How photojournalist Zainab found resilience in times of hardship
Palestinian writer Mourid Barghouti once said: “The fish, even in the fisherman’s net, still carries the smell of the sea”. Living in a place of war creates a constant state of displacement and unpredictability in the everyday lives of its people. Exploring the struggles of living in a disputed land through the medium of art can help spread awareness beyond the capacities of language. That is the idea behind The Weight of Snow on Her Chest, an exhibition by artist Zainab held at Gulf Photo Plus in Dubai, created to show the shared human experience of people who have left their homelands along with those who empathise with their situation.
Zainab is a Kashmiri-based visual artist and photojournalist born in 1998. Studying journalism and mass communication, she involved herself in a documentary workshop in Kashmir, where she became interested in using photography and writing to complement each other. Take for example her series In Exile, where a pomegranate tree depicts the idea of home, with Zainab writing that “…it might be uprooted before it fruits”. This description exposes the emotional toll that the militarisation of Kashmir has on its people, chasing them till their last breath, like a tree unable to bear fruit when its freedom and liberty are being taken away.
Zainab explains that the concept of movement is important throughout her work, whether people are departing their homes, returning, or leaving their possessions behind. “In Exile evokes the emotions of living in a war, and it is always at the back of your mind, at every moment,” she says. “You don’t know how long you are in possession of your own home for. I think uncertainty has become a major element of being home which is quite contradictory. It’s something people usually define as their safe zone. But for me it’s the opposite.”
Kashmir’s fight for freedom
In August 1947, India announced its independence from Britain. As soon as Britain left, it hastily drew borders between predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, leaving Kashmir in between the two and making it the convenient battleground for the two parties. The Indian army was given the power of managing law and order, leading the Indian government to collaborate with the Hindu ruler of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, permitting Indian troops to invade the area.
Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed region, occupied by India and with one-third of it belonging to Pakistan, as well as 20% of its land not controlled by either. Since the 1950s China has also been involved in the dispute given the region’s proximity to Tibet. Unfortunately, it has become one of the longest-running conflicts in history. Nevertheless, the people of Kashmir show strength and dignity despite the tough circumstances, as Zainab’s work shows.
Portraits of home and exile
As you enter the exhibition space an initial feeling of warmth emanates from the rich colours of the photographs on display. Shots of trees, skies, snow, food and people’s belongings give a sense of comfort, while also highlighting a strong cultural identity. Different architectural styles relate to the Kashmiri culture, while interlacing patterns and vibrant colours denote the stylistic aspects of Islamic customs. Some of the photographs elicit a sense of stillness, yet others bring forth a sense of movement as though possessions were hurriedly left behind. Soft colours of the landscapes of Kashmir in the winter seasons and its beautiful mountains are also showcased.
The idea of home is an essential theme within Zainab’s work. “You do not crave leaving and never coming back. You do not crave leaving everything behind or seeking safety or luxury, but you just want to live through it and wait till things get better. So I think that the idea of waiting is also home,” she says.
The passing of seasons is another prominent feature, alluding to the lengthy journey of recovery and healing that follows a period of intense conflict.
She also explores the impact of Kashmir’s turbulent weather, with the winter season becoming more of a struggle because of climate change. In one image she captures the emptiness of vacant streets and buildings devoid of people. “I was interested in how plain the frame is, it has the snow and flower pots and the wall, but they don’t have any distractions. It’s just too still”. Nature is left untouched, continuing its cycle undisturbed, whether in the process of growing, thriving, or dying. “Kashmir is a very beautiful kind of place, and it does get fetishised a lot for that,” Zainab explains. “It just kind of becomes about the beauty of the place and less about how people are surviving there”. Her work strays away from the exoticised, tourist gaze of Kashmir, instead focusing on the reality of the region and the lives of its people.
Celebrating Kashmir’s culture
A standout piece is The Shaheed, portraying a holy martyr in metaphorical form. “That dead butterfly on my wrist. That’s something which becomes a part of the work itself. I’m always very concerned about not forcing metaphors into the work,” Zainab explains. It’s a unique commentary on what it means to fight or sacrifice oneself for the welfare of their home country – the fragility and innocence of the butterfly giving an otherworldly feel to the image.
Islam is also heavily explored. About 90% of the population practises Islam in Kashmir and Jammu, shaping Kashmiri’s culture, traditions, mannerisms and their perceptions of life. In Celebrations of sacrifice Zainab shows the Islamic tradition of sacrificing a sheep, known to be a way for Muslims to give to charity. “The recent Indian move aims to crush the spirit of resistance and resilience of Kashmiris in the name of development.” (Kaul, n.d).
The takeaway is that the forceful nature of India’s treatment of the people of Kashmir and Jumma, and Kashmiri’s resilience towards this, indicates that it is India in the end that is dependent on Kashmir’s resources to boost its economy rather than vice versa. Zainab asserts that, “No matter how messed up things are, you just want to be there. You still want to face everything and to resist as well as to survive through it. And I think that’s what makes it home”.
The Weight of Snow on Her Chest is on at Gulf Photo Plus, Dubai, until August 30.
Lana Alsakka Amini