In his famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1903-1950) clearly expresses a concept by giving chapter 19 an incipit that read: “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Orwell’s stinging tone in this phrase sums up not just the reality of the Ministry of Truth in his novel but also the itch to control history by those in power; that typifies the real world we live in. Every society continually reconstructs a new version of its past to echo the political and social dispositions expressed by the state at that time. The sentiments are strongly reinforced amongst the masses, making it almost impossible to detach oneself and objectively view their present and past. Political parties and those with immense social influence appropriate identity traits such as gender, ethnicity, race, and religion as divisive tools to propagandize their motive.
For millennia, empires that took over civilizations took stringent measures through law and legislation to erase or modify what existed and instead disseminate the social values and stance they brought forth. Other steps included shifting optics of culture, such as in art, architecture, and fashion. Such examples spread across history from Roman and Greek civilizations heroizing emperors as mythological figures to the current climate of dethroning historical statues of racist colonizers across Europe and the Americas. Therefore, we should not be surprised that much of social, political and religious debate is strongly historicist by nature and vocation.
While contemporary examples of history revisionism are aplenty across the globe, Adeel uz Zafar introspected the ongoing volatile conditions within Pakistan and showcased his observation in an exhibition held at Sanat Initiative in September 2021. The exhibition is titled The End and features a short film directed by Zafar and produced by Abid Aziz Merchant. The video portrays multiple busts of four victims – either attacked or slain – due to various instances of hate speech, schismatic religious movements, and extremism. Adeel uz Zafar proceeds to lift the individual busts before dropping them on the floor, and in doing so, shattering them beyond recognition into tiny fragments. An action that would perhaps take two seconds to complete is deliberately slowed and stretched across eight minutes; to induce anxiety and test of patience amongst the audience. The film inspired further displayed works, such as the glorified busts on decorated plinths placed by the artist in the gallery centre and photographic prints of their faces before and after the vandalism. The exhibition ended with a live performance titled The End – Reprise, in which Adeel uz Zafar continues to smash the bust sculptures situated in the gallery. The work is undeniably politically charged but purposefully left ambiguous due to its sensitive nature, which is why we have also omitted the names of the personalities depicted in the busts upon the artist’s request. The implied issues are considered controversial, and openly discussing them can jeopardize one’s safety. The Karachi Collective interviewed Adeel uz Zafar to grasp the thought process behind his work and address formal concerns he faced as an artist and curator that unfolds the entire exhibit.
Numair Abbasi: How did the idea come to a realization, considering it looks very different from what your practice has been so far?
Adeel uz Zafar: My practice, so far, primarily entails etched drawings and I suppose people now consider that as my signature style. The truth is, my work has organically evolved over the years, and I am enjoying that process a lot. If you observe my artworks from a few years ago, you will notice that I have frequently dabbled with different mediums and topics. I first explored the idea of historical revisionism at the The 70s: Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade hosted by Amin Gulgee at his gallery in 2016. I dismantled parts of a vintage car and titled the work Autopsy. The work was very different from what I usually produce. In 2015, Zarmeené Shah curated a show at the Koel Gallery called Parrhesia II, in which I displayed a text-based piece that read ‘among the believers’ in a monochromatic palette. I sought inspiration from Mo Naqvi’s documentary with the same title which he premiered in the Tribeca Film Festival in the same year. Aisha Khalid had curated a show in Vienna called Personal – Universal in 2016 for which I produced a sound installation. I recorded the audio of etching from my drawing process and played the obscure sound in a rhythmic loop.
You are also familiar with my previous exhibition, Paradise Lost (2020) for which I tackled the weaponization of religion in history. I showcased different perspectives in different mediums alongside my etched drawings. I have slowly and steadily been working in a myriad of mediums for a very long time. I wanted to incorporate the moving image, as that is something I had not previously experimented with. Incorporating various mediums is an organic process and is almost always influenced by the curatorial note or the conceptual premise of the exhibition.
NA: But where did the inspiration for particularly this body of work come from?
AZ: I think the interest in this work generated from the work I produced in 2016 for The 70s: Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade. In 2018, I was selected for a residency in C3A – Center of Contemporary Art in Córdoba and by then I had already started seeing history revisionism as an area of interest that I wanted to dissect in my art practice and research. History is never taught objectively and has multiple perspectives. Imagine a chair kept in the centre of four people. While our viewpoints of the same object will remain subjectively true, they will never be alike from four angles. I wanted to explore this idea further during my residency, and Córdoba felt like the ideal location. I wanted to explore its rich history; several empires and civilizations occupied the region over centuries. Different rulers who took over ensured to leave their imprints while selectively erasing, modifying, or highlighting the vestige of the previous empires. Córdoba is brim-full of architectural sites and buildings that trace back to the Roman, Islamic Moorish, and various Christian empires.
