“I’m interested in elements of theatricality in what appear to be straight images”

 Nobody Writes to Islam Chacha! (2016) Mahbub Jokhio

Nobody Writes to Islam Chacha! (2016) Mahbub Jokhio

In a pair of solo exhibitions in Leeds, two Pakistani artists explored 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 in February 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 dealt with the subject of public space through the medium of film and photography – albeit in two separate solo shows. Karachi-based artist Madiha Aijaz showed a body of work that considered the urban library and its relevance to the contemporary city, while Mahbub Jokhio 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. 

 Baidil Library Karachi (2017) by Madiha Aijaz

Baidil Library Karachi (2017) by Madiha Aijaz

“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 said 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 – captured 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.”

  These Silences Are All the Words  (2017-2018) by Madiha Aijaz in Tetley, Leeds. Image by Jules Lister

These Silences Are All the Words (2017-2018) by Madiha Aijaz in Tetley, Leeds. Image by Jules Lister

Alongside the photos were 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 were 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 were unstaged but carried 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 said.

 A portrait of an old woman at the edge of graveyard (2016) by Mahbub Jokhio

A portrait of an old woman at the edge of graveyard (2016) by Mahbub Jokhio

In contrast, Mahbub Jokhio made no attempt to suggest that his work was naturalistic. In the City of Lost Times comprised a series of vibrant photos that depicted 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 depicted 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 said. A separate work – 99 “portraits” of women’s gravestones, many of them only referred to as “mother or “wife” – was 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.”

 For the Love of Her (2016) Mahbub Jokhio, at the Tetley, Leeds. Photo by Jules Lister

For the Love of Her (2016) Mahbub Jokhio, at the Tetley, Leeds. Photo by Jules Lister

Jokhio often refers to death in his work: he recalled 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 said, 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.”


The exhibitions ran until 22 April at The Tetley in Leeds

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