In recent years, there has been a return to a highly crafted aesthetic in art, both on local as well as international platforms. This comes as a new wave after the conceptualism as well as the consequent “deskilling” and “dematerialization” that maintained visible ground much of the latter 20th century. What we see now is a resurgent interest in the beautifully designed and produced object, manufactured from delicate or precious – and often organic – materials, which demonstrate an unparalleled level of skill and ingenuity.
“Manzil” an extraordinary show curated by Zarmeené Shah at the Koel Gallery, visits some of the most quintessential crafts developed in and around our later-chalked international border that have thus far withstood time but are now at a risk of becoming extinct. The industrial revolution, globalization, and the ensuing advancements in technology have rewired the living mechanism of any society as well as of the human psyche. Not only is this the age of mass production but also of the “instant.” Everything around is easily manufacturable, acquirable, and replaceable. These traits can usually not be catered to by the century old crafts that are still in operation globally, which hence are at a risk of being forgotten.
To address this rapid shift in the dynamics and to fill the lacuna of awareness around, as well as of the visual consumption of such locally embedded crafts, Shah decided to not only display each practice in its purest, primitive form, but has also brought in a group of designers who individually paired with each craftsperson to revamp the aesthetics to contemporary taste, without contaminating the technique and underlying ethos that has survived since its origin. In her own words, the focus was not so much on the objects produced in these ancient crafts, but on the knowledge and skill itself that has been passed down through generations. To highlight the intangible behind the physical produce, the curator has also showcased visual documentation, relics, purposed tools, and works in progress alongside written briefs with graceful and pleasing detail. In doing so, she brings forth the process of those particular crafts, their origins, as well as the mode of transmission of skills and knowledge from one generation to the next, to initiate a visual discourse.
Thirteen designers and craftsmen duos work together to teleport the craft forward through a more contemporary use; these skills range from various stone work, textile interventions, jewelry and metalwork amongst others.
Arshad Faruqui and Mohammad Naseem display Misgari, or copperware. A highly prized souvenir in the past, this technique has faced an adverse shortage of demand after the decline in tourist influx. For the exhibition, Faruqui and Naseem worked with engraving techniques from printmaking such as photoetching, dry point, etching, and laser cutting to produce similar, intricate results on copper bowls that shadow the original aesthetics of this craft. Coalesce Design Studio alongside Taj and Zahid Mahmood look back at our past and evoke nostalgia by using a classic children’s toy – the lattu (spinning top) – to inspire swivel stools that not only bear uncanny resemblance to the childhood toy but also function in the same manner. The technique used is a millennia old, called lathe or woodturning, which is the same process used in making the manual toy.
The celebrated technique of Kundan in South Asian jewelry making shone through in Amber Sami and Siddique Khokar’s collaboration. For the designer, dialogue was an integral part of research and process in order to develop a familiarity with the vocabulary used in making this craft. She incorporates Islamic narratives and iconographies such as the crescent, the moon, and floral symbols from paradise to elevate the craft to cater a more contemporary sensibility that also illustrates the local culture and spirit. Wardah Naeem Bukhari and Mohammad Imran also showcase another form of jewelry making that incorporates thread and weaving. Called Pattoli. this technique of woven thread jewelry can be found in various civilizations across the globe, including in the more familiar Mughal civilization. Having been born and brought up in Multan (one of the cities where this practice still thrives), Bukhari retraces her memories of her initial encounters with this craft which nurtured her curiosity to trace its historical origins and as well as seek its making.
In fact, weaving and embroidery entails an entire gamut in its own, and has been a backbone in both India and Pakistan that attracts great attention from the local as well as the international audience. Few of these exhibited are Shaal doch, phulkaari, and aari ka kaam. Shaal doch or Farasi weaving is an embroidery technique practiced most commonly amongst the nomadic tribes in Balochistan. The bold Balochi motifs and color palette on shawls reflect on the evolving landscape and climatic settings as the tribe relocates. Baloch used their constant transition and interminable travel as the inspiration to produce five panels, some of which are still unfinished and in process of continuing their journey. Sourcing the craft from the central and northern topography, Rano Usman inspects the practice of phulkari or floral embroidery. This tradition is passed down generations amongst women as a cherished family heirloom and Usman perceptively decides to display the skill in its original fashion with vibrant motifs and use of shape that according to him pay homage to the cultural dynamics and religious significance within the artisans’ community. Embroidery on leather or aari ka kaam is another craft that Tahir Malik employs on an ordinary briefcase. Also practiced in the Balochi communities, the intricate pattern and remarkable attention to detail with use of vivid color is perhaps the craftsmen’s way of compensating for an otherwise barren and monochromatic landscape around them.
