What does the viewer decide to make of art when it’s not a mounted canvas, a framed sheet of paper or a sculpture on a pedestal? Perhaps today in the age of technology, even audio-video pieces which have a sense of narration to them are easily digestible. Yet, there will always be art and art shows that cannot be categorized or labeled neatly– instead, the exhibition prioritizes on display and the conveyance of content to the viewers. Such was a show at Canvas Gallery in Karachi created by artist duo Omer Wasim and Saira Sheikh. The artists converted the gallery into almost a science laboratory or a store room of archaeologists with spotlights and light tables arranged in a line showcasing odd bits and pieces from selected sites around Karachi. On the walls hung simple photographs with specific descriptions of each site where the ‘artifacts’ displayed were found.
Rarely in Pakistan do we see art exhibitions that do not inhibit themselves and highlight the artists’ process and research. 24.8615° N, 067.099° E, the title of the show, are the coordinates for a specific site which the artists duo revolve their research and process around. The site in question is the infamous Dubai Mahal which lies on the intersection of Khayabaan-e-Badar, in all its austere cement glory, towering above ordinary DHA mansions. The palace has been abandoned for many years now with zero signs of occupation. However it bears the question of how such an immense amount of land, with gates and security systems continues to survive and be a landmark in the most ironic ways.
Omer Wasim spoke about how he always drove past the Dubai Mahal from his home and never saw the building in another angle until he started to explore around the vicinity with Saira Sheikh. The empty plot opposite the Dubai Mahal seemed a perfect spot to take photographs, and document the palace and it was there that the artist duo found an empty steel cargo container. Perturbed, the artists realized that the container was a living space for somebody through the remnants of items left behind. One of the charcoal drawings for the show is of the angle/perspective of the Dubai Mahal from inside the container, in the shoes of the person who lives in that tiny space. The other charcoal drawing is more of a frontal view, focusing of that all too familiar monstrous wall of the palace. Both drawings hang opposite each other at Canvas Gallery, significantly re-enacting the polar opposite sites that look onto each other at Khayabaan-e-Badar. Using this example, it’s interesting to note how the artist duo brings a sense of awareness to the viewers at the gallery about the content of their art, their research and process through the display. This is further highlighted in their artist statement; “We as artists, are not mere participatory observers, or witnesses, but are also responsible for generating, circulating, and perpetuating these hegemonic systems of constructing knowledge and histories.”
The exhibition consists of multimedia and an immaculately designed display of light tables and holders, garnering viewers to come closer and inspect the odd bits from the sites excavated – perhaps even participate as fellow scientists. Although the Dubai Mahal is made to be seen as a centre for research, the objects on display were from sites such as rickety tents, containers and feeble structures of residence found on empty spaces zooming in on the dichotomy of classes in Karachi. By picking a torn cuff of a kurta, seeds of a plant, rope, pebbles, shards of broken objects from the living spaces, the artists literally put a spotlight on the extreme living conditions many citizens live with. The artists comment that by working together, they not only benefit from having a larger pool of resources but focusing on collective issues. Identifying the absurdity of opulence verses absolute poverty in this project has been a result from both artists’ personal history. Omer Wasim and Saira Sheikh speak about how they both come from families who migrated to Karachi and moved around the city due to economic, political and social reasons. By mapping and drawing as navigational tools, documenting and storing items, the artists find that it facilitated their understanding and perspective of Karachi. Through their budding research, the work has undoubtedly lead the artists to feel perhaps more intensely about the disparity of living conditions and ‘exclusionary systems’ which have morphed into every aspect of Karachi. However keeping their family histories in mind, the artists tackle their research by presenting it for the future; the text alongside the documents which describe the objects and photographs treat each particle in the exhibition as if it were a living and breathing species, under a microscope. This reminds the viewers and readers about how scientists and archaeologists in a futuristic age discover remnants from the past and scrutinize each atom and molecule to understand the era from which the object is belongs to understand.
The language is admittedly ‘esoteric’ according to the artist duo but deliberately so. The text treats the art in a way that most artists wouldn’t dare venture into. Usually text in an art exhibition is poetic, slightly narrative and whimsical. The text for 24.8615° N, 067.099° E is on the other hand is very academic and philosophical, inspired by pieces such as Waiting for Godot. Due to the text being difficult to read through because of the heavy vocabulary, the ‘intended absurdity of the text is also a reflection of living and making work in Karachi’ the artists comment.
While the display and curation of 24.8615° N, 067.099° E may appear to be site specific at Canvas Gallery, amazingly it isn’t so. The research and work was ready before a gallery was decided and once having gotten a confirmation, the duo worked on floor plans to analyze each detail. From everything to the lighting to the colour coordination of the objects picked, the exhibition has created a new bench mark for artists speaking about work that refuses to be categorized and understands the need to provide the twenty first century viewer with more options on what art can be and take the form of in future.