by Vatsala SethiSep 08, 2022
On January 28, Sagheer Muhammad, a musician from Gilgit-Baltistan, sat cross-legged with his rubab, a regional lute, to play music from his homeland in Pakistan-administered Kashmir at an unlikely venue: Lahore’s P.I.A. Planetarium. Above his head was projected a night sky, which held interspersed screens displaying documentary footage, technical drawings, Farsi manuscripts and an assortment of other sundry astronomical esoterica. This domed structure was the setting for Kazakh artist Almagul Menlibayeva’s 10-channel video-installation for the Lahore Biennale 2020. Muhammad, and other local musicians including the sitarist Rakae Jamil, had been invited to collaborate by the sound-artist ‘Our Man from Odessa', a.k.a. German Popov, who, along with painter Inna Artemova, had journeyed with Menlibayeva from Tashkent to Samarkand, in modern-day Uzbekistan, to explore the legacy of the astronomer-king Ulugh Beg Mirza.
The eponymously named Ulugh Beg: The Intrinsic Futuristic Machine of Central Asia contemplates the contemporary relevance of the astronomical and mathematical discoveries of the 15th century Timurid sultan, who ruled the land stretching today from Kazakhstan to Pakistan. This shared history between Menlibayeva’s native land and the exhibition’s host city informed the artist’s choice to work with Ulugh Beg’s story as it presents a narrative of transnational heritage and, working in opposition to the Cold War tendencies whose influence can often be seen in the video-artist’s large body of work, the global proprietorship of knowledge.
Data and resources for the project was collected through a range of interactions facilitated by the Uzbek art-historian Nigora Akhmedova between the installation’s team and various stakeholders of Ulugh Beg’s cultural legacy including scientists, historians, musicians and other artists, and site-visits to places of historic relevance such as the Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand. The expedition was supported by various institutions namely Polyeco Contemporary Art Initiative, Institut fur Auslandsbeziehungen, Trust for Mutual Understanding, American-Eurasian Art Advisors, Andkulova Gallery and International Art Development Association.
The presence of Muhammad and Jamil, both versatile musicians in classical traditions, within the context of Popov’s avant-garde microtonal experiment Heliocentric Tetrachord, which had been previously performed alongside some of Menlibayeva’s other recent work, presents another lingering subtext, that of the trans-historicity of the contemporary experience, in which perceived futures and pasts can co-exist with the present. This paradigm of thinking can be seen in Menlibayeva’s earlier work as well, which the artist describes as ‘punk romantic shamanism’, where images from historical memory are invoked to vitalise the sober present. Though approached from a different direction at Lahore, it is a similar didactic that emerges when the artist attempts to navigate the contemporary relevance of the astronomer while meditating on the inherent futurism of his personality by keeping his contemporaneity intact.
The installation also comprised of Artemova’s 360 degree suprematist visualisation of a futuristic model of outer space centred around a stylised globe, and a second collaboration between Menlibayeva and Popov, titled The Cabinet of Morphological Metamorphoses, another tribute to Ulugh Beg in which the shadows of musical instrument parts are reimagined as futuristic space crafts.
The second edition of the Lahore Biennale, which is incidentally titled Between the Sun and the Moon, has been curated by Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi and attempts to negotiate the cultural cosmologies of the Global South, especially those of Pakistan and its neighbours around West and South Asia, with the goal of envisioning a sustainable global ecosystem in which the countries categorised within this bracket can thrive. The programme has a focus on the shared heritage of the region, including that of collective trauma from events such as the partition. It simultaneously maintains focus, albeit divergently, on the Lahore’s history as a centre for trade, commerce and culture. Other participating artists include Alia Farid, Barbara Walker, Reem Falaknaz, Simone Fattal, Nalini Malini and Vivan Sundaram.