A Life Lived Through Photographs: Getting to Know Home with Maryam Wahid

Writer Noah Underwood / Photographer Tegen Kimbley

Walking into award-winning photographer Maryam Wahid’s first major photographic exhibition at the Midlands Arts Centre, Zaibunnisa, I am struck by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.

Homegrown in Birmingham and a Moseley resident, Wahid, 26, grew up hearing stories of her mother’s pre-married life in her native Lahore, Pakistan. These stories were accompanied by a family photo album, providing Wahid with snapshots of a life lived in Lahore.

In this exhibition, Wahid documents her first visit to Pakistan, accompanied by her mother, who hadn’t returned in over 20 years, where they retraced her life there together. In doing so, Wahid captured a side to her mother that she’d only glimpsed in that album: “Mum was called Zaibunnisa, so in these pictures she is Zaibunnisa.”

In this collection, Wahid masterfully recreates that childhood experience of poring over that family photo album, not only with her use of film, but particularly by scaling down certain mounted photographs. I find myself peering closer, trying to soak up as many of the vivid details as possible, much as I imagine a little Wahid might have done, laying sprawled across her living room carpet.

Here in this large bright room, fresh yet somehow familiar scenes hang alongside the original photos that she’s spent her whole life looking at. Curated in clusters, they allow the visitor to dwell on certain places, faces and feelings as they walk around the exhibition.

Wahid’s photographs are best distinguished by her reverence for light – as she explores its narrow streets, Wahid chooses to linger in the midst of the shadows and sunlight that the city of Lahore affords her. This characterful play of light across the simultaneously natural and built up landscape of Lahore is punctuated by pops of vivid colours, testament to the people who live there.

I ask Wahid about how the work reflects her relationship and journey with her own sense of identity as a British South Asian woman from Birmingham. Smiling brightly, she says,

“I feel that I’ve defined my own identity now. I feel complete.”

We talk a little about her deeply spiritual experience getting to know her grandparents by visiting their old house, their graves, and speaking to those that remember them. She points out a photograph of her own maternal grandfather to me, before drawing my attention to another of a grandfather that she’d seen lingering in his doorway in Lahore, smoking.

She mimics the man, clutching an imaginary cigarette: “That was something I had known about my grandfather – I knew that he was a smoker. [That man] held my gaze and it was like he was my grandfather.”

Zaibunnisa is an extremely intimate experience, as much an ode to her mother as a snapshot of Wahid’s evolving relationship with her family and homeland. A Brummie at heart, she wishes to “create work that speaks to all kinds of people.” Here, she does just that – capturing the feeling that so many of us share, of longing to understand not only where we came from and who that makes us, but what that means for where we are going.

You can (and should) catch Zaibunnisa at the MAC until the 18 April. Entry is free, for more visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk/exhibition/zaibunnisa

Find out more about Maryam Wahid and her work visit www.maryamwahid.com

Still not satisfied? Check out this 2020 Autograph interview with Wahid, click here