Mughal Paintings, expanded on the borders of the olden Mughal Miniature paintings and reconstructed them using machine embroidery in silk and metallic threads, with silver and gold leaf. The illustrations/imagery, within the confines of the borders, were reduced to a few colour bars; perhaps employing the colour palette of the borders with the eyedropper tool to individually, and digitally printed on canvas. All the old and new exercises were encapsulated in the glass cabinet.

Aesthetic Hybridity in Mughal Paintings, Dr Wardah Naeem Bukhari, Print on Canvas— Machine Embroidery, Various, Size variable, 2022/23.

Tooba Ashraf’s work titled Saqin Zindagi, which literally translates to ‘still life’, allows one to rewrite the dictum of M. Culkin’s “We paint our ideas, and thereafter our ideas paint us”11. Ashraf asserts that the production and consumption of materials foster aesthetic preference indicators and represent individual viewpoints, personal allegiances, knowledge institutions, and international politics. She recreated Shakeel Siddiqui’s two-dimensional painting using three-dimensional representation to correlate and adapt it to the modern day. Collins Chinese Dictionary, a photograph of the Twin Towers, taken at the time of the 9/11 air strike, half popped out of an essential book of essays ‘Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy’, and picture of police officers with an American commander— all show the socio-political shifts which weren’t present in Sidiqqui’s time.

Saqin Zindagi (Still-life), Tooba Ashraf, Various Found Objects with Photo Frame, Size variable, 2023

Museums are indisputably complicated subjects on objects. State museums have similar appearances worldwide; some are enormous, others are tiny, and the exhibits are often showcased in glass cases or as stand-alone on pedestals or table tops. To lead the transformation, demonstrate new directions and ideas for future museums, and overcome the already formidable challenges of creative work, artists must intervene in the institution’s narrative formed by the unique relationship of ideas and objects to reconfigure the average displays at museums. Fluid conversations on the colonial histories of museums and the vast opportunity to decolonise them are vital in opening the doors to the critical challenges and responsibilities that exist alongside owning such a plethora of multicultural relics. It evokes a lost context for the museum visitor. The question is, how sustainable is the idea of decentralisation and decolonisation in the presence of highly institutionalised regimes; one may wish for a complete overhaul.

Co-curated by the artistic director of CCAI, Asma Arshad Mehmood, and interdisciplinary artist, Shelly Bahl, ‘Be (Coming) The Museum’ was a collaborative effort of the Canadian Community Arts Initiative, Beaconhouse National University, Thinkfest, and the Lahore Museum. Dean of the Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts and Design (MDSVAD), and internationally celebrated artist, Rashid Rana, served as the project director. Acclaimed artist and Head of Department of Visual Arts, at MDSVAD, Risham Syed, worked harmoniously as a curatorial advisor. Waleed Zafar served an assistant curator along with a young team of aspiring curatorial assistants, Asavir Nadeem, Sana Durrani, and Ghazala Raees.’ The exhibition took place from January 14, 2023 to January 28, 2023 at the Lahore Museum12.

Title image: Moving Past Queen Victoria Through a Decolonial Structure, Aiman Gillani, Projection Mapping, Size variable, 2023


  1. Williams, B. (2021, December 10). The 9 Muses: Inspiring Art Since the Age of Heroes Began.
  2. The Oldest Museums Around the World – Google Arts & Culture. (n.d.). Google Arts & Culture.
  3. McShine, K. (1999). The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect. ABRAMS.
  4. Canadian Community Arts Initiative. (n.d.).
  5. Vandal, P., & Vandal, S. (2006). The Raj, Lahore, and Bhai Ram Singh.
  6. Khojo. (2021, May 11). Sir Ganga Ram | Bhai Ram Singh | Architects of Modern Lahore | The Stories You Should Know |[Video]. YouTube.
  7. Iftikhar Ahmad Usmani. (2023, April 6). The life story of GhorayShah, youngest sufi of Asia/shrine Baha-ud-Din Jhulan Shah/Iftikhar Ahmed Usmani [Video].
  8. Global Village Space. (2020, July 7). Should the national anthem of Pakistan be rewritten in the Urdu Language?
  9. Hatt, M. (2021, November 8). Counter-Ceremonial: Contemporary Artists and Queen Victoria Monuments. 19; Open Library of Humanities.
  10. S. (n.d.-b). Ashtamangala. Singbowls.
  11. Hurme, P., & Jouhki, J. (2017, November 30). We Shape Our Tools, and Thereafter Our Tools Shape Us. Human Technology; University of Jyväskylä.
  12. Canadian Community Arts Initiative. (n.d.).

Aarish Sardar is an Associate Professor and Head of the Visual Communication Design Department at Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts and Design, Beaconhouse National University. He holds a BFA in Fine Arts (2000), MA in Multimedia Arts (2003) from the National College of Arts, Lahore and an MA in Communication Design from Kingston University London (2006). He has worked as a communication designer & a multimedia consultant with clientele internationally from the USA and the UK to Pakistan and beyond. Aarish regularly writes for The News on Sunday (Pakistan) and Arte Morbida (Italy) on Art, Design, Culture and Travel.

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  • Thanks The Karachi Collective and Arshi Sardar

    Tashfeen Majeed Joseph

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