Basir Mahmood, a graduate of the Beaconhouse National University, is the most recent graduate of a slew of now internationally-known Pakistani artists to have participated in the prestigious Gasworks Residency. His post-residency discussion and sample of works, on view at Full Circle Gallery, was an occasion for a Karachi audience to view his work for the first time in 3 years. The mini-exhibition of two video works and a series of six photographs allowed an insight into an impressive and rapidly maturing oeuvre.
The artist’s current work deals with some multiple and overlapping themes that interplay to create complicated and nuanced works that allows the viewer to access his concepts, and at the same time allow room for personal interpretation. These concepts range from the idea of passage and ravages of time on society and man and personal experiences, as well as the idea of our surroundings as a way for ourselves to make meaning of the world around us. Mahmood’s works A Message to the Sea and No Land for Fisherman, in particular, are directly related to the concept of the sea, both inspired by a fisherman settlement in Turkey that the artist stayed in and responded to in his work. The artist’s awareness of the dependency on the sea for these communities is particularly relevant for a viewer in Karachi to engage with. Residents of this port mega-city are only well too aware of the politics of the sea and its sustenance for the communities that live in fishing villages who are now consumed by an ever expanding urban space. Lyari, today marked by gang violence and labeled as a no-go area was one of the original settlements for Baloch and Sindhi fishermen. Fishermen are also regularly the unintentional victims of the Pakistan-India territorial disputes as well. In this cultural context, Mahmood’s work while not directly addressing or touching any of these points can be contextualized and re-read with personal meaning for a viewer hailing from another coastal community.
No Land for a Fisherman is a series of six photographs taken during a stay in a fishermen settlement in Turkey. In his description, Mahmood, notes that the profession [of fishing] does not exist as it did in the past, a nod again, to changing nature of many professions and the ways time affects long established communities, which heightens his desire to capture the past. This series of photographs are images of everyday objects that the artist found in a house of fisherman while staying there. At a glance, they are mundane; some flowers, spoons wrapped in a paper, scissors, towels and so on. The viewer does not engage with the owner of these objects itself, rather the objects mediate in connecting us with the owner, and with his sense of self in his own surroundings. The work is then at once personal yet distant, allowing us to reflect on it on an individual level, and find meaning from within our own experiences.
In A Message to the Sea the viewer may also perceive a presence of mystical and Sufi themes. The artist states: “a boat is set off to sail into the distant horizon, until it disappears, signifying the receipt and assimilation of the message: understanding. A boat is the channel through which a fisherman interacts with the sea, which is a source of livelihood for him, which, in turn, sustains his life.” This explanation and the ethos of the work also recall Sufi ideas of the searching for the true message through the theme of traveling on a path or tariqah to reach an inner core. This continuous interplay between the physical and spiritual is strongly showcased in the work. The video shows an expanse of the sky and calm water on which the boat glides softly across the horizon, while the fisherman looks into the distance, with his back turned towards us. At no point do we interact with him, and while the space itself offered to us is vast, our interaction with the fisherman itself is limited and de-personalized.
This idea of a limited and close-up view is very stark in the work titled My Father where he artist deals with more personal subject, that of his father. The work is played on a very small screen, forcing the viewer to move up close, which parallels the focus of the work itself, which is a close up of a single needle in which an elderly man tries to thread. A close up shot of the needle and the hand de-personalizes and generalizes the subject itself, which could be any senior individual, and thus one we can all relate to. It also allows us to engage with the details of the individual itself. The worn nails, the weariness, the repetition of trying over and over again, but continuously failing, these are all poignantly showcased in the work of the artist. Similar to in A Message to the Sea, our relationship is not with the individual itself but what he represents, and to this act, and its significance. In bringing the stories of these people who sustain and live amongst us but are overlooked the artist allows us to empathize and relate with them.
Mahmood’s current body of work, then, is deeply personal and nuanced. The work remains accessible to the viewer, yet pregnant with meaning. In choosing to keep his execution simple and focus on the core stories, the artist has created very powerful work. One wishes that the viewer could engage with more of his work, in order to really appreciate and enjoy an oeuvre that promises to continue to be strong and exciting.
All images courtesy of the artist.
‘Basir Mahmood: Three Works’ was shown at Full Circle Gallery, Karachi, from 5 – 7 April 2014.
Aziz Sohail is Studio Director for Rashid Rana Studio and an independent curator and critic based between Karachi and Lahore.