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Portfolio: A city in conflict

April 24, 2016


A new urban landscape — V
A new urban landscape — V

In this city (read Karachi) of innumerable dangers, an overriding concern for security has significantly reshaped society; at the same time, it has affected people’s psychology, politics and design. The deceptively complex issue of pre-emptive security has led to the omnipresent jute sandbags in regular size, or the large mesh cages filled with sand that now feature as the city furniture. However, these are not the only deterrent objects as they are supplemented with barbed and razor-wires, checkpoints and barricades, bollards and metal detector doors, CCTVs and other surveillance equipments, armed policemen and private guards, Rangers, and sometimes, massive containers (normally used for transporting goods, being used as barricades) to ensure a secure cover on a building or site, or at least act as a restraint. Planning is a rather lengthy and tedious method for urban design, but emergencies and conflicts require quick solutions. The measures listed above are, therefore, a response to a city in conflict, often with itself.

Seema Nusrat uses the caged sandbags as iconography for her solo show titled, New Urban Landscapes, curated by Zarmeene Shah. It opened at the Koel Gallery, Karachi, recently.

In her curatorial essay, Shah describes Nusrat’s work as “this new body of work coming to further investigate the changing face of the city, through the subversion of structures that find their basis in issues of security, fear and authoritarianism.” The structures that she refers to have become a permanent fixture around important buildings, and are contributors to this ‘new’ architecture, which has, in turn, changed and recreated the urban landscape.

Seema Nusrat uses caged sandbags as iconography for her recent solo show

Nevertheless, there is an anomaly hidden in the artist’s drawings which may tantalise the viewer; the city of fear, anxiety and (at times) terror has been rendered — in minimalistic drawings — superbly, evoking tranquility rather than worry. The erstwhile ugly sandbags seem to be in sync with the buildings, which raise their heads above the cordon of sand-filled configurations.

The artist’s show displays numerous drawings masterfully rendered in graphite on paper, and mixed media collages. The predominant colour of the collages is golden-yellow and brown sandbags, and Nusrat presents variants of these, juxtaposed with the building structures. You spot some windows peering out here, a roof of the house peeking out there. Her creative use of these intuitive articles as planters is both skillful and striking.

The novelist, Amitav Ghosh, after the Mumbai terror attack, said, “Defeat or victory is not determined by the success of the strike itself; it is determined by the response.” The collective paranoia of the people and their aggressive response — barricading every mohalla, educational institution, hotel, private residence as well as public buildings and recreation facilities, is akin to playing into the hands of the masterminds of terror, without achieving any tangible security.

Karachi is Nusrat’s hometown, where she has studied, lives and works. Trained as a sculptor, she graduated from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, and later obtained a Master’s degree from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax, Canada. The impressive drawings and collages in the show are perhaps a precursor to more three-dimensional works which the sculptor in her may prod her to undertake in the future.

While we admire her work and thus morbidly come to terms with the uncertainties of our urban scene, we may wonder if a time will indeed come when we can look beyond the paranoia once again and enjoy living, moving, entering or just passing public buildings, even parks, as normal citizens of a modern metropolis, devoid of fear.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 24th, 2016