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Contested Cartography – An Inquiry into Nuanced History

By Fatma Shah


“I am not a historian”, is a frequent refrain when you talk to her, yet Saba Qizilbash’s artistic production is not a mere visual provocation it is a reflection of a humanistic scholarship that firmly immortalizes it.


Her thought-provoking graphite murals are a complex spatial engagement with history and human movement.  They are like portals to journeys, some real and some imagined. They offer viewers an opportunity to immerse themselves in the expanse of territories, at times familiar landscapes and spaces to reassess events, willful migrations, conquests as well as historical displacement ¾ a way of life in ancient lands around the Arabian Gulf (Middle East & South Asian peninsula), which she helps navigate, albeit as a holistic experience.


Vast terrains and reimagined ancient empires become her playground as Qizilbash moves her graphite pencil, drawing at-times contentious cartography, which demarcated people and assigned identities and roles in binaries. As she explores the origins of a land ostensibly hitched to the selective reading of Chachnama, (a Persian book of Arab conquest, written nearly 800 years after the events), she offers a glance towards a plural history of a tolerant dispensation that flourished for centuries before, through the Indus civilization and the Gandhara Age. In Alexander and Muhammad Bin Qasim, she brings face-to-face the Western and Eastern historical narratives in an engaging pictorial statement. By highlighting the physicality of the two perspectives, she makes them more inclusive inviting viewers to position themselves as they please; an act often ignored in current history lessons.


These minimal monochromatic drawings are investigative spatial research, and are meticulous and painstaking in their infinite details. Neither a project of self-aggrandizement nor victimhood they seem to serve as very large memorials to amnesiac histories. While human figures are conspicuous by their absence in most works, Qizilbash’s visualization is not a mere illustration of a map or a discovery. It is research in fact, which generates questions that have remained unanswered or those that might otherwise go unasked.  Like allegories, they may reveal unnoticed historical relations that are bound to undermine, or substantiate, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.


While charting new pathways in well-known and often familiar geographies Qizilbash’s drawings defy manmade borders and checkpoints - those abrupt and awkward changes that took ages to communicate with the physicality of the land, the air, with which the flora and fauna could also not help but be traumatized.


The well-documented journeys that she takes the viewers along have remained at the margins of historical events.  Whether it is Mysore to Muscat a frequent trade route, also taken by the diplomatic emissaries of Tipu Sultan in 1786 to the Ottoman Court, to gain recognition from the Caliph, or Henrietta Clive’s 1000-mile journey in 1799.  Henrietta the wife of the then governor of Madras, in equal measure out of boredom of a colonial memsahib yet a fascination for the decimated wondrous world of Tipu Sultan; decided to undertake the elaborate journey in the garb of an Eastern Damsel, with a colossal retinue of horses, elephants and 700 attendants with her two young daughters and a Florentine artist over seven months.


In the present age of restitution of museum objects, Qizilbash imagines the Repatriation of Tipu’s Tiger – an automaton from the V&A museum, following Henrietta’s route, back to Seranagaptam.  While compelling us to recall that Tipu’s palace was instantly ravaged and destroyed after his defeat in 1799, his famed throne, with gold tiger head finials, a pearl fringe, and the jeweled Huma bird, was one on which he never sat.  Considered ‘too unwieldy’ to be shipped to England, it was broken and distributed as a prize allotment for troops.  But what the generals did ship to England was the wooden tiger and all of Tipu’s ordinary clothes. With little intrinsic value, these objects were of immense symbolic significance. While the toy tiger when wound up would attack an English soldier, Tipu’s robes the English feared might incite a rebellion, as ordinary people had wanted to buy them to distribute as sacred relics (as noted by David Price in his 1839 memoirs). Thus several mulmul and cotton jamas eventually made their way into museum collections in England where they may be found today.


Qizilbash breaks through the idea of a traditional narrative illustrator, by creating routes that she desires. A surface is seamlessly turned into a cavalcade of landmarks over contested lands. Mapping economic corridors and routes of displacement village by village, she chooses which monument to highlight, she makes engaging pictorial statements and draws in all the bridges that need building.  She was prescient when she drew the topography of Kartarpur and how a footbridge might connect devotees back to it, long before the metalled road became reality and in Sharda Peeth we see another reminder of how masses of people remain cut off from a centuries-old sacred space.  


In Chashm-e-Baddur Qizilbash re-created a historical object – Astan-e-Firdous a pair of spectacles fabled to have been made for a 17-century Mughal prince. Never accessed before, this masterpiece of craftsmanship was recently shown via a western auction house, seemingly as a pleasurable ornament for celebrities.  Using her signature green resin, Qizilbash decided to embed in these spectacles, tragic drawings of the partition refugees crossing the contentious line in 1947 whereby millions of people lost much more than just material belongings. Her statement looking through them is not just to see the grandeur of the original emerald object, but the outcome of colonialism and its resulting crises. She obfuscates the lush green view and the clarity of its lens with pain, which also serves as clarity - a vision corrector.


Contest it as you may, what’s on offer seems to be a piece of history rather than a depiction of it ¾ disturbing chapters of indigenous history that require peripheral vision and suspension of conventionally held beliefs and myths. Working meticulously in monochrome Saba Qizilbash has charged ahead with her own sensibility, which at times is eerie, lending ample seriousness to her endeavor.

Phantom Limbs
Text by Shah Numair Ahmed Abbasi

Most schools in Pakistan inculcate that the genesis of the ‘South Asian Muslim identity’ lays in the advent of Muhammad Bin Qasim. The commencement of our history lessons from this conquest is not only problematic for being a single story (it is overly simplistic and creates false assumptions about individuals, groups, and places) but also instills a potentially toxic, nationalistic sentiment that creates a dissonance amongst people who were previously unaware of their supposed differences.

