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Contested Cartography

Thursday, February 23, 2023 | 4:00 PM | Top Floor, Academic Block, LUMS


Contested Cartography - An inquiry into nuanced history

Saba Qizilbash (b. 1977) is an artist and an art educator based in Dubai, UAE. She has a BFA in Painting from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore and a Masters in Art Education from RISD, USA. She obtained an MFA from the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, UK, in 2022 where, other than a Distinction, she won both the Mansfield-Ruddock Prize and the Pembroke Embery Prize for her thesis. Her work has been showcased in Oxford, New York, Dubai, Hong Kong, San Francisco, as well as Pakistan, including several solo presentations. Saba’s work has been regularly featured at Art Dubai and in 2017 UAE Unlimited commissioned her for works for the Royal Collection. South Asian Institute (SAI) at UC Berkeley, USA declared her Artist of the Year 2022. In 2019 she was the recipient of Vogue Hong Kong Woman Artist Award and in 2018 she was awarded the SEAF fellowship in partnership with RISD. Saba has been a finalist for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize from 2017-2020, a member of Campus Art Dubai from 2014-2016 and was artist-in-residence at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology Oregon, USA from 2000-2001.


The Works:

Saba’s large-scale and thought provoking works are a complex spatial engagement with history and human movement. They are like portals to journeys, some real and some imagined, which offer viewers an opportunity to immerse themselves in the expanse of territories, at times familiar landscapes and spaces to reassess, contentious geographies, willful migration, conquests as well as historical displacement, in ancient lands around the Arabian Gulf (Middle East & South Asian peninsula). These panoramas divulge a cultural and scholarly ‘excavation’ by the artist, who takes a nuanced approach towards accepted history and attempts to re-stage it. Her mural-like drawings are meticulously rendered in graphite on paper, and invite the viewers to undertake at-times arduous journeys with her to re-examine historical events, with an oblique eye on the future. Her refined mark-making seemingly provides smooth transitions between disparate events, natural and man-made elements, and yet alludes to a collision of narratives, leaving the viewer engaged in an exercise of continuing exploration.


Curator’s Bio:

Fatma Shah is a curator and writer, with a keen interest in Art, Literature and Cultural Heritage. In 2010 she formed Jadeed an arts management platform and has curated a number of exhibitions in Dubai & Pakistan. She has also organized a number of events including book launches and performances. Her recent exhibitions included Revival & Reincarnation–Art Craft & Design, Immaculate Decay–a solo presentation by Rabia Ajaz, Of Other Spaces–a group show in partnership with The Creative Process, Imagines Archives – Residual & Remembrance a group show in a historical house. She writes about the visual arts and artists, cultural heritage and reviews books in her areas of interest. Her articles have been published in the Friday Times, Libas Magazine, Art Now, The Karachi Collective & The Nishaan Quarterly. Since 2018 she has also been a volunteer curator at APWA Crafts, Lahore with a motivation to revive interest and promote a wide range of artisanal products.


Event Coverage


On Thursday, 23rd February 2023, the Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature unveiled an art exhibition titled “Contested Cartography - An inquiry into Nuanced History”. The artist Saba Qizilbash’s artwork was curated by Fatma Shah, a curator and writer with a keen interest in art, literature, and heritage. The director of the Gurmani Centre Dr Nadhra Shahbaz Khan welcomed the artist and her work to LUMS reiterating that Saba Qizilbash's art is a testament to the importance of creativity and self-expression. Through her exceptional talent, intensive research, and dedication to her craft, she has become a true master of her art and is an inspiration to artists whose creative impetuses lead them to engage with historical fact.


Qizilbash's work is inspired by her personal experiences, cultural heritage, historical and socio-political issues. She uses a variety of mediums, including painting, drawing and mixed media to create visually stunning pieces that convey deep meaning. She has a BFA in Painting from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore, a Masters in Art Education from RISD, USA, and an MFA from the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford. Her work has been showcased in Oxford, New York, Dubai, Hong Kong, San Francisco, as well as Pakistan. South Asian Institute (SAI) at UC Berkeley, USA declared her Artist of the Year 2022.


Speaking to her audience at LUMS, the artist described how a stolen wooden model depicting the tiger of Tipu Sultan; now on display at the V&A Museum in London, triggered in her a desire to revise some of the prevalent erroneous narratives around misappropriated art heritage from the sub-continent. Qizilbash led the audience through her laborious journeys of inspiration, research, reviews, and artistic endeavor. Instead of sticking to a pedantic description of her artistic stimuli, she chose to speak to the audience in narratives that hosted personal anecdotes and kept those present riveted to the story behind each of her creations. She spoke of her drawings depicting Industan, contentious Victory Day celebrations on both sides of the Indo-Pak border, sketches of the Grand trunk Road from the Torkham Border to Lahore. She also elaborated upon her creative ambulation; from cities like Baku to Bhambhore, Muscat to Multan, Dubai to Oxford, and from loci like Sotheby’s to the Bodleian.



Saba’s large-scale and thought-provoking works are, by her own admission, a complex spatial engagement with history and human movement. They are like portals to journeys, real and imagined, offering viewers immersion in the expanse of territories, some familiar landscapes, some spaces to reassess, contentious geographies, conquests as well as historical displacement, all in ancient lands around the Arabian Gulf (Middle East & South Asian peninsula). Saba is interested in these panoramas for a cultural and scholarly ‘excavation’, taking a nuanced approach towards accepted history, attempting to re-stage it. Her mural-like drawings are meticulously rendered in graphite on paper and invite viewers to re-examine historical events, with an oblique eye on the future. Her refined mark-making offers transitions between disparate events, natural and man-made components alluding to a collision of narratives, leaving the viewer engaged in constant exploration.


She reasons that when rightful artistic and cultural heritage is misplaced, it interrupts the iteration of design and skill, both subsequently misappropriated by colonizers and usurpers. Saba also spotlights the belief that art has power to spark conversation and create change.

Overall, Saba Qizilbash's art reflects her exceptional perspective and her passion for creating evocative works that challenge conventional wisdom. Her latest work, Chashme Badoor is a must-see for anyone attentive to meaningful art. Chashme Badoor is a pair of spectacles made in silver, gilded in gold, encrusted with green onyx and champagne-colored zircons. The pair was conceptualized in Oxford, handcrafted in Lahore and final drawings in the lenses were made in Dubai. They replicate 17th-century spectacles named Astana-ye-Ferdous, fabled to have been made for a Mughal Prince in India. In place of the emerald lenses, Saba embedded graphite drawings of refugees from the Partition of India in 1947. Auctioneers and European historians have brazenly posed in the original spectacles. Most recently, Pharrel Williams appropriated the design claiming it was his original collaboration with Tiffany & Co. The glasses are now on display in one of the cabinets of curiosities at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, to draw attention to a contentious past and contemporaneous perception. The drawings in the lenses perform as a “vision corrector”, compelling the viewer to confront the refugee crisis created as the British colonizers hastily left the newly divided Subcontinent. Countless nameless sufferers remain anonymous, but art prevails- as do perennial questions of genealogies of transfer, of survival, of the exquisiteness of objects, and of the various tragedies they can embody.


As an artist, Qizilbash seems dedicated to exploring new ideas and pushing the boundaries of her craft. Her work incorporates themes of identity, culture, and social justice, and spotlights her ability to use art as a powerful tool for social and historical commentary. This latest work, “Contested Cartography - An Inquiry into Nuanced History,” is a prime example of her artistry. This exhibition explores the critical notion of unresolved antiquities, and the way that inheritances and geographical and historical boundaries can be used to perpetuate certain storylines and silencing others.



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