Step Across This Line
“Resemble Reassemble” is an uninhibited engagement with the social and political concerns of Pakistani society
As much as she may have wanted to, Bani Abidi couldn’t be there for the opening of Resemble Reassemble, the exhibition of contemporary Pakistani art on display at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon. In fact, the Delhi-based Pakistani artist could possibly be arrested if she were caught entering the region. Though barely a 40-minute ride from Delhi, Gurgaon is in Haryana, forbidden territory for many like Abidi. Current visa regulations grant her entry into only one state.
But Abidi’s work on display more than compensated for her absence. Perhaps the subject of her installation was rendered more piquant because of the absurdity of her circumstance. The video installation, arranged as the fourth piece of 45 in the show, depicts the diplomatic tension between India and Pakistan as a petty feud between two neighbours. Two television screens broadcast two different versions of what is ostensibly the same piece of news—the theft of a freshly-laid egg—and the presenter on both channels is Abidi herself. One screen has her reading the news in a Pakistani guise, the other Indian.
It is never clear to the viewer whether the Pakistani stole the Indian hen’s egg or the Indian stole the Pakistani’s hen’s egg. We are told the situation is tense but under control and there is talk of returning the egg to its ‘real’ owner. This ingenious, tongue-in-cheek piece of footage exposes not just the biased nature of reportage but also the nonsensical nature of the 60-year-old conflict between the two countries. Most of all, it sets the tone for the rest of the show that is spread over four sections of the gallery.
Curated by celebrated Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, Resemble Reassemble is an excellent introduction to contemporary Pakistani art. Rana engages with the complexities of borders, body, language and terror, and his intelligent use of space allows each work to connect with others in the collection, even though their theme and medium may vary. In his catalogue essay he describes his methodology as a kind of “visual thinking.” He writes: “I began to think of the works like railway carriages that can connect to each other in a train, without being identical.” For Rana, the guiding principle was to create a kind of continuous experience for the viewer, “who should be sometimes surprised and sometimes enlightened by the unfolding of images, but always intrigued enough to follow the curated path.”
While charting the curated path and organising the display, it is obvious that Rana was aware of the dangers of showcasing the 45 exhibits as representative of a Pakistani aesthetic and identity. Instead of hunting for resemblances amid the obvious diversity of the works, he seems to have expanded the scope for their interpretation by reassembling them through thoughtful curation. The result is a successful mélange of works arranged with no regard for the usual categories of style, theme, chronology, or medium, yet allowing for a sense of progression.
For instance, Abidi’s poignant footage is followed by Saira Wassim’s ‘Nuclear Threat,’ which is derived from the miniature painting tradition. It is a slick comment on the one-up mentality that characterises the relations between India and Pakistan, especially after the 1998 Pokhran nuclear test to which Pakistan responded with a successful testing of its nuclear bombs in the mountains of Balochistan. The painting shows the countries as two bawling infants in nappies sitting uncomfortably on nuclear missiles, pointing fingers at each other. The irony, of course, is that owing to their close proximity, each nation would endanger itself if nuclear weapons were ever used. The depiction of the two nuclear powers as infants becomes a metaphor for their immature, childish behaviour in the realm of international politics.
Farida Batool’s lenticular print titled ‘Line of Control’ is a daring exploration of conflict, whether sexual or political. At first glance you see two bodies pressed tightly against each other, the outlines of their naked bellies, thighs and pubic hair resembling borders. There is a sense of union and separation. The image suggests a desire to unite, but an inability to transcend the limitations of the corporeal. The bold title, ‘Line of Control,’ draws our attention to the politics that the work addresses. The lenticular nature of the print reminds us that everything is a matter of perspective and our reading of events purely depends upon the position from which we view them. At once graphic and sensual, this is an engaging piece of work that shatters any stereotypes we might have harboured about the conservative nature of Pakistani art.
Noor Ali Chagani’s ‘Unit’ presents a different take on the rigidity of structures. This seemingly simple terracotta-fired brick and cement work functions as a metaphor for immobility, or the need for a structure within which one can locate the self. It echoes a kind of nostalgia for all that is destroyed in the throes of war or a militant uprising, and a yearning for the most basic needs for existence—food, shelter, clothing—that are often hard to come by in times of terror.
