The dancing bag, Ali Shariq Jamali
The dancing bag, Ali Shariq Jamali

In the large metropolis that Karachi is, almost any fragment of it provides a story. Visual artists are able to view these stories with the help of their imagination, often re-imagining and reinterpreting reality. The city and its environs have very often been the subject of artists’ work, particularly in art residencies, where artists live and work under one roof.

In Pakistan, Vasl Artists’ Association has been inviting international and local artists regularly since 2005. Their Karachi-based residency, ‘Taaza Tareen’, has invited artists to spend a month or more, and work on projects that are then shown at a gallery or an alternate space.

The 2021 edition culminated in a group exhibition at the Full Circle gallery, aptly titled ‘Creative Alternative’. The artists were Anusha Novlani from Karachi, Sayera Anwar from Lahore/Islamabad, Sunita Maharjan from Nepal and Ali Shariq Jamali from Jamshoro. Shah Numair Abbasi from Karachi was the art-writer-in-residence.

A survey documented by the Australia Council for the Arts indicates that the time and space residencies allow artists to develop their practice is considered as the highest benefit by the participants. The lowest benefit on the artists’ list was the prestige of being selected, learning new techniques and the opportunity to exhibit. At Taaza Tareen, there is a representation from both big cities and the peripheries alike. Regional presence also creates conditions for nurturing fresh perspectives.

Shah Numair presented videos in which he switched roles with the artists in a dramatised interview. The artist had to play the role of the writer-in-residence, while Numair played that of the artist. This imaginative ‘play’ on identity also revealed Numair’s own artistic process, questioning the perceived and projected persona of people through conversations between strangers. As a mentor to younger artists, he merged his art and writing practices with effortless wit.

Young artists remind us of the potential of art to re-imagine the way we see the world

Shariq Jamali’s work is a prime example of a young artist on the brink of something new. In his installation, ‘Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see’, a PVC pipe installed in the gallery is the unexpected focus, as the viewer would likely expect something more beautiful than a mundane pipe.

Upon walking closer to it, one can hear the sound of waves from inside it. This is a kind of pun on art-making and, in a thoroughly poetic way, it requires us to re-orient ourselves to such an object. One can imagine an audience stopping in their tracks and being taken aback upon encountering this unique installation. Here, the artist shatters at least one myth: that art has to be taken seriously.

Jamali explores the relationship between a physical object and intangible air by using polythene bags, suspended in a glass cube filled with air. The idea of perceiving the intangible as a kind of form, dates back to 1919, when Marcel Duchamp filled a pharmaceutical vessel with 50cc of Paris air and sealed it.

Pierre Manzoni, who filled his own breath into balloons as art, in 1960, said, “When I blow up a balloon, I am breathing my soul into an object that becomes eternal.” A humorous paradox — and a symbol of a deflated human body — the work was made after the loss of lives in the Second World War. In Jamali’s work, reading beyond the visible seems necessary.

Sunita Meherjan, a visual artist based in Kathmandu, explores the imbalance between man and nature. Her sculptural works, one with grass and the other with construction pipes, convey the duality of the human predicament and its fragility. Like the decaying corpse of a society in metamorphosis, the installation made with pipes rises as a vertical structure, straight out of a science fiction movie.

Anusha Novlani focuses on the paradox of heritage and contemporary buildings in Karachi in an interestingly titled piece ‘Karachi se Karachi ka safar’ [The journey from Karachi to Karachi]. There are many pathways that she may find in the process that has just begun, and re-look at her city, as well as explore how it has been seen by other artists such as Bani Abidi or Sohail Zuberi.

Sayera Anwer, who lives between Lahore and Islamabad, connects to online communication between herself and women from Delhi. In one double-screened video, the two women hear the azaan in their respective cities and converse about the similarities of their environs. Apart from addressing the narratives stemming from her family history of migration through the use of loudspeakers, these interactions seem to reveal a suspended sense of time.

The future will unfold each artist’s narrative after many layers have been unpeeled and shed, especially as they begin to contextualise their work in relation to their own predicament and in relation to personal, political and artistic histories.

As the residency took place during the pandemic, the artists’ notes, diaries and preliminary work may reveal more about how they really felt in their daily interactions with one another, and about their art. These, too, may be shared publicly as valuable documentation of these dreary times.

“Creative Alternatives” was displayed at Full Circle gallery from April 5 to April 9, in Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 25th, 2021

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