Memorial for the lost pages
July 24, 2020 – January 3, 2021
Alvin Balkind Gallery and off-site at Yaletown-Roundhouse Station
Memorial for the lost pages presents the intimate videos and photographs of Madiha Aijaz in Canada for the first time, bringing together a suite of still and moving image works the artist produced not long before her unexpected death in 2019. Aijaz was based in Karachi, Pakistan’s bustling financial and industrial capital. Her work is as complex and layered as the city in which she lived, addressing issues of language and identity, longing and loss, public space and colonial legacies through a visual language rooted in both the mundane and the quietly theatrical. The photographs and videos in this exhibition reveal the strong relationship between the two mediums in Aijaz’s practice, particularly evident in her long, lingering camerawork and carefully considered framing.
Aijaz’s interest in literature and the politics of language offers a connecting thread between the three different bodies of work in this exhibition. This is perhaps most evident in her recent project exploring Karachi’s historic and mostly deserted public libraries, from which the exhibition’s three meditative video works—These Silences Are All the Words (2018), Memorial for the lost pages (2018) and Brown Sahab and the Pomeranian (2017)—are drawn. Set in crumbling repositories of traditional knowledge, which the artist frames against the backdrop of the city’s rapidly changing landscape, these works offer a nuanced perspective on the modern ambitions of a country navigating the aftermath of colonialism. Aijaz traces this complexity through the marked linguistic shift from Urdu to English, laying bare the deep interconnectedness of language, history, culture and identity. Her camera captures quiet conversations both amongst librarians and library users, as well as impromptu readings of Urdu literature, which suddenly activate these usually idle spaces. The distinctive stillness of Aijaz’s videos simultaneously draws her viewers into a space of intimate engagement while gesturing self-referentially towards the importance of the medium of photography on the development of the artist’s own filmic language.
These connections can be seen all the more clearly in the juxtaposition of the video works against a selection of photographs from the series Death sentence in two languages (2016), first commissioned by the Goethe-Institut Mumbai for the South Asian-German initiative Poets Translating Poets. Inspired by a 1990 poem of the same title by contemporary Urdu poet Afzal Ahmed Syed, Aijaz’s images examine the tension between awaking desire and admissible sexuality in what she described as “contested, often fractured landscapes.”1 The artist’s photographs often evoke an almost reverential quality—a kind of hushed theatricality that imbues their scenes with a poignancy even though the subjects remain within the realm of the mundane. Aijaz’s reference to contemporary Urdu poetry again speaks to the loss of a deep-rooted cultural and literary history as Pakistani intellectual expression has shifted to English in recent years.
A similar poignancy pervades the series of enlarged images from A Railway Pilgrimage in Pakistan (2014), hosted off-site at the Yaletown-Roundhouse train station. This project arose from a collaboration Aijaz embarked on with the late New York-based Pakistani writer Annie Ali Khan to describe the country’s most famous rail line, the Khyber Mail. Aijaz’s images (originally published alongside Khan’s text) intertwine the perceived romance of train travel with the reality of the Khyber Mail’s near-decrepit state. She evokes its gendered spaces, the stories of those that travel on it, as well as the colonial history of the train itself. “The Khyber Mail was called the Frontier Mail in Kipling’s time, and it was a shining jewel of British transportation in the subcontinent,” Khan writes. “The luxury mail carried servicemen between Bombay and Peshawar. British officers looking out from the cliffs of the northwest envisioned the conquest of Afghanistan and ultimately laying down tracks all the way to London.”2 Installed in a tight line of images wrapping the façade of the Yaletown-Roundhouse station, this series speaks to a larger narrative of movement and migration, history and culture, inviting conversations that extend far beyond its geography.
Whether physical—as in the train or the public library—or cultural—as in a particular literary and intellectual history—Aijaz’s photographs and videos call to our presence a particular suite of shared spaces that appear, on first glance, to be peripheral to contemporary life. As Aijaz reveals, they languish from a neglect that threatens their continued existence, but as the artist’s steadfast and often tender camerawork suggests, they might somehow yet survive, either through persistence or providence.
1 Madiha Aijaz, “A Photo Essay on Afzal Ahmed Syed’s Poem „اگر تم تک میری آواز نہیں پہنچ رہی ہے / WENN DU MEINE STIMME NICHT HÖREN KANNST,” Poets Translating Poets, Goethe-Institut Mumbai, November 25-27, 2016. http://www.goethe.de/ins/in/lp/prj/ptp/fot/en16014580.htm.
2 Annie Ali Khan and Madiha Aijaz, “A Railway Pilgrimage In Pakistan,” Roads and Kingdoms, 14 January 2015, https://roadsandkingdoms.com/2015/a-railway-pilgrimage-in-pakistan/.
Co-curated by Kimberly Phillips and Zarmeene Shah
Presented in partnership with Capture Photography Festival. Work at Yaletown-Roundhouse Station is presented in partnership with the Canada Line Public Art Program, InTransit BC.