During my time at the residency, a lot was happening politically in Pakistan. For instance, the Faizabad sit-in by TLP. I could not avoid observing the volatile turn of events happening in Pakistan from a safe distance, and it kept circling my mind. During every visit to any history museum in Spain, I kept connecting the centuries-old iconoclastic sculptures to the contemporary times in Pakistan. The sentiments were very similar. I eventually documented and sourced images of the broken statues that I reproduced as scraped drawings. When I drew those, I did not view them as Roman or foreign figures. To me, they looked a lot like local individuals back in Pakistan. The forms I created conceptually felt like familiar faces in modern society.
I also started to see the process of my drawings as an extended form of Iconoclasm. The reductive process required me to scrape the paper’s surface that mimicked the process of chiselling stone.
NA: So the idea for this exhibition was already conceived and gestated during your residency in Cordoba?
NA: Were you aware of how tricky and controversial addressing such topics could be. Was that thought pressing the back of your mind during the making stage?
AZ: Yes. There are a lot of things one cannot discuss openly in Pakistan. For instance, barely anyone addresses the case of missing persons on public platforms even though it is common knowledge. The same is true for other political contexts. I know this topic is hypersensitive and poses a tricky situation for artists. We must continually decipher how to navigate our concept. I wanted to create a timeline that showcased the history of violence and the birth of various religiopolitical factions. I wanted to chart how violence seeped into our local religious history while mapping a series of global events. I do not think anyone has ever made such a timeline, or if they did, they did not make it public. I wanted to observe for myself how we arrived at this point. But I obviously could not address these things explicitly.
Around the time I was working for my previous show, we also witnessed the devastating case of vandalism and censorship on artistic expression during the Karachi Biennale 2019. Since then, everyone has expressed various concerns, including myself, the curator, or any gallery. I decided to showcase my work in implicit ways that, those aware and those who intended to, could deduce what the work concerns. I also think that there is no need to showcase things graphically. Our work can embody an essence from which people can draw multiple dialogues and contexts. We are not journalists who are reporting on events as is. I feel I was successful with the outcome I intended to achieve. The work made a lot of people uncomfortable and demanded them to raise questions and pursue a discourse. It was a positive outcome despite the obvious concerns.
NA: But how does one balance such tricky situations? Any tips or advice? Several artists become restless until they have visually spoken their minds, but they also do not want to censor for the sake of censorship. Should they compromise? What was your process?
AZ: My generation grew up in Zia ul Haq’s era when he actively suppressed and censored art and other creative forms. The art fraternity did not have that many opportunities to speak openly. I feel it is still a lot better and freer today. Creative minds always figure a way around to voice themselves. For example, look at the iconic show Fifty-fifty where actors passed a lot of political viewpoints through clever satire. Our generation became equipped with this skill through conditioning. I retained the subliminal message in the work that many may not understand which is fine by me.
NA: It seems the exhibition centres on the video that inspired other works that were on display? Could you talk us through that process?
AZ: I could not showcase this video in my previous exhibition, Paradise Lost, because of security concerns from the gallery. Honestly, I did not feel there would be any backlash on the work. But I respected the gallery’s reservations and removed two artworks that included this video and an installation of busts. I still wanted to showcase these works at some point in another space. I discussed it my friend who is also the producer of my film, Abid Aziz Merchant. He was very receptive to screening the film at his gallery, Sanat Initiative. I revisited the video and realized that I did not want to show just the video. The busts were an integral part of the film, and I eventually realized an exhibition that revolves around the film but showcased other works that fell under the same idea. I installed prints of the busts as lightboxes since I wanted them to emanate light. I also printed photographs of the broken pieces that I previously documented. These works extracted the synopsis of the film to form an entirely new full-fledged exhibition. I do not know if anyone noticed that I also displayed the film poster as a separate artwork.
NA: I noticed a disparate aesthetic between the busts of these local figures and the Greco-Roman plinths they rested on. Why did you meld these expressions?
AZ: I was drawing the sensibility from the European history museums I visited in Spain. The idea came from there. I encountered various busts kept on similar plinths in those museums, and they started to look very familiar as if they were people from our country. Those plinths also exalted the figures. I similarly wanted to glorify the local characters of who I made the casts. Besides, there is no local equivalent to this style. It is not a part of our cultural history; to make statues and situate them on plinths that emanate respect and importance.
