“I’m interested in elements of theatricality in what appear to be straight images”
In a pair of solo exhibitions in Leeds, two Pakistani artists explore the relevance of libraries and graveyards as public space in the contemporary city
The latest stage of the New North and South Network – a three-year programme of art events linking the north of England and South Asia – kicked off this month with a pair of exhibitions by Pakistani artists at The Tetley in Leeds. In contrast to the exhibitions that opened in Manchester last September, which displayed unrelated work by quite different artists, the works here both deal with the subject of public space through the medium of film and photography – albeit in two separate solo shows. Karachi-based artist Madiha Aijaz is showing a body of work that considers the urban library and its relevance to the contemporary city, while Mahbub Jokhio has turned his attention to the cemeteries of his home city of Lahore, proposing with a touch of humour that they could become vibrant social spaces.
“Libraries world over are not frequented as much as they used to be, so there is a question about what their function is today – as well as a sense of missing and melancholy attached to them,” Aijaz says about her show, These Silences Are All The Words, first seen at the recent inaugural Karachi Biennale. She came to the theme through her interest in language – in particular, in Urdu literary traditions. “Growing up in an environment where English was very important, I felt there was an entire body of poetry and literature I wasn’t accessing, so I started visiting libraries specialising in Urdu books, and this project developed from there.”
A series of back-lit photographs – portraits of the library and its staff – capture a sense of spaces trapped in time while the city changes around them. “High-rises are coming up, while these libraries remain the same at one or two floors, because nobody thinks of expanding a library when it’s hard enough to keep them open.”
Alongside the photos are documentary-style videos: interviews with library staff, a students’ storytelling session, glimpses of staff members occupying their time in these empty facilities, through prayer and other activities. There are references peppered throughout to the tumultuous 1947 Partition – in the books on the shelves and in one interviewee’s recollection of how, during that mass migration, some people left all their belongings behind, but took books with them. Aijaz has previously explores similar themes in her work exploring the country’s railways, looking at the legacy of colonialism and the connection between India and Pakistan.
The films are unstaged but carry a sense of drama – as in the man fidgeting in boredom, or perhaps anxiety, in a final film about the Theosophical Society, Karachi’s oldest library. “I’m interested in elements of theatricality in what appear to be straight images,” the artist says.
In contrast, Mahbub Jokhio makes no attempt to suggest that his work is naturalistic. In the City of Lost Times comprises a series of vibrant photos that depict fictional scenarios in Lahore graveyards – a children’s birthday party, two men playing chess, a women working on a sewing machine, a postman standing over a grave as if he has arrived too late with a letter. In gif-like loops, videos depict an old-fashioned alarm clock ringing and portable fans cool unmarked graves for all eternity. “I’m working with the idea of inseparability between life and death, and the graveyard is the perfect manifestation of that idea, where life and death can co-exist,” he says. A separate work – 99 “portraits” of women’s gravestones, many of them only referred to as “mother or “wife” – is displayed on a large wall opposite the main gallery spaces. They were taken in a cemetery that was first built on the outskirts of Lahore but has become integrated into it as the city has expanded. “The problem with graveyards is they are not frequently visited and they end up being scary, abandoned places. This project is a suggestion that they should be visited.”
Jokhio often refers to death in his work: he recalls with amusement how, during his recent residency at the Gasworks studios in London, he performed a fake death each day as a way of highlighting the sense of public exposure that an artistic residency gives you. “We have become insensitive towards death recently, but the concept of death makes everything beautiful,” he says, explaining his interest. “You know that each moment will be over eventually, and that death will take it away from you, so you enjoy it more.”
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