There was once a time when life in Karachi necessitated interdependence, encouraged inclusion and brewed an air of untroubled lifestyle. However, the swelling criminal and terrorist activities in the past decades consequentially altered the everyday, and our way of living was affected following a number of security procedures.
The transparency with which one lived was gradually curtailed as traffic on foot chose to travel in vehicles for their safety. Interaction between strangers in public became rare. Residences and housing structures raised their walls to maintain privacy. The welcoming open gates were replaced by the uninviting, threatening, barbed wire. The panoptical nature of living was elevated and conspicuously displayed with every passerby aware of being watched by cameras, sporadic watchtowers, and security personnel. It became essential to safeguard oneself as well as one’s assets and that catalysed the class division in an otherwise homogeneous public lifestyle. Karachi eventually started to breathe in the air of seclusion and exhaled a cry of trepidation in form of a peculiar defence mechanism.
Seema Nusrat inspects one such shift apparent in the city’s physiognomy and represents it as the new face of Karachi. Curated by Zarmeene Shah at Gandhara Art-Space, ‘Proposals Towards a New Architecture’, looks closely on the interventions in the structural façade of the city’s buildings that have crept into our everyday observation slowly enough to not make us pause and realise the gravity of this evolution. Nusrat is observant of the vicissitude and comments on the proliferating visibility of this sequential bifurcation; the artist proclaims that this form of architecture is surfacing as the city’s recent identity.
Nusrat works through drawings and sculptures to critique how these architectural reconfigurations not only display a cocooned disconnect, but also reek of power and privilege to those who are reminded of their unimportance for not having considered such protection necessary (for financial or other reasons). The structural changes create silent thresholds that not only daunt and warn but evoke a feeling of disinclination in the observer every time he or she has to interact with, and attempt to permeate, those features. The barricades and barriers politicize the outdoors as instruments of rule that orchestrate affluence. They are visual signifiers to stratification, to a position of authority, and to any opposition.
In Structural Studies, Nusrat creates a residence façade through felt and other fastening tools such as ropes, metallic clips and pins. The artist and curator’s approach to a rustic display of the relief is deliberate and compliments Nusrat’s conceptual narrative. The securing devices exemplify the constricting nature of such barriers. The bygone times when generous interactions and an outpouring circulation of sharing prevailed within communities was now all reverted – bound and contained in an almost claustrophobic environment – much like the tools that painfully tighten, choke and pierce the otherwise soft and benign material.
The volatile and unpredictable climate of the city also emanates from the installation Mobile Urban Dwellings. Nusrat chooses to perilously suspend her work, and in doing so, donated more weight to the choreographed setting. Two rotund sand bags precariously hang from the ceiling, attached to an anchored wire structure that alludes to be half buried beneath the floor. Through the hoisting, the sinking, the shifting heights, Nusrat not only stresses the arising revision of the city’s elevations but also underlines the socio-economic hierarchal imbalance that is triggered by the presence of such erections. The viewer is left equivocal on whether the edifice is melting, dissolving out of existence in a city that identifies itself as a melting pot, or whether the construction is sprouting from the ground – a commentary on the bourgeoning population that is slowly asphyxiating the megalopolis.
Nusrat further critiques the ongoing gentrification that responds as solutions to the insecure environ and to the risks posed by the swelling inundation of the city’s population. In New Urban Landscapes series she layers images of earthy barricades to replicate the multiple levels of self-protection of a cautious mind. The opaque texture of the images hides what is underneath, juxtaposing the vulnerable pellucidity of the frail tracing paper. By doing so she emphasises the quench for privacy and highlights the incessant flux in the topography that corroborates any securitization from what’s beyond the bricked walls.
The artist omits details to solely focus on the silhouettes that attribute to her chosen plans and elevations. The peripheries of these residential and commercial sites create a stark divide between what is contained within and that which surrounds its outside. While it may be easy to neglect this divide in real life, Nusrat’s measures ensure that it becomes ineluctable for the viewer to ingest the apparent. One cannot avoid but notice the mapped contours in both Integrated Structures as well as Containing the City, in which she once again amalgamates different structures to create a somewhat chaotic, indecipherable profile which incites a frustrating curiosity in viewers as they try to make sense of what is before them – much like our current societal condition. Her effective use of gentle and soft materials make her message relatively palatable for the audience; the rather domestic and familiar textures coax viewers to be more sympathetic and understanding to the situation.
In Domestic Elevations the soft and velvety coalesce with the harsh and robust. The metallic modules stand hard and rigid, the fibrous textile – ever so compromising and flexible – docilely accommodates itself in the space provided within the cells. However, the union is dicey; the caging grids stifle and press against the bloated fabric that suggest their possible attempt to burst and escape as they diffidently spill through the gaps. Staying true to her trajectory, the artist displays an allegory that aptly narrates the current instability and the turbulence pervasive in our everyday.
A city’s identity changes depending on the sociopolitical, economic climate, as well as the cultural geography of the city itself. Seema Nusrat’s body of work is a further hybrid of art and the cross between the man-made and nature, and can be realized as microcosmic reflections of an eclectic, multicultural society – manifestations of the chaotic delirium and the city’s fraught attempts at designing grotesquely fragmented solutions to seek semblance from the extant disorder.
Seema Nusrat: Proposal Towards a New Architecture was shown at Gandhara Art-Space, Karachi, in March 2017. Images courtesy Gandhara Art-Space.