There are several kinds of letters: open letters in newspapers, handwritten letters on loose sheets, letters composed and printed in a book, letters scrawled with blood on a piece of paper, letters inscribed on leather parchments, letters inked on scrolls, letters designed like some greeting card, letters sent on the back of picture postcards, email documents, and text messages. Besides a single person, a letter may be addressed to an abstract entity, or a collective, or a country like Pakistan.
Such letters can take many forms – for instance artworks in the exhibition, Letters to Pakistan, at the Art-soch Contemporary, Lahore. The group show, curated by Mariam Hanif Khan, opened on August 27. It comprises a range of works, mostly by young artists trained at various art institutions. Fourteen artists have been invited to participate, probably a random choice. Else, the number might be linked to August 14, the Independence Day of the Islamic Republic.
A viewer might wonder about what each artist has ‘written’ to his/ her homeland. The content is likely not for the addressee, but for the general public rather the few who visit the display, or access these works through social media. In this case, the writer and receiver of the letter is the same. Each artist has expressed views about this country, its people, its systems – by employing a private language, and infusing personal sentiments that also relate to current conditions. Abrar Ahmed, in his rather incomprehensible letter Sang-i-Meel, has used oil and paper on carved marble, to denote Arabic words and red squares that signify martyrs. White patches are linked to saints. If one does not read another text, the description put up by the artist next to his work, his letter, appears like an abstract surface. This is also the case with a few of the other artists’ works in the exhibition, including Amna Manzoor and Umna Laraib.
Some works have floral imagery painted or embroidered (as by Manisha Jiani and Brishna Amin Khan). Some have imaginary scenarios, like Saba Haroon’s in which an origami bird dominates the composition. One can believe in these pieces of paper being letters, but perhaps letters in a lost language or a hermeneutic vocabulary.
On the other hand, some works connect more readily to the idea of a letter, or to the theme. Hira Butt, in her mixed media, called Dhe-Rani, has composed a letter-like image predominantly in green and brown (echoing a landscape) with lines in English filling the entire page. To her, the letter is a way of showing “pure expression of love and gratitude” for her homeland that she left for England in 2009.
More personal content is visible in Yearning for the Past 1964, by Mehreen Asif. She explains her hand-embroidered cotton-on-jute work that “displays a scene from winters of 1964 where I have portrayed myself in the place of my grandmother enjoying the evening tea.”
There are other kinds of nostalgia, too, spanning 74 years since the birth of Pakistan. Some participants have responded to this, by incorporating the national flag, mind-maps and the relation between the body and current space. In her remarkable acrylic on brass, Delivered, Ramsah Imran has created an open envelop with the Pakistan’s flag as the inserted page. Other artists have also employed the form of flag. Ume Laila has turned the flag into an origami sculpture. Rahim Baloch’s hanging book dripping green ink on white sheet also showcases two colours of the national flag. Yumna’s archival print depicts a glass jar with a twisted flag bearing faces of Quaid-i-Azam and Allama Iqbal resting on sand, resonating with the hour glass, or the loss of or deviation from the original thoughts of the founding fathers.
Two other letters, which do not have a flag, nor a historic/ political content, and no obvious reference to Pakistan, also illustrate the contemporary situation. Sara Aslam, in her mixed media work, addresses a changing relation between humans and space at the age of self-isolation. She charts her tasks or recollection of seven days of week, which seem mundane and ordinary, yet in the present and altered circumstances all acts carry a great significance. She constructs a mind map that seems a personal response to her physical and psychological environment.
Sadqain has built a kinetic piece, in which a sharply defined organ/ form moves under a skin-like surface. He states the work being “an exploration of the relationship between the body and space”, since in “past few months, incidents related to body and space have been in discussion and highlighted on news channels”.
Sadqain’s work, which seems to portray a body breathing with difficulty may connote some recent incidents of violence against women in public spaces, especially the Greater Iqbal Park attack on the Independence Day.
Actually, such despicable acts are another form of letters to Pakistan. The August 14 frenzy is not new, it just erupted on a new scale this summer.
The dark and dirty letters to the motherland (actually to its women), remind one of the following lines by American poet Elizabeth Bishop:
Let nations rage.
Let nations fall.
The shadow of the crib makes an enormous cage
Upon the wall.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.