In reality, the region we now identify as South Asia has existed for over millennia with most of its history spent in the presence of human inhabitants. Nationhood, citizenship, and identity are recent constructs that while fuelling a sense of solidarity among smaller groups, adversely created fractures between various lands and its populace. Self-interest, power, security, and an implanted sense of otherization motivated the erection of barriers and borders that not only disrupted interaction but also impeded human migrations and transnational movements that have otherwise existed and seamlessly operated for centuries.

Born in Lahore, raised in UAE with several geographical displacements, Saba Qizilbash’s hybrid identity propelled her to not only question the abstract concept of home, but also inspect how human movement is policed, altered, and restricted. Her recent body of work is an inquiry into the human migrations and the geopolitics across the South Asian landscapes. Most of the context behind the work stems from the artist's personal experiences and histories such as her frequent visits to Srinagar and Lahore, the stories of her ancestors’ migrations, and even the latent origin of her perceivably Central Asian surname.

The large-scale photographic drawings are highly detailed. The artist’s use of graphite to reconstruct the landscapes is an autopsy to understand and dissect the politics of the familiar terrain and the memory its vestiges embody.
Qizilbash’s drawings hold the potency to bend time. The disoriented viewer is left conflicted and cannot adjudicate whether the scenes are from a distant bygone or an apocalyptic, post-human future. Furthermore, in light of the recent events such as the tragic Beirut blast and the global lockdowns because of the pandemic, it is a disconcerting realization of how current the emptiness and the decrepit rubbles feel. The visuals come across as both detailed documentation as well as a whimsical imagination. They look familiar and seemingly capture reality, but they also allude to a mutated, otherworldly paradigm. Qizilbash poses several possibilities in her drawings. By deliberately conglomerating a myriad of ‘what ifs’ she weaves the past to the future and coalesces both fact and fiction to create an illusory déjà vu experience.
The locations and landmarks rendered in Qizilbash’s drawings are primarily those that have been drastically affected by the demarcation lines. These landmarks have undergone either a change of
name, faith, or purpose. The artist retells the stories of separation and affliction that these sites have either experienced or witnessed and now withstand to share. For instance the Neelam/ Kishenganga River originates in Sonamarg area of Kashmir, India, and meanders into Pakistan. The river effortlessly oscillates between its two identities every time it snakes around the line of control. Its benevolence has also been weaponized by either country in a jingoistic race to build dams and hydel plants at the expense of the villagers nearby. They were displaced for the construction to proceed and deprived of the immediate benefits from these man-made thresholds.
Qizilbash is also interested in regions around the border – the lines of control. In her view, these no man’s lands have no nationality, no faith, and no ownership. A feeling of abandonment emanates from these sites – a series of ‘has/had been’. With no actors present, they demonstrate some sort of former occupancy and past human activity. This post-humanistic topography signifies a future in which bodies are enhanced, replaced, or surpassed. These ghost-towns are no longer defined by species or by carbon-based physicality. There is an undeniable sense of privation that can be extrapolated from the tragedies these sites recollect. The artist uses these as iconographies to silently lament over an individual as well as collective loss.
Migration and movement are intrinsic to South Asian identities. While many South Asian memories of migration are about trauma, loss, and harder life events – there are also memories of intimacy, yearning, and reconciliation. Qizilbash retraces most of these historic migratory as well as trade routes. She erases barriers and any human presence or protocols to facilitate an unhindered movement of human traffic. For example, “Torkham to Lahore” and “Wagah to Kolkatta” are the second and third of a series respectively in which the artist continues charting one of Asia’s longest and oldest roads, the Grand Trunk road. The 2500-year-old route that stretches from Kabul to Chittagong and connects Central Asia to South Asia is now divided between four countries. Qizilbash maps these routes and physically navigates these spaces. In ‘Karachi to Lucknow’ Qizilbash recounts how refugees, intending to migrate to Pakistan after the 1965 war, had to first migrate to East Pakistan before taking a long, arduous coastal journey to Karachi in West Pakistan.
Within one frame, Qizilbash situates the two coasts of Chittagong and Karachi to expedite and ease the otherwise cataclysmic exodus. A ramp placed in the center of the composition invites the viewers to walk into the landscape and take a neutral stance. She enables us to observe the grim and grievous history as an objective bystander.
Qizilbash also encourages travelers and displaced persons to keep moving in what looks like a maze. The visuals do not look stationary. Instead, the cacophony from the melded sites reverberates a sense of urgency and discourages any rest breaks. These are neither destinations to arrive at nor the points of departure. Similar to fleeting views from a moving vehicle, the progression of images are snapshots taken mid-journey. This continuum of locomotion is reinforced by the intricate network of roads, tunnels, overpass, rivers, and railway tracks that seem to have no beginning and no end.
Some of these drawings are cast in resin. The artist employs this ancient form of protective coating to
quite literally preserve the quasi-historical narratives that are replete with emotions of aggrandization,
longing, and melancholy. Using drawing as investigative research, Saba Qizilbash reopens unresolved
accounts and excavates living archives and material memory to reminisce the stories of crossing
borders. She chronicles the undying consequences of the politics of cultural policy, nationalism, and human geography.

Qizilbash also postulates the several possible futures of dynamics of migration, mobility, and citizenship against a global backdrop where personhood has the ever-changing become an increasingly fluid and complex concept.

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