For years, we as a nation have tip-toed around the treatment of minorities in Pakistan. While we are aware of the problems that exist we rarely speak up to create a healthy discourse to tackle this issue.
This is where artist Zulfikar Bhutto, brother of author Fatima Bhutto, and co-curator Abdullah Qureshi come in: to remind us of the important conversations surrounding minorities that need to be had with their travelling exhibition titled ‘Is Saye Kay Parcham Talay’ (The Shadow Over our Flag).
Taking the time out to speak to Images at 71 Clifton about the exhibition, Zulfikar, who is currently pursuing an MFA in Studio Art abroad, explained the deeper meaning behind the three-month long project which started in November in Lahore.
Zulfikar and Abdullah Qureshi, who is the owner of Gallery 39K in Lahore, helped each other organize and co-curate the shows in Lahore and Karachi. The aim was to use Karachi itself as an art gallery of sorts, breaking up the showcase in four different events.
It started with ‘Young Street Photographers’ which was held in the community centre/gallery next to Zulfikar’s family home. The next event, which was titled ‘Saye’ was a mixed media exhibition held at Indus Valley consisting of 12 artists. This was followed by ‘Parcham’ which showcased installations by two artists at Jamshed Memorial Hall and finally ‘Talay’ a documentary screening and installation art at T2f. These shows were spread throughout January.
“Both of us decided that there are very necessary conversations that need to be had in Pakistan,” Zulfikar said. He added that the word minority is thrown around easily in Pakistani society and has a very specific reference to religious minorities.
“That brings the question of state sanctioned minorities, [that is], the people who the state recognizes as minorities... [versus] plenty of other people who are not recognised as minorities and this is where the question of marginalisation comes in, which is that there are fringe groups who are constantly marginalised and it’s not just in reference to ethnic or religious communities,” Zulfikar explained.
Hence, the duo’s effort to shed light on ‘minority’ the term itself but not just as a question of numbers but of recognition and power as well.
“The elite in Pakistan for example are a minority but by virtue of power – economically or politically – we are a majority. Whereas the [underprivileged] are a majority but by virtue of their power are a minority, so it’s very interesting think about what language means,” he added.
When Zulfikar and Abdullah chose the title for the exhibition; they decided to put a spin on a line from a song we all know by heart. The song/poem ‘Is Parcham Kay Saye Talay’ is something we all recognize to mean unity, that under this flag we are all one.
The duo flipped the title so that we'd understand that instead of us being under the shadow of the flag, there is a shadow over the flag, the nature of which is open to interpretation.
“It is these un-had conversations, the looming spectre that we are trying to avoid and ignore, that is how we chose the title,” Zulfikar said.
The aim of the exhibition was for it to be not bound by a single space. When the showcase started in Lahore it was done in collaboration with Thaap - architecture and history forum - which have material on marginalisation within architecture, city planning and historical narratives.
But for the events in Karachi the two curators didn’t want to transplant the same exhibit here -- they wanted to give artists the freedom to choose which part of the chosen public spaces they would like to showcase their work.
“With this show, which is called Young Street Photographers” Zulfikar waved his arm at the gallery we were sitting in, “we gave  young people in Neelam Colony [aged between 8-18] disposable cameras.”
The young photographers were given a basic workshop on how the camera works and were allotted ten days. “[We said] take pictures of whatever you think is beautiful,” Zulfikar added.
After the cameras were collected and the photos were printed, some children whose work was exceptional got a chance to have more than one photo displayed as a means of encouragement. After the opening day, three photos were sold and the money was sent back to the young photographers.
“On the opening day the kids came to the gallery with their parents so it was a very big mix of people and this is sort of what the aim of the whole thing is, to mix people together, people who are not necessarily established artists plus established artists, [as well as] what is considered art plus what might be considered more than just art,” he elaborated.
Each event included different mediums of art. Saye, which took place at the gallery in Indus Valley included photography as well as paintings, videos and installations with the collaboration of a group of artists completely different from the first event.
Upon entering the gallery on the first day of the exhibition, it was interesting to see a wide range of artwork which was curated and the unique ways the 11 artists shared their vision with the audience of how they view marginalisation.
“The [event] at Indus shows some well established artists such as Ayaz Jhokio, Faiza Butt, Farida Batool; and then we have an architect Aneeq Haider who hasn’t really done art before. His installation is called ‘Mera Kasur’ which is about the [child abuse] incident that took place in Kasur.”
