In his artist’s statement, “Traces of Ecstasy,” Rotimi Fani-Kayode starts off by talking about destiny, and taking a cue from him I will start this document by saying that “[i]t has been my destiny to end up as an artist” in Karachi. My work, for the last three years, has been informed by Karachi and the people who live here; however, my relationship with this city is contentious. I was born and raised in Karachi, eventually moving to Islamabad in the late 90’s, seemingly away, but never far, from the politics of Muttahida Quami Movement.
Karachi became a distant thought for the next decade and a half.
My Urdu speaking, muhajir parents made a decent life for us in Islamabad, and if I were asked to describe it, I would say that it was neutral at best. Islamabad pacified the muhajir in us; canola oil made up for sarson ka tail, eventually becoming the norm.
I moved to Baltimore for college and stayed there for five years, earning two degrees and making life changing bonds with people who were not my own. In college, I learned to subvert the western traditions of sculpture with Sarah Doherty and David Brooks, and challenged the boundaries of gender, politics, and sexuality with Margaret Morrison. Jennie Hirsh introduced me to the poetics of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work, and I wrote my graduate thesis on AIDS and art in the 1980’s. When a close friend tested positive for HIV, I realised that a drop of semen can change the course of your life, and that all of this comes closer to home than we think or would like to admit. How then do we make work or write about things that can change the course of our lives?
In hindsight, Baltimore was preparing me for what my life would become in Karachi.
I am not certain if any of the information above qualifies to be in an essay—probably a good time to mention that I do not think of this as an essay—on the theme of “artists’ statements”. If an artist’s statement is meant to narrate how one arrives at the work he/she makes, life events do inform the work but are not necessarily what the work is about. However, my biggest apprehension when writing or sharing an “artist’s statement” is that we often think of them as concrete, solid, unmovable, or fixed. How does that happen? Our lives change everyday, and so do our concerns, how then are we to think of artists’ statements as fixed?
My work can be thought of as “parodies of machismo” that engage with the politics of navigating the city; it is always changing and evolving, and I do not necessarily have a set artist’s statement. So I write one for every new work that I make or for every application I file, and below are some of the ones that I have written after moving to Karachi.
I propose to frame Dreamscape as an opportunity to make work addressing desire and longing. The work, produced for the exhibition, will explore the dimensions of employing veiled signifiers to call upon desire—trafficking in private pleasure into institutional spaces via “acceptable” aesthetic strategies. These works aim to embody a host of contradictory meanings, ultimately figuring as traps for the censor. However, they should not be reduced purely to a context-specific response to desire and its frustration.
The work will narrate my position as an artist firmly rooted in the political crisis of my present. Exposure and concealment will be my tools, carried out via drawing, text, sculpture, and installation. The vocabulary of identity-politics, queerness, and sexuality “reeks of old air in churches”—the old words and works do not help. Some new style is required—some new mode of speech and art. This new mode will not come by denying or erasing what came before, but by transforming what was most valuable from the past.
There are historical, material conditions that create a situation of crisis, but there is no reason why some people die, why some get sick, […]. There is no reason, but there is meaning. My experiences are filled with meaning. They’re filled with pain, irony, and hope.
I read to grasp the dimensions of identity and desire. To understand a literary text, or even hint at understanding it, has the potential to encourage critical inquiry, which is essential for self-discovery—for realising and coming into one’s identity and desire. Since “the world is an infinite text” and “language is the ground of existence,” completely grasping a text, in a way, is to fully gauge the self. Human beings are “constituted by language,” and “they, too, are texts.” Text has “implications for subjectivity,” for what it “means to be a human being.”
I make work not by denying or erasing what came before, but by reading, rereading, and transforming what was most valuable from the past. I seek to translate what I read into new works that aspire to undermine conventional hegemonic perceptions/representations of identity and desire. For me, this involves an unconventional investigation of companionship, geographical dislocation, and subsequent relocation, rather than calling upon usual and immediate signifiers. Exposure and concealment are my tools, carried out via photography, video, text, and sculpture. For the works to become more than just a combination of forms, I delve deeper and attempt to reveal something that is otherwise unseen. I expose layers to reflect the varied constructs of what it means to be human—what it means to have an identity and to desire. These layers are abstracted to further expand our understanding of subjectivity. Many of my works are deliberately ambiguous—and in their intentional ambiguity and open appeal for subjective interpretation, the works cannot be tied down to only one message; at the same time, they can be understood as a radical critique of politics/power.
The piece, Untitled (“Bearing Witness”), narrates the trauma of war experienced by my father. I was thinking about memory, its nature, and the act of witnessing, and their relation to the war of 1971, which led to the separation of East and West Pakistan. The work aims to define “the trauma of the war as a radical crises of witnessing ‘the unprecedented historical occurrence of…an event eliminating its own witness.’”
In order to make the piece, I reread parts of Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub. I wanted to construct a space that could house memories—a makeshift space often seen at construction sites in residential areas of Karachi, which acts as a first marker for a place that will eventually contain memories, post-memories, and also house within it the inevitability of death, decay, and regeneration—and a space that has some potential to shelter bodies. I also think of it as a nomadic memorial—a crippling, claustrophobic, haunting, and traumatic one—that recalls the horrors of war, and being in Karachi after the fall of Dhaka. And like the fleeting nature of memories, the structure, albeit extremely heavy, is always in flux—changing with every footstep, every interaction, and referencing Karachi’s landscape.
The ocean is less than a mile away from the house. I can see the road that can take you [almost] directly to the ocean from a bed on the first floor of an indistinct house. The house sits quietly in the corner, surrounded by vacant plots anticipating to be built upon. I have a feeling that the view will change soon, and when that happens, I will lose the sight of the road that can take you [almost] directly to the ocean. For now, I can clearly see the road, and I imagine following you to the ocean from a bed on the first floor of an indistinct house.
There are three books on the bed, each describing pleasures and pains of [our] bodies—these are tales of desire, loss, and retribution. I follow these narratives while following you, becoming many protagonists. I become “multiple and fragmented,” made up of “conflicting beliefs, desires, fears, anxieties, and intentions.” I, too, become the one with “very particular flesh,” and the one who dies. All of this happens from a bed on the first floor of an indistinct house, surrounded by vacant plots anticipating to be built upon.
I map my interactions with the city and its people—to understand the relationships in my life, and how these relationships inform the way I navigate the urban sprawl. My work calls upon desire and its frustration, informed by the landscape of Karachi where bodies appear and disappear simultaneously—ever shifting, not static.
I make work not by erasing what came before, but by reading, rereading, and transforming what was most valuable from the past. I translate what I discover into new works that aspire to undermine conventional hegemonic representations of desire, and living in urban spaces. For me, this involves an investigation of familial relationships, memory and post-memory, personal and generational geographical dislocation and subsequent relocation, rather than calling upon immediate signifiers. Exposure and concealment are my tools, carried out via sculpture, photography, text, and drawing.
For the works to become more than just a combination of forms, I delve deeper and attempt to reveal something that is otherwise unseen. Layers are exposed to reflect the varied constructs of what it means to desire in overwhelming urbanities. These layers are abstracted to further expand our understanding of subjectivity. Many of the works are deliberately ambiguous, and in their intentional ambiguity and open appeal for subjective interpretation, the works cannot be tied down to only one message; at the same time, they can be understood as a radical critique of power that conditions our experiences, and signals the insufficiency of art to capture the essence of living in and making work out of Pakistan.