Alaureate nomination sits well among Naiza Khan’s varied accomplishments. The Prince Claus Award — 2013 is a timely validation (making her the third Pakistani after Arif Hasan and Madeeha Gohar to earn this distinction) that does not just assure the artist that her angst has registered internationally but also spotlights her oeuvre for relook and re-evaluation at home.
Cerebral engagement is an effort not easily extended to art making in the local context. However, honours from prestigious platforms should prompt profound readings of such works that critically examine social inconsistencies and structure radically independent opinions, which defy prevalent norms and stubbornly resist conformity.
Khan harbours a pioneering spirit that permeates through her art practice, her curatorial projects and her role as art activist, educator and mentor to young generation artists. Her initial trailblazing move was as a founder member of Vasl Artists’ Collective which introduced the Karachi art community to residency programmes. Facilitating dialogue and collaboration within an international network these platforms gave local art the impetus it needed to branch out.
Centralising on the female body as a site for multiple debates her initial art concerns were women centric. In ‘Voices Merge’ she articulated sacrilege and defilement of the body through inverted use of decorative henna stencils. In ‘Exhale’ ventilating through the archaic ‘chastity belt’ and ‘sieve’ emblems, she spoke of body constraints and the freedom to express physically and emotionally. Inspired by the bulletproof vest image the ‘Heavenly Ornaments’ series comprising metallic body armour/vestments/lingerie/corsets, at once combative and defensive, celebrated and desecrated the female form simultaneously.
Internalising the prevalent social and political mayhem she gravitated from the body towards the metaphorical use of the city and its landscape to address her concerns. Today the Manora Island, a developer’s delight, has become an artist’s dilemma. Khan’s inquiring series of works pointedly titled, ‘Restore the Boundaries: The Manora Project’, exposes the cultural and architectural treasures of Manora. She considers the urban decay of the island as representative of what many other cities in the region are experiencing.
Among recent exhibitions her painting series ‘Karachi Elegies’ delved into the realities of a life disrupted by political violence and natural disaster and “the continuing hold of history on the present”.
When asked to define the unique dynamics that exist in Karachi, and how they affected her artistic journey, in a Blouin Artinfo magazine interview, she states, “I find the city culturally diverse with the sheer number and ethnicities that live here. This makes the space physically and conceptually engaging for me as a visual artist. It is also a tough city to negotiate, and I often find myself operating on different levels in order to survive the onslaught and erosion. The sense of urgency within the public sphere is acute now and that brings everything to the surface.
In order to work, I feel I need a space for reflection. This is a restless city and I try to redirect this into my work, but that does not always work because the staggering pace of problems is often emotionally paralysing. So as an artist and citizen, I have to find strategies for survival!”
Khan’s current exhibition, ‘The Weight of Things’, shown at Koel Gallery, Karachi, dwells on this (in)ability to assimilate and grapple the surrounding turmoil and devastation. Curated by Maha Malik, the works draw upon her engagement with Karachi and its surrounding coastal terrain but, as with most of her art, it is a meld of the personal and the real.
The personal is so dominant that the average viewer literally needs to read between the lines, peel the layers and tweak out context references from the complex weave of history, geography, archaeology and the artist’s own surreal vision. Imprints of fossilised remains, colonial cartography, nautical almanacs and ruinous structures are given imaginative reconstructions as the artist negotiates the past with the present through an array of sculpture, painting, photography, video and print works.
The finely rendered watercolours have a striking fragility, the pastel hues and delicate explosion of strokes contrast sharply with the gravity of her concepts. It is the psychological weight of ruptured rhythms destabilising the environment that compel inquiry in her work.