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.