The newly expanded gallery space at the Koel Gallery recently opened with a group show titled We Ate the Birds. Its curator Seher Naveed focused on the subject of environmental degradation and its effect on the population of birds through a loosely structured series of conversations by 18 artists, including both established names and newer ones. As I walked past the gallery space brimming with visitors, I wondered if these bodies were also meant to be part of the displays, having concluded from the title that I would see no birds as they had already been eaten. Were they the new characters, however momentary, replacing the birds in Arslan Farooqi’s video animation of Farid-ud-Din Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’?
So minimal was the presence of objects that one nearly missed the art on the opening day — for instance, the unframed paper works by Suleman Khilji titled ‘A Study of Floating Objects.’ The image of plastic bags in blue seemed to be in bird-like flight, but the ‘bareness’ of the entire display is what emphasised the empty white of the archival paper hung up by paperclips.
A sense of loss, to say the least, prompted me to visit the gallery again at a later date where the absence of the people, like the birds, seemed to have altered the gallery space to reveal a new cityscape.
The gallery as a site that reflected on the loss of the city’s bird species was also a space of reflection on the built metropolis. It becomes a site of discussion as opposed to a site of exhibition, thereby challenging the expectations of an art commodity and the aesthetics of its form.
The invisible birds of the city find home in a gallery space that highlights their absence
Seema Nusrat, Omer Waseem and Huma Mulji’s works responded to the physicality of object and space. Field notes on land grabbing/mafia/degradation by Shahana Rajani and Zara Malkani reinforced the idea of gallery as a space to view art as a social project. The execution of this must be accredited to curatorial vision.
Wasim’s three-part TV projections are video recordings of birds in the water at the nearby beach. The proximity of what is out there and what is part of the art inside the gallery, carrying the theme of the gallery as another ‘site’ as an important subtext to the show. The work seems to be a reflection on the processes of construction, deconstruction and disruption prevalent in everyday life.
Where Wasim’s work produced a feeling of discomfort through an examination of our lived physical reality outside the gallery, there was a poetic interlude in the text, ‘High Priests of Ahura Mazda’ by film-maker Jamil Dehlavi. His black-and-white shots from the film Towers of Silence accompanied the verses:
‘The vultures swoop earthwards
To perform their funereal duties,
High priest of Ahura Mazda,
Engendering the purification
of the world.
No one knows where they
Nor where they go to nest…’
Many such conversations between the imagery used by the artists, such as Mariam Saadullah’s traditional painting of nature and Moeen Faruqi’s gestural rendering of the crow, provided depth to the narrative.
Nusrat’s metal work titled ‘When Birds Collide’ seemed to be an intentionally direct response to the subject. Her birds had ‘fallen’ due to their collision with walls and glass and consequently became instruments of critique on the nature of the built environment, including the structure of the gallery as another edifice of urbanisation. These objects (birds) stood awkwardly, with their security bunker heads, muffled and trapped, quite appropriately in protest, as victims.
A red electric wire extended from Wasim’s display space to a pink pedestal fan by Huma Mulji. Titled ‘Pink Flamingo’, the clanking sound from the fan fed into the space, even though the wire and Wasim’s debris found an unintended connection. The disruptive sound interrupted the movement of the space and conversations within. Mulji uses found objects as an expression of social commentary, but this pink fan is also reminiscent of her earliest large-scale drawings of pedestal fans exhibited at the Coconut Grove, Karachi, way back in the early ’90s. The view atop and around the sculpted form of the fan (or the flamingo) extending to the high ceiling is of stenciled text that read;
“They flew back noisily each year.
A spectacle in the November sky, nomads, aliens, refugees, guests/ She could smell the warm salty air, and knew she was almost there/ As the years passed it took longer for them to find refuge; a respite for aching wings …”
“We Ate the Birds” was on display at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from August 11 to August 21, 2017
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 1st, 2017