Revival biology is an emerging field of science dedicated to the resurrection of extinct species. Through cloning and genetic sequencing, biologists are working to bring back species that no longer exist such as the Pyrenean ibex, the passenger pigeon and the southern gastric brooding frog. It’s a body of work that suggests that death can be overcome by human ingenuity.

Of course, it’s problematic for a number of reasons. First, it hasn’t yet been successful. Scientists recreated southern gastric brooding frog embryos but none survived beyond a few days. And second, its apparent glamour draws funds and attention from more worthwhile conservation efforts.

Revival biology could at best revive a tiny fraction of species that have been driven to extinction. Without reviving their habitats, even this would have questionable value. And if this body of work teaches that extinction is reversible, it may hamper efforts to preserve endangered species by respecting their lives and habitats. Conservation debate aside, revival biology is a provocative study of mortality and the powers of ingenuity and spirituality.

‘The Movement of Ideas’ is a new body of work by Naima Dadabhoy on display at the Koel Gallery in Karachi that addresses these themes in a provocative manner and there’s a rich vein of science-fiction coursing through it. It is a collection of large-scale mixed media work on canvas, medium and small-scale mixed media work on paper and a series of sculptures in bone, feather, and other materials.

At first glance it appears morbid. Colours are dark — blues, browns, reds, blacks and murky earth tones with some contrasting metallic — and skulls — human and animal — are a recurring motif. There are giant screen prints of human skulls black on black, black on white, in gold and in silver. Bird skulls are also present. And in the artist’s sculptures, there are life-size reproductions of human skulls and imaginary bird skeletons — constructed from the bones of birds and reptiles.

However, as you engage with the material, there’s a joy in it. In this collection, the body is the ultimate symbol of creativity. The artist thrills in anatomy and the natural world. Screen prints of bird skulls are annotated and shown from multiple perspectives or in graduated size as though taken from zoological studies. Images of skulls, bones and exoskeletons are presented and studied as tools for movement and expression and to contrast the exuberance of such movement and expression against images ordinarily associated with death.

A gold skull has a crown of preserved butterflies, wings spread. In each of the two composite sculptures, skulls are juxtaposed against the dynamic motions of birds in mid-flight. And the fantasy bird skeletons in those sculptures — composites of bird and reptile bones — are expressions of movement in their gesture and creative ingenuity in their construction. Similarly, script is movement and expression. Skulls in black and silver are covered with flowing script. The large-scale works on canvas layer skull images over open bird wings, butterflies mid-flight and script, applied thickly like paint.

Script is distorted and abstracted — creative both in its language presumptively and its image. In places, it is precise and in others it is urgent and irregular. The writing used in a number of works in this collection includes letters the artist wrote to her father, who died recently. There’s something deeply spiritual in those pieces — their creativity reaches poignantly across conventional understandings of mortality.

Revival biology may not be hugely comforting for conservationists or southern gastric brooding frogs. It doesn’t provide simple answers to the difficult questions on mortality that it raises. ‘The Movement of Ideas’ addresses similar and similarly difficult questions. It is a moving and persuasive examination of mortality through ingenuity and spirituality. There is some comfort in it but mostly there are more questions.

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