Dam blueprint
Dam blueprint

Persian scholar and polymath Al Biruni was one of the greatest thinkers and scientists of the golden Islamic era. He had an equal facility in physics, metaphysics, mathematics, geography and history. Having had the opportunity to travel through India for 20 years, he recorded his observations of the social and historical conditions of the Subcontinent into a graphic account. His stance that the Indus valley had once been a sea and had evolved through alluvial deposition was a revolutionary idea for his time.

Held at the Canvas Gallery, Saba Khan’s solo exhibition ‘Water Explorer’ anchors its inspiration in Al Biruni’s historical drawings and journals. The exposition showcases Khan’s continued interest in riverine bodies as terrestrial sources of life and its dysfunctional — arguably fractured — relationship with humankind.

She charts the history of the Indus Basin and observes how, across millennia, it has not only naturally changed its front but also has been deliberately manipulated and exploited to serve human interests.

Khan is particularly drawn towards man-made structures such as dams, hydel power plants, barrages and bridges, and she considers these monuments as manifestations of machismo and power. She also addresses the ultra-nationalism that leads to these intrusive interventions in the organic course of the water. Livelihood, ecology, subaltern communities and international relations are all compromised before avarice to generate power and energy for the nation.

To playfully subvert those masculine dynamics and to challenge the fate of the Indus historically mapped by men in authority, Khan introduces a female ‘water explorer.’ Adorning a sage green, girl-scout uniform with merit badges, the patriot’s identity is obscured in most of the works and deliberately so.

Saba Khan’s paintings re-imagine the water architecture that enforces brutal control over the mighty Indus

She furtively embarks on an expedition to recount the history of the mighty Indus and rewrite its trajectory from a feminist lens. The explorer enters territories previously occupied and envisioned by men, making her presence a disruptive performance in itself. It becomes even more rebellious when she dissuades [men] by re-imagining the contraptions [man-made structures meant to control water] from her perspective.

Water Explorer with the Ajrak Makers
Water Explorer with the Ajrak Makers

The explorer devises machinery that looks part futuristic, part antiquated. One cannot decipher the mechanism and functionality of these fictional gears, and perhaps Khan wants to evoke a sense of unknowing from her audience. We are not enlightened enough to understand this exclusive, overly complex scientific vocabulary.

Our inability to distinguish the period behind these settings is because Khan traverses across time in her research. She cites Al Biruni’s accounts of the Indus civilisation from the 11th century to modern-day state-driven projects. She combines visual elements and historical evidence from the past with neo-futuristic aesthetics. They allude to illuminated manuscripts, but also augur an alternate future. The contemporary vestiges become archaeological finds for an explorer from the future. The space starts looking less familiar and more out of a 1970’s sci-fi space movie.

She identifies all those instances from history where men have claimed authority over the Indus, spoken on its behalf from their judgements, and overridden its unacknowledged agency. The fabricated settings and imagined devices echo the conceited aspirations that men have historically realised into these gargantuan obstacles.

The vivid colour palette and playfully quaint use of mediums such as colour pencils and highlighters also suggest the artist’s attempt to preserve lucid dreams. The aesthetics of Khan’s remarkable drawings resemble focused sketches, where the exercise becomes a tool of configuration and invention. The vigorous mark-making, exposed underdrawings, and use of mechanical instruments alongside sporadic labelling, indicate an intent of record-keeping. The sketches become documentation, preliminary studies, and diagrammatic manuals for future reference.

Khan strategically employs various materials and techniques to insinuate state and bureaucratic control, particularly influential policymakers responsible for taming their environment. Materials like perspex with watermarks, green felt wrapped around a stretched canvas, and pinned documents are the usual soft board features in any state office. She reinforces this idea through the perceivably patriotic uniform of the explorer herself.

A nod to the extra-terrestrial is evident from the imagery Khan employs. Islamic geometric patterns scatter the celestial sky in one of her works. In other artworks, she recreates Al-Biruni’s astrological drawings by etching on the acrylic sheet and portrays them as logos to officiate the fabricated archives.

Throughout her continuing art practice, Saba Khan has proven her command of employing satire to highlight various socio-political issues around her areas of interest. The current series reinforces her mastery.

For centuries, men have asserted their power, controlling the infinite benevolence of such water bodies. She introduces a fictional protagonist, creates abbreviated schematic drawings, and cleverly implies state tropes through her choice of materials to share a painful account of the use and abuse of nature motivated by self-interests.

For Khan, the pieces of machinery become memorials — a keepsake to retain those brutal memories.

‘Water Explorer’ was exhibited at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi from August 24, 2021 to September 02, 2021

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 5th, 2021

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