Rituals are central to family life. They improve the holidays because they amplify the closeness of the family and their involvement in the experience. It is also associated with a greater sense of enjoyment. Holidays are frequent opportunities for a reunion – with friends, family members, neighbours, and other loved ones from different corners of the world who gather to celebrate. People observe these traditions during secular holidays and religious celebrations such as Eid, Christmas, or Nauroz. Often people adopt practices that are not strictly appointed by religion, yet they gradually evolve into integral family rituals. These celebrations get passed down generations and continue to be fervently performed — partly to honour the memory of the late individual who introduced them.
Artists Razin Rubin and Haider Ali Naqvi collaborate to recreate one such tradition practised by Rubin’s late parents during Christmas. Naqvi and Rubin have been friends for a long time, and they frequently visited each other’s houses. Having celebrated various events and religious occasions together, they became familiar with the other’s families and household dynamics.
Rubin has narrated various anecdotes on Wilson and Javaid with Naqvi, and through this process, he sculpted their personalities in his mind, as if he has met them and knows them well. Upon every visit to Rubin’s house, Naqvi essentially entered a space that her late parents once inhabited and interacted with the possessions they left behind.
It seemed ideal to propose this conceptual premise in response to VASL’s open call for the project. The exhibition merges their work but also extends their solo practices. Rubin’s practice revolves around her late parents and the childhood experiences that eventually became stories and memories. Naqvi’s works are informed by the narratives he listened to from various people he encounters by chance.
Rubin brought forth an emotionally charged perspective that Naqvi balanced with his objective lens, that time and again shifted the focus on resolving the formal aspects of the artwork. Their partnership also became a symbol for inter-faith harmony and the possibilities one can achieve by connecting communities and dialoguing with individuals from different religions.
Their exhibition titled In The Loving Memory Of… was produced under Vasl Artists Association’s year-long Museum of Abandoned Spaces project. Through this project, Vasl aims to hold pop up exhibitions in abandoned and unorthodox venues beyond the confinements of a gallery space. In doing so, they make art more accessible to the public and activate the residuum of memories embodied by those spaces. MOAS also contests the ideology of museums as establishments that conserve and acquire highly valued antiquities by functioning instead as a temporary site that displays tangible and intangible belongings with subjective cultural, personal, and social importance. Rubin and Haider’s In The Loving Memory Of… is the second iteration of the MOAS series.
Rubin’s parents Sulaiman Javaid and Pansy Wilson annually hosted a get together on Christmas for their friends, family, and neighbours. They opened their doors in Sukkur to welcome anyone irrespective of their faith. Their residence became a utopic venue that gathered everyone to celebrate togetherness and community. The couple served the guests their inherited delicacies and confectionaries brought by other visitors. It reflected the couple’s selfless nature and passion for sharing joy with their social circles. However, this longstanding annual practice came to a halt after the couple’s sudden demise. Several relatives also moved to different parts of the world, further demotivating the drive amongst the family to revive the tradition.
Rubin and Naqvi spent a year researching and creating work for the exhibition. They introduced one of the artworks to the foreseeable audience, a lot earlier than the day of the display, in the form of personalized invites. The duo sent out notes to their friends, family, and contacts from the art world to invite them to the celebratory open house. This interactive piece re-enacts the performative elements from the late couple’s annual tradition of sending handwritten invites and Christmas wishes to their friends and family during the first week of every December. They deliberately kept the exhibition on the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally known as Gaudette Sunday. The Latin word translates to ‘rejoice’ and marks the day that asks Christians to focus their hearts on rejoicing at the arrival of Jesus. This moment of waiting offers a time to reflect and observe humility, confidence, and hope.
The venue is located above a popular, local eatery and bears an open plan. The quirky and eclectic décor comprises a feature wall made entirely of emerald green glass bottles in one corner and a patchwork of various furniture and woodworks in another. Distressed wooden windows and doors veil parts of the interior façade, further layered with old fashioned metal lattice grills.
Other elements echo this visual cacophony in the entire interior space – fields of vermillion, deep blue, and white walls defy the vast coverage of charcoal grey walls. Textures from wooden tiles that cover sections of space disrupt the satin painted walls. The assemblage of these fragments poetically alludes to the fractured and faint nature of memories that one retains. After all, memories become mere imprints, fleeting shadows riddled with blind spots that we— in our earnest efforts of not letting go— weave together in a slapdash sequence of events.