Through these various art pieces, there were a number of different conversations that were being had and the main aim of Zulfikar and Abdullah as curators was to investigate the artists’ sense of research and involvement in what they were trying to represent through their art.
“When you’re a majority looking at a minority, you’re in a place of great privilege,” Zulfikar explained. “Me as an economically stable Muslim in Pakistan, to look in at either economically unstable or minority populations, it’s difficult for me to fully gauge what is happening so it requires a lot of research and sensitivity. That’s what we were looking for and how sensitive are these approaches. We are not trying to provoke with this exhibition we are trying to have a conversation,” he added.
Jamshed Memorial Hall on Karachi’s MA Jinnah road not only functions as a school but serves as a public space which made it easier for the curators to bring in an audience.
However, this showcase only included two artists: Aysha Bilal and Maryam Hasnain. Their work holds significance: both artists used installations and large-scale photographic portraits to allow the audience to physically feel the art and the meaning behind it. Their artwork aimed to add an element of humanity to conversations surrounding religious minorities and their contribution to Karachi as a city which mustn’t be ignored.
Aysha’s portrait represents the Christian community through which the artist and the curators reached out to them and asked them to express how they feel.
Meanwhile, Maryam’s piece recreated the floor space of a dilapidated Sikh temple, encouraging the audience to step on to it as though one is stepping into the shoes of those persecuted.
“For both of these artists, what linked them together is talking about the idea that we are all essentially one,” he added.
This was the fourth and final part of 'Is Saye Kay Parcham Talay' (fifth, counting Lahore) and it was held at T2f in which two artists Ali Imani and Saadat Munir showcased their work through an installation and documentary, respectively.
In this the word ‘Talay’ (beneath) plays an important role. As explained by Zulfikar, It is a reference to individuals pushed beneath society’s judging gaze, the idea that some are ‘lower’ in the socio-economic ladder.
Ali Imani’s installation, which incorporated architecture and interior design, reinforced a theme of connectivity, something that the curators of this exhibition aim to achieve through their audiences. The installation incorporated a settee which showed how it can be used to connect people and create conversation.
The screening of the short documentary Chupan Chupai: Hide and Seek by Saadat Munir portrayed the lives of Pakistan’s queer and transgender community, which has been marginalised since generations and still face prejudice.
While there have been a number of documentaries about homosexuality and transgender in Pakistan, the individuals in the community who have been part of those documentaries had the best reaction to Chupan Chupai.
“I met with some of the people who were in the documentary when I went to Lahore and they seemed very positive about the documentary,” Zulfikar said. “[Through the exhibition] we are touching on different aspects of minority – gendered minority, religious minority, historical and ethnic – and it branches off.”
“In Lahore it certainly did strike a chord and it did make people think about [minorities] more and what it meant to be on fringes of marginalisation,” Zulfikar revealed. “I’m hoping the fact that this show is spread out means that different audiences will take something different from it.
For Zulfikar, this exhibition brings a hope that others will find inspiration and keep dialogue around minorities going and expand on them in a new manner.
“I’m sure people will have a hard time digesting exactly what it means because this is ‘art’ but the exposure is very necessary for both the art crowd and the non-art crowd. I do think it is helping but I don’t want to be arrogant and think that this is it, this is how it’s helping and this is the crux – obviously not but talking is still important.”
Art may or may not move us. Artists holding up a mirror to society’s face may make us ponder on what we are doing, but the hardest part is keeping that feeling alive enough to bring a chance in society. When it comes to minorities, a subject treated almost like a taboo in Pakistan, how should we keep talking?
“How do people pick up their voices? That has always been an issue in Pakistan especially when they are not in privileged spaces,” Zulfikar confessed.
“Hopefully through this exhibition people will see the important of outreach, of being in a more uncomfortable situation,” he continued. “When you [reach out] and you’re standing a little awkwardly in a neighbourhood that’s not yours, you’re really trying to say to people that ‘I want to do something and I want to involve you in it and this is why I think it will be fun for you’.
Outreach and a sense of helping one another is one way we as a society can continue talking about things we otherwise ignore.
For Zulfikar, one of the tragedies in Pakistan is that it is hard for people to empower themselves. Which makes it important for people who can and have empowered themselves to collaborate with people who can’t and while difficult, he is still hopeful because it is already happening on some level.
“People are already reaching out and are taking a step back to help others create art in a different way,” he said. “So I’m not the only one doing this, there are many others who keep on doing this and I’m just glad I can be a part of this.”