The economic and social shifts of the modern world bring with it the rapid development of major metropolitan centers, creating cities that are ever changing, ever evolving to cater to an explosive population growth. The city thus becomes a sentient beast with its own specific set of eccentricities, and the same citizens that sustain It can at times become products of it, consumed by it and molded by its experience. This is perhaps why the city has become a focus of so many art practices situated within it, specifically in countries like Pakistan where the beast remains untamed and these experiences become all the more pronounced.
Roohi S. Ahmed is one such artist, who explores the city through her personal experience of its geography, exploring the ways in which this geography is shaped by the politics of space, and how that in turn shapes the freedoms of the body and its movements within that space. Her current show at AAN Gandhara Art-Space, “The Distance Between Two Points”, curated by Aziz Sohail, reflects on almost 20 years of her practice, yet refrains from calling itself a retrospective. The curator identifies points of intersection between the diverse narratives and visuals in her works, allowing new perspectives to emerge. It is also exciting to see works from as far back as 1999 and 2003 alongside more recent works, underscoring the maturation of a career, both in terms of visual dexterity and conceptual sophistication.
The curator begins with a survey of the artist’s exploration of the city’s geography and her own movements within it through the tracings on maps. In these works the artist comments on underlying violence and political realities that dictate our everyday movements and experiences within the city, the chaos and confusion that becomes a part of daily life. One of the works that stands out in this section is “Mahfooz Rasta? (Safe Route?)”, which is a recent iteration of an older work shown for the very first time in 20 years, and marks the artist’s daily commute within the city. The title possibly alludes to the false sense of security we feel in our daily routines, questioning how safe we really our in our own city. The work makes one wonder whether the politics emerges out of the city’s geographies or are the geographies a product of it, as the mechanisms of violence demarcate and restrict the landscape. Either way, the city remains in a state of flux, held hostage by a sense of instability and political uncertainty.
What is undeniable is the ways in which this effects our own experience of the city. As the artist introduces the color red into subsequent works, there comes with it a peripheral human presence, an organic quality that allows the audience to view the city in relation to the body and the varying levels of restrictions one imposes upon the other. This is done not only through color but through the use of the thread and the repetitive technique of embroidery, which not only brings in a feminine element but also the idea of routine established earlier in a more metaphorical sense. The “If only it was -” series is an expressive sculptural installation that conveys a sense of violence, tamed and aestheticized by the softness of the tattered fabric, which seems to represent both body and soul in agony. The “Constellation” series similarly forces the mind to draw parallels between city streets and the vascular system through the subtleties of color, while the visual of the cushion cover frames the narrative in a female vernacular and evokes a sense of everyday comfort even as the streets run red.
This dichotomy becomes more pronounces as the curator shifts focus towards the image of the needle, and the artist’s recurrent explorations of it in a plethora of mediums. The needle becomes a symbol of femininity, patience, dexterity, and usefulness, yet is also seen as a weapon, a cause of pain, which makes it an apt metaphor for life itself. In the video work “A Moment of Silence”, the line of animated needles mimics the rhythm strip, visually depicting the sound of the human heartbeat, while in the “Untitled” diptych, the embossed image of the needle holds within its eye the silhouetted human form. This idea culminates in one of her iconic video performance works “Sew and Sow” and “Out of Bounds”, which creates a disconcerting visual as the artist uses needle and thread to sew the epidermis of her own hand. The latter of these shows the artist embroidering her own fingers together in a constricting boundary, layering within it ideas of self-inflicted abuse and constraint within customs, which are in a way perpetuated by way of their repetition and self-sustaining patterns, despite their obvious pointlessness. Their abusive nature is revealed through the discomfort evoked in the onlooker.
The show concludes on an exploration of borders by the artist and a forced sense of nationalism the representation of these borders is used to instill without a deeper understanding of what they actually signify. This idea is communicated in various manipulations of the map of the country, and the idea of dilution through repetition again features in the work “An Exercise in Persistence”, where the artist repeatedly traces the border of Pakistan until it becomes blurred and undefined. With “A Straight Line” the borders of the nation are reduced to a single broken line, perhaps to mark the vast distances it can create between two points.