UAE: A new exhibition explores the partition of Punjab through the lens of loss and remembrance

French-Uruguayan photographer Graciela Magnoni profiles life in the divided land with a poignant and poetic collection of images shot on both sides of the border

By Tamreez Inam

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Published: Fri 8 Mar 2024, 7:18 AM

Last updated: Tue 19 Mar 2024, 1:49 PM

One of the most captivating exhibitions that opened during Alserkal Art Week is a photographic series titled ‘Watan’ by French-Uruguayan photographer Graciela Magnoni, and curated by the Pakistani artist, educator and writer Salima Hashmi.

Watan, meaning homeland, explores the partition of Punjab (when India and Pakistan got independence in 1947) through the lens of loss and remembrance. At the time of partition more than 1 million people were killed and more than 10 million were displaced, most of who were able to return to their watan again.

Conceived as a ‘visual poem’ by Magnoni, the exhibition is a collection of photographs of village life in Eastern and Western Punjab juxtaposed with poetry, particularly that of Punjabi poets from the subcontinent. The photographs revolve around people, community, memory, and the resilience of Punjabis. The series has also been produced in the form of a book.

The idea for the series first came to Magnoni when she accompanied her Punjabi husband to immerse the ashes of her late mother-in-law in a holy river in Punjab. A few years later, they made another trip at the passing of her father-in-law. Magnoni had a chance to visit both the eastern (Indian) Punjab a western one on the Pakistani side where she witnessed the connection people had to their culture and land, which for them was indivisible despite the borders.

Speaking at the opening at Alserkal Avenue on February 27, Salima Hashmi described the images in the book and the exhibition as hanging on verses of poetry that bring out their poignance. The series features poetry by eminent Punjabi and Urdu poets such as Amrita Pritam, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ustad Daman, Bulleh Shah and Gulzar. In Salima Hashmi’s words, “poetry, like the people, remains an undivided testimony to togetherness, love and humanity.”

In the introduction to the exhibition, Hashmi notes, “Punjab is a land which conceals its fraught history, a line drawn through its heart by a somewhat beleaguered Englishman over lunch and a gin and tonic more than seven decades ago. The stories of bloodshed, trauma and loss appear to have faded on both sides of that infamous line and the generations today go about their daily lives with barely a reference to those dark times. The watan reasserts itself with a vigour derived from centuries of tilling the soil and bringing forth its cycle of crops, moving to the ‘music of time’.”

The images in the series do not specify where the photograph was taken; neither are names of the village and the country mentioned. This was a conscious choice by Magnoni to create unity between the images and wanted the viewer to experience them without the bifurcation of nationalistic boundaries. She mentioned that many times Indian and Pakistani viewers try guessing where the image could be from (Indian or Pakistani Punjab) and they are surprised by how often they are wrong. During her project she repeatedly asked on both sides of the Punjab what they would do if the borders opened tomorrow, and repeatedly she was told, “I would run to my village.”

According to Hashmi, “Magnoni’s work is deeply sensitive to the lyrical quality of human activity and how in unexpected ways it leaves traces in the environment, perceptible layers of centuries of human endeavour intertwined with the soil, animals, and rituals. But at the same time it is profoundly revealing, the images imbued with deep emotional content – pleasure, sadness and reverie.”

Hashmi further added that the nature of the nation state, the celebration of the new and the forgetfulness about the old, did not allow people to mourn their loss, and for that reason it has been very hard, even seven decades later, for people to find closure to the partition.

It is through projects such as ‘Watan’ and places that allow the meeting of people from across borders such as Dubai that some sort of closure, some sort of reconciliation can take place by honouring the memories of the past and celebrating that which unites us.

Watan is exhibiting at 1X1 Art Gallery at Alserkal Avenue and will be on display till 30 May 2024.

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