Madiha Aijaz can be easily ranked amongst the finest artists Pakistan has produced in recent times. Having received her Masters in Fine Arts from the prestigious Parsons Art and Design School, Aijaz was known for her soul stirring photographic montages and documentaries. Her work was displayed in prominent art festivals and galleries, such as the Liverpool Bienalle in 2018. She was also published in the highly reputed Roads and Kingdoms, Dawn, Herald and the Wall Street Journal.
The young and gifted artist passed away recently on February 2, in Karachi.
These Silences are All the Words – the Exhibit
One of Aijaz’s most well-known exhibits, These Silences are All the Words is a film installation and photographic commentary on the various transformations in Karachi since its colonial inception, which uses public libraries as its focal point. Effectively a contemplative musing on the city’s experiences with colonialism and its changing linguistic and cultural landscape, the exhibit has an immersive quality of drawing the viewer into the solitude of Karachi’s public libraries and repositories of literature. Its commentary on the quality and different purposes of the city’s language mix also drew praise from critics. Secluded from the urban cacophony, the city's libraries have served as a refuge for the remaining connoisseurs of the art of reading.
Comprising of a series of bookcases that showcase backlit photographs, the exhibit is accompanied by a set of films including its namesake centerpiece documentary. It was showcased at premiere galleries such as the Tetley in Leeds. Art critics noted the photographs, which included close-ups of reading rooms and the people using them for their quality of bringing out the attendant seclusion and emptiness, which contrasts with the urban-sphere of the metropolis. The exquisite long-exposure montages also won praise for their ethereal lighting and the manner in which they highlight libraries as priceless vaults of cultural knowledge in need of curation and visitors.
The three short-films titled The Visitor and The Librarian, The Storyteller, and Memorial for the Lost Pages serve as a visual treatise on the use of language for different purposes. The Visitor and The Librarian shows the oft-lost spiritual element of the reading space, juxtaposing imagery of a praying librarian against an engrossed reader. The remaining two shorts among their many subjects importantly address language as an index for the continuing legacy of colonialism.
These Silences are All the Words – the Documentary
Bahudarabad’s Bedal Library takes centerpiece in this main documentary film from the project. Featuring clips of interactions between library users and librarians, the oral fragments documented by AIjaz serve as a discourse on the minutiae of Urdu and Farsi literature against Karachi’s evolving cityscape. The documentary brings out the slow-wheeling, dimly lit, almost meditative nature of the library. This is in part due to its aesthetic photography that relies on ambient lighting wafting through the library's windows, giving a ghostly effect.
While Aijaz may no longer be with us, her legacy through her deeply emotive work that highlights Karachi’s reading spaces and language endures. The work functions as a wake-up call for the consciousness of residents of Karachi, and indeed the country, to pay attention to and benefit from these invaluable treasures of the city’s culture and history.