A house after its first inhabitants | Art & Culture

11 Route of the Temples, A strange and sublime address, is neither Bernarda Alba’s house or A home for Mr. Biswas. Like the latter, however, the colonial mansion built in 1928 in the heart of Lahore symbolized class status and financial standing. This brick and mortar, plaster and stucco house once housed Amolak Ram Mehta, a senior public health official, and Shanti Mehta, who continued to live in Lahore until 1947.

Their son, Ved Mehta, who would become a renowned writer, was born here in 1934. Before going blind at the age of three from meningitis, he recalls in his serial autobiography, Vedi and Stolen light, days spent in the company of Daddyji on Mehta Estate: “When I was 11, we finally started living at 11 Temple Road for the first time in my conscious memory. My father had it all planned … The walls were painted in tempera, and the floors were finished with shards of marble, which shone as brightly as the marble slabs of the palaces of rajas ”.

About a hundred years later, standing in the middle of Mehta’s domain, the house has stood the test of time as a lone sentry.

Memory speaks about us, and it is deeply linked to our fears and sensitivities. Memory collects and preserves fragments of our lives. It slumbers, evokes and sometimes tears our consciousness. A memory can also escape us. In these times of rapidly changing technologies and overlapping images, news and experiences, it has become difficult to record, preserve and manage the experience as unique and irreplaceable.

The works on display are an exercise in deconstruction, both in the medium and in the content – a pure dedication to the subject. Take, for example, the two-channel video projection of Imrana Tanweer If and but and his installation of cotton rags trimmed to imperfection and scattered all along the plateau called Rooms, alluding to fragments of jagged memories. By dissecting the modernist utopia of the last century, layer after layer, a discursive framework which breaks genres and transcends continents is hollowed out, culture against nature, form after function, the absolute embracing the particular. In the case of Saba Qizilbash, the narrative aspects of Sino-Indian border in water-soluble graphite on paper, turns into pure poetry. Each angle is a new chapter and there are countless ways for the viewer to enter these works. They are places of memory of shared histories and imposed borders under constant surveillance. A weed-overgrown path leads to an abandoned house that was intended as a symbol of immortality, end of story, and the journey ends, as it’s Coming Home.

When the Mehta House was born in the 1920s, architectural experiments regarding the utopian ideals of an alternative city were already underway, but soon after those dreams faded. They left only traces, covered with collapsed dust, and abandoned. Sana Saeed remarks: “To live is to leave traces”. In her statement accompanying Mark Making and Leaving Home, she states: “The house at 11 Temple Road is a repository of precious memories” and “they are not mere residual memories of a past”. Requiring the tools and patience of an archaeologist, Saeed takes the brush in hand and the chisel in mind. Traces of a past life are strewn across her bloodied couch, but the dust forms a whole new layer, an avalanche barely visible, powerful nonetheless: an urban landscape all to itself. Shadows appear through the windows, weeping softly in the wind like trees long abandoned to their fate.

Dua Abbas was apparently fascinated by spaces because they were familiar to her in the sense that they were part of her childhood, but still a thing of the past. What was probably futuristic at the time now seems retro-futuristic if not obsolete. Time has never been an absolute term, and the myth of linear progress has become a mere footnote. This very personal approach seems at odds with subjects that are frozen to a freezing point, a cooler of ideologies, a memorial to modernity, a misty sunset that passes in the blink of an eye. On closer inspection, the light becomes the mediator between the interior sanctuary and the exterior. Some heat is present; the sun’s rays almost too faint to be noticed still force their way through cracks, leaving rooms to stay cool but not cold. The owner is long gone, but the keys are where they should be. The lock is rusty and squeaks, but not in an unusual way when the knob is turned slowly. The smell is the first thing that thrills the senses. It looks like an organism at work. Long ago, it created its own way of breathing, slowly but surely: almost invisible movements, fragile and subtle, synchronized with the echo of conversations long past.

Sahyr Sayed’s organic approach is more than literal. Using ready-to-knead clay balls roast, carefully arranged in a display case, the paradigms of artistic creation must be reconsidered. Opposing the softness of a regular canvas, neglecting the texture and olfactory qualities of the medium, the installation encourages distance. The “structural denial” of painting becomes one of its most ardent defenders. His choice of subjects naturally goes in this direction. To fully appreciate the result of this meticulous method, you have to imagine walking through one of the rooms: the softness of the carpet that works like a slow-motion tracking shot, the smell of a certain piece of furniture long gone. The traces of its inhabitants have completely disappeared; you can only imagine the noises their lives have made, but those echoes are vibrant and clear if only one knows where to listen … maybe the sound is coming from the door that was left open.

