As resilient as Karachi may seem to many, it is a city that is under constant threat. This has given rise to many security concerns and has led the government to undertake drastic measures. Over the years an increase in surveillance technology, security personnel, barriers and barricades has not only influenced the city’s psychology but also its geography. The dominant presence of sandbag barriers that fence buildings and provide shelter to policemen and rangers are a common sight. Reflective of a city in a state of flux, these structures arise, disappear, re-emerge and multiply while constantly changing the urban landscape.
Although they may have reached a point of urban banalism, their use in art can still be questioned. A recent show entitled ‘New Urban Landscape’, curated by Zarmeene Shah and exhibited at the Koel Gallery in Karachi, showcases drawings by Seema Nusrat. Using a particular kind of sandbag barrier known as Hesco Bastion (a wire mesh container containing a fabric liner and sand), the artist is not stating the obvious by showing their oppressive nature. Instead, Seema’s drawings suggest the emergence of a new kind of architecture.
Beautifully rendered with graphite and collage, the display included numerous drawings depicting elevations of fort like constructions. Suggestive of dystopian edifices, each work is investigating a design for the present-day as well as a speculative future. These drawings, while private and intimate, are not necessarily emotional but analytical in nature. Fascinated with the form of the Hesco Bastion, Nusrat’s subsequent use of drawing and photographs play on the notion of how objects can be perceived. The barriers that were photographed at numerous locations were employed in the collages. Assembled by hand, they possess a physical presence associated with human labor. These intimate assemblages and line drawings require the works to be viewed more closely, unveiling a world of their own and also suggesting a peculiar sense of visual representation. What we see is the disquieting presence of rigid constructions erected in isolation with no expressive gesture present in the aesthetics. Only an imaginative mind could devise these drawings. The exhibition is therefore in many ways about home and territory. As it displays a bond between land and drawing, one could say that it is above all about process.
A sculptor by profession, Nusrat’s new two-dimensional work helps us understand how process and medium can be adapted for different purposes and intentions. In many ways these drawings could be an extension of the Sandbag Labyrinth the artist installed in the gardens of Frere Hall in 2015. Dyed in yellow the sandbags were arranged in the form of a maze the public could engage with. In retrospect, could New Urban Landscapes be a prelude to eventual sculptures or installations? In either case these new works challenge our perception of built environment and its inhabitants.