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Art fiend: Nuances of a city in transition

June 03, 2012

Karachi today inspires and terrifies in equal measure. Once a dynamic city, it is now a victim of political chaos, crime and violence. How do its citizens survive in this mayhem? Reactions within the art milieu have crystallised in exhibitions like ‘6 / 6’ , ‘The labyrinth’, ’Karachi kiya’ and ‘Mad in Karachi’, which centralised on the selected artist’s individual relationships with the city of Karachi and how they intercepted the rhythm and pulse of this metropolis on a physical and psychological plane.

Currently Art Chowk’s recent show, ‘Movement’, also attempts to capture the nuances of a city in transition. As many as 10 artists focus on decoding Karachi to reveal its inner psyche. While we need a stream of such artistic exercises before the efforts can be pronounced as a defined movement, the recurrence of such exhibitions does indicate a determination among artists to engage with immediate realities.

Escalation of street crime is among the most disturbing developments in a city fast going off the rails. Small metal sculptures of animated human figures by Muhammed Ismaeel impact the eye on account of their confrontational postures. Imbued with strong feelings, the works combat violence and aggression head on. This struggle is essentially Ismaeel’s personal narrative but many in today’s Karachi can empathise and identify with his predicament.

He says, “Through my work I vent my frustrations; I portray my weaknesses and the unfortunate circumstances which caused my accident — I am confined and there is turmoil within me.” His deliberate use of engineering detritus as his work material also reflects on the city’s crumbling industry and urban infrastructure. He proclaims, “I incorporate metal junk parts in my visual practice as I feel my body has become junk, too. Any metal thrown away gets recycled to take on new forms which are shown constantly fighting and struggling – just like I am. Yet struggle and the fight to achieve and overcome one’s difficulties is like being a warrior, these sculptors are my warriors reflecting both my inner feelings and my physical struggle.”

‘The defacing humanity’ paper sculpture by Nabil Majeed is yet another artwork that presages disaster and ruin. Paper craft artists today can create some of the most incredibly intricate 3D pieces ever seen with the help of Nano-origami. A pitch black human head composed by Majeed with thousands of tiny paper folded crawly insects is a compelling mix of skill and concept. It reminds one of the hordes of ravenous scarab beetles who devour the human form, in the Mummy film series.

The seemingly innocuous ‘Sabr ka phal’ collection by Noman Siddiqui is yet another captivating mix of expertise and idea.

Playing with the traditional connotations of Sabr ka phal idiom, he opines, “All of us (Pakistanis) have been doing Sabr since 64 years but in this case our politicians have been hammering this phrase in our minds and eating our roots like insects eat fruits; what we have got in return is corruption, injustice, target killing, loadshedding etc,”. Technically it is fine textural markings and smoke firing skills that bring an artistic edge to Siddiqui’s terracotta fruit pieces.

Abdulla Qamer’s metal iron, ‘Bouquet and dialectics’ wall sculpture comprise a profusion of spherical discs welded into a sprawling organic mass. Suggesting unregulated abundance the works are an apt metaphor for an over-populated city literally bursting at its seams. Primarily abstract, the pieces however lack the suffering, chaos and suffocation that accompany such proliferation.

Not all the artists in the exhibition have produced work specific to Karachi but they have been able to tap into the flux prevailing nationwide; some have built on earlier successes and others have continued to innovate. Faraz Mateen’s digital blow ups of thumbprints superimposed with hazy portraits of anonymous people denotes the encroachment of technology and how it is eroding the human persona by reducing identity to pixilated images, signs and ciphers.

Returning after a long absence Rabia Shoaib gives expression to ‘The game of life we play’, through acrylic on canvas, mixed media and installation. Using the ubiquitous chessboard grid to enunciate shady moves, deception and game plans she tries to distinguish between fraudulent and righteous intentions.

Asad Hussain has a fertile imagination and brings novelty to his mixed media works. His transparent PVC trousers alluded to the politics of brand culture and its impact on society. Sadia Jamal spoke of Aseeri and Parwaz through imprisoned bodies and feathered formations suggesting flight and liberation.

A vulture head titled, ‘Hamara raja (gidh)’ fashioned into a chessboard king by Raheela Abro accompanies this statement, “Those who come in power ‘raja’— be they monarchs, they inflict so much misery, deprivation and repression on their public riaya. They become like vultures gidh scavenging their own people’s carcasses.”

Raw and harsh the ‘Movement’ artworks, carrying shades of anger, cynicism, rage and mockery invite deliberation on the plight of Karachi. Curator Bushra Hussain commenting on the dynamics of the exhibition says, “The purpose for doing a show like ‘Movement’ was to seek to inspire and initiate further a visual narrative in the hope to establish ‘a school of thought’ in the region. The idea is to label and give recognition to this energetic, spirited, at times sensitive artistic expression which is evident in theses selected artists’ works.” Art Chowk proposes to develop this initiative into an annual event.