There are many entry points into Maheen Niazi’s work, one of the most important being the choice of material. By choosing green plastic caps in Hollow Levitation II, the concept of “hyped reality” is brought to light. A sort of elastic structure but also neutral, constantly oscillating between desire and destruction. It’s almost as if the setting is privileged over the subject, the interplay of all the details combined resulting in the distinct atmosphere that is so unique to this show. Combined with the hygienic aspect, the concealment of the texture of the work and the manual work through a transparent surface. It is the pragmatic qualities of plastic that have made it the artist’s material of choice. It functions as a kind of translucent skin which at the same time acts as an element of distancing.

This exhibition is a step in Fatma Shah’s personal journey towards the concept of “memory”. Through his curatorial intervention, the artists attempted to link different fragments chronologically and geographically separated, while respecting their uncertainty and precariousness which illustrate the absence of power and control over their destiny. Therefore, this exhibition is an attempt, albeit a humble one, to re-express these images by recovering them, preserving them, trying to keep them alive, to save them from the void for which they would otherwise have been intended.

Fatma Shah tried to redraw a past which seemed distant – a past which, in reality, could be an archive – through the sentimental value of a house and its many objects and their symbolic value (residual, material, urban remains, simple fragments or evidence). Likewise, the manual and artistic intervention of ten artists, whom she invited to interact with “the built environment”, helped to freeze moments in history, aiming to make them alive and functional. I do not believe in a past conceived as a random consequence of events. Rather, I believe in history and memory as a critical awareness of the past, and as a necessary condition for reshaping our present.

Privacy in the scale and content of Imaginary archives supports the telling of individual stories that have been collectively forgotten. What appear to be abandoned furniture, buckets, bowls, shoes, clothing, suitcases, electronics, and photographs with an aura of family snapshots reveal humble origins; and wear and tear, whether it results from a utilitarian necessity or a simulated effect, reveals a close relationship between an individual and an object. Sustained use and manipulation has produced a patina that serves as a unifying language speaking in terms of the passage of time with a subtext of dispossession, conveying a sense of loss through the movement of personal items from an imaginary private sphere into a collective public exhibition space.

Another attribute of the strange is the mixture of objective and subjective narrative styles. The strange effect of Imaginary archives results, in part, from the elements presented and the collapse of a seemingly objective mode of presentation that mixes with subjective interventions in the form of artifices used to accelerate the processes of deterioration and decomposition. The patina which serves to unify, whether it results from the very passage of time or from a skilful manipulation, also reinforces the interpretations linked to dispossession. Furniture, bric-a-brac and photographs not only one belonged to someone; these mundane objects also served to define, and were defined by, the everyday life of which they were a part. The dislocation of objects, and the state of disrepair that results from the abandonment of things that were once necessary and meaningful reveal a rupture. Dislocation and decomposition contribute to a sense of estrangement which gives rise to strangeness. Even though there is no personal relationship with the individuals represented through their images or possessions, the photographs and objects make connections through engagement with what has been left behind.

Imaginary archives benefits from the ambiguity that results from combining fragments to tell stories of varied lived experiences. In The practice of daily life, Michel de Certeau discusses Marcel Detienne’s dependence on modes of storytelling to reveal the meaning of ancient Greek stories. When asked what a particular story means, Detienne doesn’t respond with an explanation but rather by telling. De Certeau maintains that Detienne interprets Greek fables like a pianist interprets a musical composition.

Our encounter with personal effects gives rise to the feeling that it is in reality the absence that is most present in the exhibition. Imaginary archives counteracts what Ernst Gellner called collective oblivion – anonymity, amnesia are essential. Both memory and obsolescence have deep social roots; neither was the result of a historical accident.

The doors may be open, but it is becoming clear that the noise is coming from inside. The only other source of noise is stones under the wheels of an automobile. The reflection on her windshield establishes an almost invisible limit, an illusory effect of tranquility, between the exterior and the interior, completing the metaphor itself. Coming Home is the beginning of the end of the beginning. The future is what you see in the rearview mirror.


The writer is an Islamabad-based art critic

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