Nestled amongst the dilapidated building of the chaotic M.A. Jinnah Road in Karachi, atop a quaint little pre-Partition bookstore housed in a heritage building from the 1930s, is the humble and rather unconventional Ooppervallee Gallery. The space rests atop the Pioneer Book House — Karachi’s oldest bookstore — and offers a sort of alternative space for viewing art that brings it closer to the spirit of the city, making it an apt choice for an exhibition of photographs by Akhtar Soomro, titled Outside the Box.
Soomro’s work creates an aesthetic and honest documentation of certain areas of Karachi that captures the urbane spirit of the city. Born and raised in Lyari, the photographer traverses its streets and visualises its essence through the souls that inhabit it. His images contain the grit of reality, yet present these truths with a hopeful flair that betrays an inherent love and respect for his subject.
My own experience of these works and the space itself became somewhat of an adventure as I reached the gallery during a power outage in the area. Maniza Naqvi, who is responsible for the current exhibit (and many other similar events meant to revitalise the space) guided me through the darkened gallery space by torchlight. Each work emerged into the meagre glow, existing in a world of its own enveloped by the thick darkness. Though unintended, this unusual viewing of the works brought a grim awareness of the everyday realities the artist attempts to bring to our notice, adding a sublime and ironic edge, particularly to the images depicting Lyari during a power outage. Thankfully, the power came back on just as we finished, allowing me to view the display again.
Akhtar Soomro’s photographs are an honest documentation of certain areas of Karachi that capture the spirit of the city
These images encapsulate the quintessence of urbanity by delving into the human experiences, interactions, celebrations and tribulations that sustain it, revealing certain truths about our own surroundings and the social, cultural and political realities that exist within them. A horde of men stare wide-eyed and open-mouthed at a transgender performing at a wedding; a child in boxing gloves seems to challenge the viewer; a homeless child sleeps on a roadside underneath a graffitied phrase wishing Benazir Bhutto a happy 50th birthday; children sit in rows in what appears to be a rooftop madressah; and men in white dance to the beat of the dhol. One is confronted with the heterogeneity of a city that we typically view as widely parochial and bigoted and, through these images, appreciates the resilience of the downtrodden denizens.
What is most striking about the display is the interaction between the space, the works and the spaces captured within the works. The prints sans glass and frame are tacked on to strings that are tied to the rows of piled-up bookshelves, at once gelling into and standing out amongst them. This raw, no-frills display complements the realism of the images themselves, exalting the everyday to the level of art, without turning it into exotica or freezing it in time and space in a pristine white cube, far removed from the lived realities that it seeks to portray.
Soomro does not approach his subjects from a position of elitism or patronisation nor does have a didactic or philanthropic approach. His selection of photos on show, give one a sense of entering into his world and experiencing it as it is, rather than standing in the comfort of the peripheries and looking in with an objectifying and dehumanising gaze. Here one can even faintly hear the hustle and bustle of the maddening city outside, and in this way the show truly brings art ‘outside the box’ and closer to life.
“Outside the Box” is on display at the Ooppervallee Gallery at Pioneer Book House from January 28 till March 4, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 18th, 2018