In these times where bombardments of media imagery meet surgical air strikes, wars of hearts and minds usually find their battlefields on the terrain of culture and class, the display of images such as the profuse gushing of blood can be deemed acceptable in one cultural context on the one hand while be declared taboo in another society. Where viewers of western media are rarely subjected to the blood and gore of war while being kept more on the strategic and systematic front of combat operations, victims of violence in the local towns and cities faced explosive incidents such as suicide blasts and targeted attacks which are also aired on repeat on television screens
Sometimes the appropriation of context and the numbness/blindness created by proliferation and subjugation of media imagery can have a camouflaging effect by putting on a chameleon veil of colours while delicately concealing the sharp double-edged sword of contrasting culture and power that sometimes brutally clash when they turn on each other.
In this new media reality it sometimes seems nearly impossible to cut through the sheer abrasive onslaught of images -- from YouTube channels to videogames and handheld devices to the big screen – flashing at an unprecedented rate through our lives. Getting even a glimpse of “truth” then becomes akin to searching in vain for that single glimmering needle in endless stacks of hay. But imagery is made possible only through culture, which acts like a kind of chimera that constantly reinvents itself. Ultimately, only art can be expected to undertake this daunting task of reclaiming culture by standing up to the mantle and speaking truth to power.
Contributing to this critical discourse on the clashes of culture and power, and the scars already evident in its own unique way is an exhibition titled “Culture Shock” by Saba Khan currently on display at Karachi's Canvas Gallary. A graduate of the National College of Arts in Lahore, after honing her skills through residencies at artists' conservatories like Civitella Ranieri, Khan went on to complete her MFA on a Fulbright scholarship at Boston University – this is her third solo exhibition.
As the title suggests, the work chosen for display is a collection that explores the artist's own cultural clash and conflict of identity, where two contrasting themes are paired together to create a sort of deliberately unsettling disharmony through subtle imagery. While one set of images explores the social and cultural landscape of urban life in Boston, Massachusetts through an overt foregrounding of typical stereotypes; the other set explores the delusional visions of grandeur orchestrated in an explosive extravaganza with fireworks bursting across the night-skies inside the mind of a suicide bomber whose decapitated head flies off into the oblivion. Through intriguing, contrasting, discontinuous but often overlapping sets of images, “Culture Shock” explores stark themes including rampant consumerism, mundane urban life, poverty, elitism, obesity, life, and death.
Viewers will find that the collection captures cultural contradictions and subtleties of violence at various levels, where placing the shopping-cart/sidewalk existence of a homeless person, next to the commodity-based luxuriousness of the American elite makes one statement; the placement of the “suicide blast” series in juxtaposition presents a completely different contrast. Where the outsider's critical observations of American life is brutally interjected by the inner projections of vengeful resentment, the self grandeur visions from the inner depths of the suicide bomber's brain is painted on a cosmic escape of blinding horizons. This exhibition offers a treat especially for those who are able to appreciate the disturbing nooks of the artist's endeavor as much as the extravagant splashes of colour which they often result in.
Part of the work collected here has already had some of its share of exposure to international audiences. Khan says she received a perplexed reaction from an American audience when she displayed some of the work at Boston's 808 Gallery for her MFA degree show. While the way she poked fun at Americans “as a way to get back at the stereotypes” was not taken lightly, Khan adds that her classmates found her critical observations to be offensive. Her “blast series” proved to be even more controversial viewing as American audiences “became very uncomfortable” not being sure whose side she was representing. Khan suggests that this muted reaction probably echoed her post-9/11 audience's inability to relate to imagery that was in direct conflict with the backdrop of mainstream media narratives.
Of course, a place like Karachi that has its own multiple overlapping set of discourses and no shortage of overt stereotypes or often blatantly obvious contradictions, art enthusiasts and other curious observers who are able to catch the show in the next two weeks would have a different take from the Bostonian audience. While it might be true that each individual interpretation can paint a work of art in its own colours, the responses of Boston and Karachi, and the chasm that lies in-between will only add a few more brushstrokes to the volumes this artist has painted in trying to capture the ever accumulating cultural disconnect and emotional discord that lies herein.
Asif Akhtar Asif writes on politics/culture from New York City while continuing graduate study in political theory at the New School for Social Research. He blogs at http://e-scape-artist.blogspot.com/ and tweets at http://twitter.com/e_scape_artist.