It has become quite unavoidable for artists in Karachi to express their griefon the status quo and aestheticize their concerns over the current chaosand socio-political unrest in the city.SeemaNusrat creates such a narrative in a cohesive, subtle and convincing manner through a re-arrangement of ready-made and found objects; cloth, foam, metal rod and concrete bricks.
Voluptuous and deformed gunny bags, hung like butchered beef in a meat shop, invite us into the exhibition space. The stuffed and hefty sacks adopt organic, inanimate forms that abruptly end as flat, tapered façades or bulge out unexpectedly. The jute bags, primarily used to store and carry rice, wheat or dry food have been transformed into ‘items of re-use’ that are linked withcarrying brutally killed bodies and victims of violence in Karachi and are eventually abandoned at remote places of the city.
Gemma Sharpe’s role as the curator for SeemaNusrat’sshowadds immense value by supporting the artist’s thought process and in the way it is displayed at the new purpose-built site for Canvas Gallery. Curating solo shows is a recent practice in Pakistan that evokes debate and, at the same time, draws appreciation amongst the art world about the nature of such collaboration. While Seema offers a beautiful visual account of her ideas, Gemma refines it by giving it a verbal language and accentuates the artist’s visual expression through a poetic and meticulous selection of words.Seema; she says, suggests “us to pay attention to how an apparently innocent and mundane material… can accumulate external residues of memory and history altering its meaning beyond the printed textual and symbolic forms that supports its commercial use.”
Seema’s work is grave andvisceral; it talks about carnage, unidentified dead bodies bundled in sacks andthe ‘lostdreams’ within them. Perhaps, it also reflects uponafterlives; of materials and of living souls. It is a constant and painful reminder of the ruthless killings and unnatural deaths of the innocentand the insecurity tied with it. With one individual departs a world of hope, aspiration and ambition.
One series of lumpy jute sacks are balanced and hooked onto metal rods that are embedded in solid blocks of concrete lying on the floor. The forms allude to axed legs, pregnant bellies, women torsos and chopped flesh that are tied up and knotted into heavy bundles. The melancholic red net nylon fabric, insidiously emerging and vanishing around the grooves and contours of these objects are reminiscent of flowers sprinkled on the deceased before they are buried. They evoke a sense of loss – waning lives and fading memories.
The core narrative remains the same throughout but what keeps the onlooker engaged for long is the intricateand diverse interplay of form.Seema judiciously chooses to revealcertain phrases and images that are industrially pre-printed on the jute sacks for their commercial use. Images of an iconic British bakers man, a king from a deck of cards, a rose and phrases such as TeerMarka, Original Export Quality, Dhamaaka, 25 kg andQurbaanki Indian Sawayaanare pun-intended and emphatic. They generate feelings associated with violence, power, European-American intervention and crass commodification.
The elements embodying the sculptural pieces operate at multiple levels. The abruptly tapering facades, chopped surfaces and the bloated, unpredictable extensions end with patchworks of exotic European tapestry and twill weave fabric that is traditionally used for home accessories and domestic upholstery. The embroidered images of scenic landscapes, portrayal of the European elite and picturesque images of French living distract the viewer from the severity of the narrative being presented. Evasive in nature, the iconic imagery also hints towards a mindset of looking up to the Western standards of social, political, economic, intellectual and aesthetic progress. The contrastingnature of the visuals on the two fabrics – European tapestry and local food brand packaging – is also a metaphor for the range and diversity of visual culture in the bazaars, electronic media and social striations in Pakistan, particularly that of Karachi.
Tangential in its medium, an installation of screen prints on silver netted fabric, arranged geometrically in agrid, interacts with the sculptures surrounding it.The flat, minimal, graphic silhouettes of butchered beef disguised as gunny bags are composed with whimsical images, some of which are derived from the packaging on jute bags; bakers man carrying freshly baked bread, lips, a cut finger, water waves, knives. These icons extend the work’s narrative a step further as a re-interpretation of some of the symbols employed by the artist. The piece altogether, like a mysterious statistical puzzle, proposes a cryptic dialogue with the viewer. The more you observe, the more you are able to decode its underlying meaning.
Seema’s profound exploration of material culture suggests that it is hard to disassociate the memories that it carries within it. Her work reminds us of the complexity with which our visual culture can sensitize our souls and retain information subliminally. The exhibition, truly,isempathetic and thought provoking.