NA: Sanat Initiative is a vast space compared to other galleries, particularly the ones in Karachi. Many artists can find that intimidating in regards to it dominating over the works. Was this something you felt from a curatorial aspect?
AZ: In my opinion, every space is an apt venue to exhibit. It can be a clean white cube or a derelict warehouse. I know a lot of artists find Sanat a very challenging gallery spatially. They may find it too big and ponder how much work they should produce so the space does not overpower. But it is not a requirement to fill up the gallery space. One can even do justice to the gallery space and their art by putting only two works. They can also employ clever use of light and to warp the entire place. I find it an ideal space for sound installations, suspended installations, performances and large-scale works. I do not think anyone has ever used the gallery like that. I have always found the space very fascinating, and it just felt like the ideal venue to screen the film. I also fitted lightboxes and customized lights instead of the ambient gallery lights—I think worked successfully.
NA: You employ dim and dramatic lighting in most of your exhibitions. We have seen that in your previous shows as well as in your curatorial projects. It must be a conscious decision. Where is that reference coming from? Any reason why you get drawn towards such dramatic lighting?
AZ: Our galleries are not the quintessential white cube spaces but mostly repurposed former houses. I felt the overexposed ambient light drew attention to the visible flaws and cracks on the gallery walls. I opted for dim lighting the first time to merely repel attention to any of these blemishes. Instead, I spot-lit my works to keep the audience concentrated on just the artwork. Over the years, I also gained exposure abroad from visiting galleries and museums, where I became increasingly fascinated with similar lighting used. I realized how lighting drastically affects the viewer’s mood and the nature of the displayed works. I was also in a theatre group back in the National College of Arts and have performed with three international puppet theatre festivals under the Rafi Peer group. I learnt a lot about how to manipulate moods and narratives by simply altering the light. These executions culminate in the knowledge which I gained from those experiences.
Later, I also reflected on my work. It is monochromatic and dark. Perhaps I subconsciously view things from a dark and ominous perspective. Using such lighting came in involuntarily, and now I feel it reflects my personality and how I view the world. That said, I do not need to continue with it in future. It depends on the nature of the work and the conceptual premise. Our galleries have fixed lights which limits the margin for us to play within. We cannot spend a fortune to obtain the type of lights we would like to use, so I do with whatever options are there.
NA: I find that such lighting, for particularly the kind of work you make, demands the audience’s complete attention. Perhaps it is my personal experience, but it signals that I am entering a space where I should remain silent and focused. It reminds me of entering museums or galleries or any place sombre.
AZ: Perhaps I am finicky, but I hate when lights create multiple shadows on a single artwork, either in my shows or curated projects. That completely ruins the experience for me. I started to use a singular light source per work to counter those shadows and uneven distribution of light. The entire artwork becomes visible and produces a single, crisp shadow.
NA: Do you classify the moving image we saw a short film or as video art? (How) do you differentiate the two?
AZ: When I began work on the film, I knew I wanted to place it in the art-house genre. I also knew that I wanted to keep it in extreme slow motion. My work requires a lot of time as I scratch individual marks; it tests my patience. I intended to measure the audience’s patience through the video. Our attention span is plummeting with each passing day, considering the plethora of distractions that surround us in the form of social media or current affairs.
People might say that my video and my entire practice is very monotonous. Truthfully, I try to seek new possibilities within the same methods. At least, that is the dialogue I have with my work which seeps into my visuals. Breaking the busts takes only two seconds. To induce anxiousness, I decided to slow the action down enough to provoke people that they begin questioning what exactly will happen: if the busts will even break. I hired not only an extensive crew but also a professional high speed camera called Phantom Gold that records forty times slower than a regular frame rate. I thought that process was an achievement in itself. For me, it is an art-house project. It can also be a performance or a short video. People can view it from multiple angles and absorb it however they want.
My work is always a juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. I beautify the darkness and adversities by keeping the presentation aesthetically pleasing. The film is pleasurable in its formal concerns, such as the ambience, light, music, and framing. But the content itself is very dark.
NA: What made you decide into creating the film in the first place? Did you produce the busts first and then decide on making the film? What was the chronology?
AZ: First, I researched and then I drew. The conclusion to make a moving image was pretty instant. But even for that, I had to make the busts first. I had already resolved the idea and the narrative in my mind.
