Untitled, Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Untitled, Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

While creating a body of work, young artists are often immersed in the jargon of statements and concepts where materials merely become a means to achieve the end goal. Khalil Chishtee has worked with plastic bags, specifically trash bags, for over 10 years. Easily available and worthless, it is a material that does not put constraints on the making process and unlike gold, bronze or stone, does not add value to the sculptures. Rather a trash bag holds refuse created by man.

Every time the artist starts to work with a material, he renews his dialogue with it, rediscovering and energising his process. Chishtee changes his medium according to work requirements but whether he is creating art or working at a printing press, he creates a relationship with his materials and tools. So it comes as no surprise when he mentions artist Shahid Sajjad being a great influence on him personally and as a practitioner of art.

To downplay the philosophical and spiritual thoughts that influence Chishtee’s work and life, he says Sajjad Sahib worked with clarity and seriousness whereas he chooses to remain confused and non-serious.

In the current body of figurative work, “Detritus from Exploding Stars” curated by Nafisa Rizvi at Sanat Initiative, Karachi, the artist has used white plastic bags except for two figures in blue. There is a sense of calm as one enters the gallery — it is dotted with ethereal figures almost all of them left intentionally incomplete. The figures extend out into the space in the form of ripped, twisted and braided plastic strands, creating transitions between form and space. Despite being weightless and fluid, the figures simultaneously exude fragility and heaviness — as if the weight of life’s experiences will surrender to the gravitational pull.


Khalil Chishtee’s figures extend outwards in the form of ripped, twisted and braided plastic strands, creating a transition between form and space


Some figures are motionless and suspended from the ceiling, columns and walls, while others rotate in the space freely as well as with the aid of a machine. The artist considers the gallery space before assigning his sculptures their requisite spots but it does not help much with the narrative of this installation.

Untitled, Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Untitled, Photos by Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

In drawing, a figure is built with layers of lines and tonal variations. Chishtee’s figures are three-dimensional drawings fabricated with layers of plastic bags without the aid of an armature. They are constructed from his imagination, inevitably becoming an extension of the artist himself.

In his previous bodies of work, the only other human figures to have emerged are those of his artist wife, Ruby Chishtee, and her mother, while some works are completely devoid of figures. For example ‘Game of seduction’, an installation consisting of a curtain, table and chairs covered in white trash bags or the web like structures from his more recent works. The artist’s work and the narratives remain deeply connected to his experiences and the people in his life. When conversing about his work, he often draws parallels with anecdotes from his personal life.

Chishtee graduated from the National College of Arts in 1988 and started teaching there in 1992. After about 10 years, he went to a small town in California, and later did his MA from California State University, Sacramento. Eventually he moved to New York City, which is his current home. The changing locations may have transformed his thinking patterns and helped him create new ways to work; however, the man carried along with him his memories, identity and core ideas.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 29th, 2015

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