Camel skin handicrafts have long been viewed as an atypical souvenir from Pakistan; however its demand faces a deadline since the perilous socio-political climate invading our everyday. Sadeqa Tayebaly and Mohammad Iqbal review the processes in this familiar craft also known as dabgar and chitarkari. However, the camel skin casts are often not perceived as a finished product until they are shrouded in naqashi of floral or geometric patterns. Inspired by Chinioti window carvings, Tayebaly delivers the craft its prestige and places it on a deserved pedestal in all its raw, bare glory where the skin is neither dyed nor mutilated, rather is minimally embellished to lay stress on the various skills that are either required or that aid in molding camel skin. Naqashi has been exhibited as a separate craft by Abdul Rahman Naqqash whose family has mastered the technique for almost a millennium. On a turmeric wall, he displays the various stages of this technique from the faint drawing to those finished with a sensitive treatment. The floral and geometric motifs have also been displayed on different surfaces that naqashi is practiced on. Rested on the floor is an assortment of natural pigments since only organic materials from color to specialized brushes are used in this form of art.
Crafted interventions in stone and clay have had a strong presence in our local heritage for centuries. Pietra dura or stone inlay is a technique of painting in and by stones. Broken, smaller pieces are assembled and fit into various forms. This Eurocentric practice traveled to the Afghan-Pak region where it’s known as parchin kari. The mother daughter duo behind Lél has perfected their skills and knowledge required to practice this craft after thorough and lengthy collaborative exercises with the craftsmen present in the northwestern border. They have not only given the technique a facelift but in doing so have also preserved the art for today’s times. Stone carving or Sang Taraashi is a technique epitomized in the Makli and Chawkandi necropolis. However, with time, the soft stone that is sourced depleted and as did the demand, after which the practice seemingly dwindled. Noorjehan Bilgrami excavates the tradition and uses the graveyards as her inspiration to present carved monoliths with crisp geometric patterns. Sadia Salim and Ghulam Haider Daudpota examine the elaborate craft of ceramics, also known as kashikari. Terracotta is fired and glazed that is either used as vessels or architectural ornaments in mosques or houses. They display a range of visual elements from flowers, geometry, calligraphy, and mosaic. For the exhibition, Salim and Daudpota have created a fretwork in ceramic inspired by the Islamic rules of geometrical pattern that are often placed as windows or ventilators in religious or domestic edifices.
Khattaati or calligraphy is possibly a craft most familiar to an audience at large. Siyah Mashq or black ink is a style of Persian calligraphy in which the writer has the leverage to lay text over and over. Shah Abdul Alamee has executed something similar and has displayed his continued interest in poetry by incorporating words by Rumi that speak of self-recognition, of birth, revival, and preservation – perhaps encapsulating the true essence of the entire exhibition.
Apart from the curatorial vision of mapping how knowledge and skill is passed from a generation to another, all the while demanding acknowledgment of its cultural worth and promoting its continuation, one sees an equally wide range of motives for an artist or designer to employ a craftsperson – from simply wishing to expand his or her repertoire of techniques, preserving a dying practice, to interrogating the social codes and values inherent in attitudes towards labor and creativity. After a visibly swelling level of creative and technical ambition, along with a yearning for the past and for the authentic, it is unsurprising that many artists turn to others, often artisans, to realize works of art together with. The conventional view of the artist or designer who works alone and personally creates each unique piece by hand as an expression of artistic genius is now archaic and certainly not applicable within the premise of this show. The exhibition inevitably tackles the questions the concepts of authorship, artistic originality, craftsmanship, skill, and the creative act. What is the relationship between creativity and production? Between an artist or designer, and an artisan? The show highlights the vital role that skills from craftsmanship and industrial production play in the creation of some of today’s most innovative and sought after works of art and design, And in doing so, also unbolts the insuppressible dichotomy between the work of art, the work of craft, and the debate on where the frail distinction lays in between.