August Monsoon In The Charcoal City, Ayesha Shariff
August Monsoon In The Charcoal City, Ayesha Shariff

The rich and famous of the world, over the past year, have endlessly declared sentiments of unity and togetherness in this time of global crisis. However, the unprecedented transformative event that is the ongoing pandemic, has not so much erased the inherent socio-economic polarities in our world as it has laid them bare.

Our divides have become painfully more prominent, and the ridiculousness of the claims to the contrary is not lost on the masses — we all do not, in fact, suffer the same.

It is ironically this very privilege that allows two artists — Ayesha Shariff and Shanzay Sabzwari — in a recent show at Koel Gallery, Break in the Clouds, to respond to the year 2020 and this power dynamic at play.

 Shariff’s body of work is the second chapter in a series of exhibits, the first of which, titled The White Pepper People, took place in Sweden last October. The title is a term the artist coined for the privileged class of Karachi: “Both black and white peppercorns come from the same plant but are processed differently, with

the white pepper being the fairer, pricier and spicier of the two,” she says in her statement.

These particular works also look at the effects of the recent record-breaking Monsoon season in Karachi, which saw the posh neighbourhood of Defence swept by urban flooding, power and gas outages, and major losses, as residents were stranded in their homes with their valuable possessions floating in waist-deep sewage water.

Two artists respond to the changing dynamics of power in a world gripped by a pandemic, with humour and satire

However, their hue and cry over the gross negligence by the authorities was met with cynicism by those who have become all too familiar with the yearly devastation of the monsoon rains.

Shariff’s works address this through the visual vocabulary of book illustrations, rendered with a sense of childlike playfulness that attempts to poke fun at a dreary situation. Images of floating houses, rainclouds, unlit hanging bulbs and lamps, and the use of gold help spell out the disaster, and the witty titles create a sense of wonder.

My Dinner Is Still In The Woods, Shanzay Sabzwari
My Dinner Is Still In The Woods, Shanzay Sabzwari

This at once disarms and sharpens the darkness, creating a crisp air of cynicism. The artist admits that her ability to make light of a heavy situation comes from her own privilege, which becomes part of the critique. However, the fantastical imagery and titles do not come off as comedic, but rather underscore the absurdity of the entire situation. Works such as “The Floating Circus” bring this idea home quite aptly.

Sabzwari looks at the pandemic through a global lens, with her amalgamation of Mughal miniature, popular culture and kitsch deployed over archival prints of currency notes from Pakistan, the US and the UK. Her usual colourful imagery turns sombre as she responds to dark times and reflects on changing economic relationships. However, there is an introduction of spiritual motifs as the artist also looks inward and uses introspection as a way forward.

The show also included the artist’s recent MFA works, which take on a slightly different tone. Due to the constraints of time, materials and space during a pandemic, the artist forayed into paper cuts as medium, and later used the same for her video animation.

This particular piece, much like Shariff’s work, contains a fantastical element that satirises our collective response to the pandemic, trivialising the events to the point of a charade, a theatre performance or a circus, where the story of the pandemic is told like a mythical folktale.

At one point, the audio of a BBC interview of a doctor discussing the pandemic is overlayed with the sound of applause, reminiscent of the many times frontline workers were ‘appreciated’ through standing ovations, solutes and applause, empty gestures for those putting themselves at risk while the masses refuse to do their part to stop the spread.

While we find ways to laugh at the situation, there are those who have already lost enough for it not to be funny, and one can only hope to never see the day when the humour runs out and the joke’s on us.

“Break in the Clouds” was on display at Koel Gallery from January 12 to January 27, 2021

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 24th, 2021

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