Ehsan Ul Haq’s ‘Zero Point’ is perhaps the simplest installation in the entire show, and possibly the most profound. Designed out of found objects, this kinetic sculpture symbolises most eloquently the ludicrous nature of the dialogue between the two antagonistic forces. Two table fans are poised against each other, as if at war. Their blades rotate in the direction of the other so that instead of cool air, we are left with noise; a fitting commentary on the hostile nature of diplomatic dialogue where no end is eventually achieved except the advancement of conflict.
This inability to understand the other and the futility of communication is what marks the rest of the works in the first section of the curated path. Huria Khan’s video installation, for instance, features four screens that act like four frames, all of which work simultaneously to promote the story. On the first screen we see a hand writing letters on a paper and then crushing it. On the next, we see the same hand making a paper boat. On the third screen, the boat is set to sail upon water but the weight of the ink is burdensome, and the fourth screen reels footage of the words and paper dissolving in the water, adding to its murky volume. “The imagery of water and ink is a parallel to the changing states of emotional and verbal discourse. They are mediums that can change and influence the other,” writes fellow artist Nazia Khan about the piece in the catalogue.
As you move on to the other sections, the words of the first exhibit by Ayaz Johkio that you encounter on your way out seem even more relevant.
“No one will understand me
Not you not your boys not
Not my boys, not my girls,
My everything meant just
Although it can be a tiring experience, considering the sheer number of works on display, it is difficult to leave without feeling a certain sense of satisfaction. The 45 exhibits are refreshing, not just in their use of material and medium, but also because they force you to re-examine tired idioms, and introduce the viewer to an alternative way of understanding the world of personal and political conflict. More importantly, they allow you to step into a realm that is strangely familiar yet alien to our own. They represent an uninhibited engagement with the social, political and psychological concerns of Pakistani society.
Often, it is the subversion of the function of domestic objects like the bathroom sink, or a dining table or telephone that lends insight. This is best illustrated in Rabbya Nasser’s ‘Bread House,’ which features a breakfast table with cups of tea, a butter spread, a jam bottle and a large chunk of bread that has been baked in a house-shaped mould. These innocuous household objects and the daily business of eating breakfast suddenly assume sinister dimensions as Nasser draws our attention to the role Pakistani women are conditioned to assume, that of the happy homemaker. Viewers are invited to eat a portion of the bread baked every day as part of the exhibit. The mould in which it is baked is kept on display a few feet away from the table, and its rundown, burnt-out, exterior is a biting commentary on the interior world of the housewife.
Traditional forms like miniature painting, too, have been reinterpreted by Pakistani artists to make it a fitting canvas capable of expressing contemporary political realities, like in Saira Wasim’s ‘Nuclear Threat’ or in Aisha Khalid’s ‘Veil’ and ‘Gul-e-Lalah.’
Gritty, sophisticated and confident, Pakistani art has involved itself with issues that go beyond identity. Though its concerns remain local, the appeal is universal.
Perhaps this freshness is what drew Anupam Poddar towards Pakistani art, apart from the fact that most of the work was available for one tenth the price of something by an Indian artist. Since his first trip in 2005, Poddar has been acquiring Pakistani art and the exhibits on display constitute a fraction of his collection. He writes, in his introduction to the show’s catalogue: “Expansion of our collection to include Pakistan was more out of a curiousity to absorb the energy from that part of the subcontinent than for charting out the territory of South Asian contemporary art. To say that I see in Pakistan what I miss in India would not be an overstatement.”
The show represents a broad spectrum of approaches to the problems that confront the Pakistani artist. It is also the result of a growing curiosity shared by both countries about life on the other side of the border, and a kind of mutual acceptance on both sides of the ineptitude of governments and heads of state to resolve the six-decade-old conflict. The show provides space for dialogue between India and Pakistan, at least on a creative level. And while its outcome may be difficult to measure, the level of its impact cannot be negated.