As a child, I would walk to Frere Hall through a small road behind my apartment. As I grew older, I noticed the entrance to that road grow smaller; its walls get higher and slowly get covered in barbed wire. Today, the opening is completely sealed, covered in barricades and armed with two guards that look down as you pass by.
All at once, these memories flooded in during a visit to Seema Nusrat’s latest solo display at Karachi’s Canvas Gallery. Titled Brave New World, Nusrat observes the gradual shift our city has seen because of the ongoing need for security. Her work has long addressed the evolving landscape of the city and her oeuvre plays out like a look-book of how the façade of the city has been developing and adapting to humans’ need to have more control over their own safety.
Over the years, as our city has continued to be burdened with uncertainty and danger, citizens have found it most useful to take their personal security into their own hands. Eventually, boundary walls became higher, and laden with barbed wire and security cameras, or covered from the front with sandbags, armed security guards and watchtowers. It became a matter of normalcy to acquire these forms of protection or else suffer the dire woes of being unguarded.
Seema Nusrat’s work documents the alarming dystopia that our cities are slowly turning into
Standing in front of Nusrat’s acrylic pieces ‘Future Façades’, I thought, “Can I remember a time before the yellow and black stripes covered the city?” The answer is no — and because of that there is an instant familiarity as I walk through the show. The ‘Future Façades’ series consist of acrylic sheets screen printed with the yellow and black stripes made synonymous with barricades found around the city. These colours act as coverings of the front facades of buildings, and along with stripes are used in different patterns to help differentiate between the various layers that make up the structures’ veneer.
Among the striped houses are self-standing sculptural works titled ‘Observers’. These anthropomorphic objects mimic miniaturised watchtowers, each standing at varying heights. Rather than towering over the audience like an actual watchtower, the ‘Observers’ are at eye level with the viewer, allowing a closer inspection of the dexterity and craftsmanship of the artist. However, with their tiny slits that come to resemble eyes, an ominous feeling of being watched by these inanimate objects also looms over the audience; a reminder of how we are continuously watched at every moment in our lives, be it through government authorities or through our digital presence. The sculptures are huddled in groups, almost as if performing a collective surveillance of the passersby.
In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Miranda, a young girl living alone and away from society exclaims, “O brave new world, that has such people in it!” as she meets people for the first time. Her hopeful naivety comes to light here, as someone who has not met people before, cannot comprehend the viciousness of mankind. However, unlike Miranda, Nusrat not only understands the reality of her present, but documents it and envelopes it in her practice as a central focus for her audience.
“Brave New World” was displayed in Canvas Gallery in Karachi from November 17 to November 26, 2020
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 13th, 2020