Knowing that I had only a second or less to film the breakage, I had to create multiple casts of the busts as a backup in case of retakes. I spoke to my team members, Noman Siddiqui and Faraz Mateen, who helped me make several casts after creating clay moulds. The video had to be in slow motion, for which we needed a very professional high-speed camera. We broke a lot of pieces as a trial. We also needed a lot of light for the camera we were using. Everything was quite technical and challenging, and it did not become easier during post-production. The music was an original score by Ahsan Bari from the Sound of Kolachi. I showed him the film and shared what sort of mood I wanted to create. He did an excellent job in response. I wanted an orchestral track to globalize the issue. I wanted it to come across as haunting and familiar to an international audience. But the people with who I was discussing each step suggested going for traditional or folk music played from indigenous instruments. Eventually, I decided as the director towards an orchestral piece.
NA: The film has already been screened abroad?
AZ: Yes. I spoke to Abid Merchant after removing the work from my previous exhibition, Paradise Lost. As you may know, he has ventured into producing several short films and feature films. I suggested that we should apply to a film festival. The UK Asian Film Festival responded positively and selected our submission for screening.
NA: The exhibition concluded with a performance. What was the thought behind that?
AZ: During the span of the exhibition, I had gained the confidence to try different mediums. I had already experimented with various disciplines such as sound installations, lightboxes, and sculptures until that stage. I had not ventured into performance until then, and I felt this was the right time to do so. I titled my performance The End- Reprise, as an end can also suggest a new beginning. It was an emotionally challenging task to break the pieces that took me three years to create. I had already documented it in a video but seeing it in the film is a different experience than seeing it in person, in real-time. It will have a different meaning. I decided to lead the work into an iconoclastic narrative and break them live myself as a performance. I discussed it with Abid Merchant, who responded encouragingly, and so I went ahead with it. It was a difficult moment since I was ridding the time, financial resources, and effort I invested in creating the works.
NA: Have you kept the broken pieces?
AZ: I kept only one piece as a souvenir for myself, and I placed it next to a piece from Adeela Suleman’s razed work from Karachi Biennale 2019. I feel like I am collecting these remnants, but I hope there will not be any such instances in the future for me to expand this collection. I do not know what I will do with them. A few audience members took some of the pieces. The rest became dust.
NA: You repeated the same action in your performance which you documented in the film. Besides, the film was performative in many ways. How does this repetition across the two genres inform or influence the viewer’s experience of your work?
AZ: We broadcasted the performance on Instagram Live. So it was real-time for our virtual audience and those physically present in the gallery. As for the moving image, people can watch it wilfully whenever or however many times they like. They could only experience the performance once. Ironically I also documented the performance in the form of a film.
My art practice is all about doing things repetitively. Perhaps the medium may fluctuate, but that idea of repetition remains embedded. However, when you closely inspect it, you will notice the subtle differences, the nuances, which is a significant inquiry in my practice. Perhaps that is why I documented it again.
NA: How has the response been to the exhibition? Were there any stimulating conversations it generated?
AZ: I do not know what specific dialogue to have over the exhibition with my audience. Most people left their feedback on the performance during the live feed, which we could not record for me to respond to later. And a majority of the people who showed up to view the performance in person arrived late. I think the audience took the overall exhibition quite positively. They came with no knowledge of what the visual and conceptual narrative of the video will be. The build-up during the stretched video seemed to fascinate them. It is not graphic but remains provocative. That said, I do not think I received any feedback worth noting. I think the audience is generally reluctant to engage on that level with the artist. I would have liked to have come across any feedback that challenged my viewpoint or provided me with another enlightening perspective.
NA: Does this exhibition mark a departure in your practice? Will we see more moving images from you?
AZ: Definitely. I am more inclined towards the moving image for now. It is not certain; a few ideas are running in my mind. I may also do other mediums that evolve my practice. I do not leave a medium that I begin using until I am confident that I have achieved complete command over it. I move forward only after that point. I do not want to leave things half baked. This body of work has opened a lot of avenues and fields which I can explore further. I will work on new ideas within this medium, but I have not thought about what exactly.
NA: Anything that you would like to add?
AZ: I think your practice also delves across censorship issues. As artists, we often want to say something knowing that we cannot address it openly. Although your concerns are very different from mine, I think you can relate to them. I feel a lot of artists continually face this problem. We need to consciously address and think about what we portray and how we speak our minds amidst the lurking challenge of surveillance and censorship.
Adeel uz Zafar’s solo exhibition The End was displayed at the Sanat Initiative in Karachi from September 21, 2021, to September 30, 2021.