Viewers find themselves seemingly arriving at someone’s drawing-room or an entertainment area. Mood-setting lights, sound, and decorations embellish the space to elevate the festive ambience of the occasion. Fairy lights and tinsel adorn the ceiling and walls while Christmas carols leisurely play on loop in the background. A Christmas tree replete with tree toppers, candles, jingle bells, pine cones, wreaths, and star sculptures that reincarnate the stars of Bethlehem are some of the other atypical Christmas ornaments sporadically placed around the rooms. Series of discoloured, old family photographs from Rubin and her family’s past are also displayed. The prints securely dangle from strings across the room. An elaborate table spread with a cornucopia of Christmas treats awaits to serve the visitors. The massive feast includes delicacies that personally resonate with Rubin. Some are traditional family recipes that she inherited and made herself for the exhibition, such as egg sandwiches and hunter beef. Other items are desserts and savouries common amongst Karachi’s Christian community – especially around Christmas – such as the famous plum cake from the historic Misquita Bakery.
At first glance, it may seem that Rubin and Naqvi just hosted a Christmas open house party, which they did in parts. But the interactive installation was also a contrastingly sombre affair that commemorated the legacy left behind by Rubin’s cherished parents. As viewers saunter within the space, they stumble upon various mundane objects – from a chair, harmonium, and a dressing table to a rusty trunk, set of glass and jug, to an unravelled bolt of an embroidered sari. These objects are former possessions of Javaid and Wilson and later given to relatives as keepsakes. Rubin and Naqvi personally sourced most of these items from Rubin’s family, while some objects are from Rubin’s household and remain in use. The collaborating pair honours the existence of these nonhuman objects; in featuring them, they teleport the visitors to an earlier time when Rubin shared these experiences with her parents, and in some circumstances when she was not born. A handwritten letter and what may initially seem like a photograph accompanies each of the sixteen objects. The 5”x7” photographs are in reality paintings by Naqvi whose tactful and gentle miniature strokes recreate the stained and erased effect that over time surface on vintage photos. Seepage and mould bleed and corrode these prints to poignantly convey how our memory fades and becomes more obscure with time.
The moments captured in the paintings document the paired object in use by Rubin’s parents. Apart from portraying the displayed items, those different family affairs provide a glimpse into the kind of lives and personalities that Rubin’s parents led. The letters are voluntary submissions by relatives who also lent both the object and the photograph. They address the encountering visitors and narrate the events captured in the photograph. The sixteen smaller installations become storytellers, transforming a domestic living space into a museum of memories. The artists informally place the objects and letters as if someone arbitrarily left the monologues behind. The work stresses the release and relief one gained from these emotional expressions, and whether the departed words reach the reader becomes inconsequential.
The exhibition is festive and sober; the two nature dispute over who sets the ambience. However, the solemnness becomes apparent once the visitors leave. Crumbles left behind on the platter and carols echoing in a space with no human presence capture what once was. The artists remarkably create an exhibition that addresses dissipating memories in the shape of a fleeting affair that eventually became a memory of itself.
The exhibition goes beyond recounting Rubin’s personal experiences. It recalls when religious minorities had the freedom to live and express themselves uninhibitedly, often integrating people from other faiths into the celebratory and mournful occasions. The socio-cultural climate has drastically changed and pushed minorities to the peripheries of mainstream society. Many have fled the country to seek a better life, and those who stayed live a reserved life. The censorial and intolerant climate eventually led many minorities to discontinue various traditions and cultural practices, such as Javaid’s and Wilson’s. Naqvi’s and Rubin’s collaborative effort recognizes the distant harmonious engagement between different communities.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful segments of the exhibition was when Rubin lit the third candle of the Advent. Christians light a candle every Sunday for a month as part of preparations leading to Christmas celebrations, and the exhibition took place on the third Sunday. The third candle represents joy. But besides disseminating that amongst the visitors, Rubin also ignited hope that the exposition manifested as an open and inclusive event augurs well for the future of religious minorities and interfaith harmony.
‘In The Loving Memory Of…’ by Razin Rubin and Haider Ali Naqvi was exhibited as part of Vasl Artist Association’s Museum Of Abandoned Spaces project at The East End annexe in Karachi on December 12, 2021.
Title image: Razin Rubin, ‘In the loving memory of…’, installation, dimensions variable, 2021. Image courtesy: Razin Rubin
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