For storytellers, thrill and suspense are effective tools of captivating the audience’s attention. The allure of unsolved mysteries is born from the fear and intrigue of the unknown, like a puzzle with a missing piece that keeps tickling the back of your brain. In the Sanat Gallery’s latest show Who Killed Shumaila? Samina Islam takes an unusual approach to curation by marrying art with the ultimate unsolved crime – of the imagined kind.
Islam contextualises the mystery through family photographs, associating the role of Shumaila with her mother, more as a means for personalisation rather than any factual congruencies. Her work reads as a detective’s wall amidst an ongoing investigation. The bright red embroidered roses on various pieces remind her of blood, which brings into question its deliberate beautification; the murder seems to be an exciting adventure rather than a gruesome, dark tragedy. Her interventions through embroidery, in a way, turn ordinary images into possible clues. However, the crime remains unsolved, making the work more about the process of piecing together the puzzle.
Other artists focus on more specific areas of the investigative process. Mir Dostak’s X-ray image seeks to look beyond the surface to reveal the lasting marks violence leaves on the body and soul that often don’t breach the skin. Over here there are no visible wounds, no definite answers. The piece of cloth on the victims face obscures the identity and provides a sense of empathy.
A group show brings together eight artists who explore different facets of a murder mystery
On the other hand, Feroze Gulzar’s videos imitate split screen CCTV footage of the imagined home of the victim, occasionally showing ‘Shumaila’ going about her business. One of the screens shows static most of the time, in the end not really providing any answers. Both these works provoke thoughts about the loss of a victim’s dignity by murder; robbed of a peaceful death, their bodies, possessions, and homes violated and entire lives laid bare for public perusal.
The centre of the space hosts Roohi Ahmed’s installation piece which is one of the most striking pieces in the show. Two chairs face each other in a confrontation, bright red threads connecting them in a web of communication. It beautifully represents a heated interrogation, exuding a quiet energy and tension, and an intensity running through the violent boldness of the red. Also intriguing is Ahmed’s ability to bring in human presence without the use of any part of an actual body.
From here the works take a departure from a more literal form of investigation to more abstract interpretations of the theme. Resin Rubin’s grid of eyeballs turned upwards in the “Whatever” series reflects the apathy of society in the face of crime and violence. Unlike the others, her work provides an answer, however vague, naming society as the culprit.
Affan Baghpati’s work centres on objects rather than a person. He collects rare household items no longer in production acquired from old markets of Karachi. These objects would otherwise be melted down for their materials, which in a way would be their death, wiping away their history, purpose and craftsmanship. His reimagining of an old pastry cutter rescues the essence of the original object and presents it as small scale sculptures while details about the product presented alongside the work acts as his own form of investigation. Elsewhere his gold plated jewelry pieces reflect the imprints we leave on our possessions and how they can bear witness to certain incidents in our lives.
Rabia S. Akhter’s work, however, focuses on the idea of death itself, and her own experiences of losing loved ones. Her escapist imagery and narrative in a way help deal with her loss. Her exquisite miniatures create fantastical scenes, with her untethered imagination creating dark yet colourful characters. Three old men with whitened beards and dark faces fly around her plain white vasli seeming to symbolise departed souls in search of a final destination.
In the end, it is inconsequential who, or what, Shumaila is, or who is to be blamed for her ‘death.’ Each artist approaches the theme in their own unique way, informed by their own encounters with death. It becomes more of an exploration of the whole idea of death and its aftermath, the unanswered questions it leaves and the people left behind to figure out a way forward.
“Who Killed Shumaila?” was on display at the Sanat Gallery, Karachi, from May 23 till June 1, 2017
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 18th, 2017