Canvas Gallery in Karachi recently exhibited the works of three young artists in a collective show titled ‘The Fine Line.’ Working with diverse themes, the participating artists, Fatima Munir, Cyra Ali and Umar Nawaz, each had something unique to say.
Fatima Munir, a graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, chose to work around the violence and terror that has become a constant part of life in Karachi. Although Munir explains at length in her artist statement, the thought process behind her pieces, her work is fairly self-explanatory and will resonate with anyone who has lived in the city. Over the past few years, Karachi’s stories of violence have been at the forefront of Pakistan’s terror narrative. Fear and insecurity have become a major part of living in the city and that is what Munir’s work taps into. In three individual frames, she pays tribute to prominent personalities of Karachi.
Out of Munir’s chosen heroes, two are women who were brutally killed in Karachi. Parveen Rehman, an architect working for better housing for the poor was murdered in 2013 while Sabeen Mahmud, who ran an NGO/cultural center The Second FLoor, lost her life earlier this year after she hosted a talk on missing persons in Balochistan. Munir places images of Rehman and Mahmud in identical oval frames reminiscent of miniature portrait painting. For her tribute to Edhi, the relentless philanthropist, she extends wings to his picture and aptly titles it angel.
Munir’s other pieces are not limited to the violence in Karachi. Titled Covering the Pain and Shame, the series includes pictures from various incidents of violence including the Peshawar school attack in December 2014, the killings of Shias, dead bodies in a Karachi morgue and a bomb site. Munir covers the images with flowers and leaves. All her work for this show combines newspaper images with embroidery, a skill she says she learnt in preparation for marriage. Embroidery in South Asia has traditionally been associated with constructively occupying women as they beautified table-mats, pillow covers and their own garments. Munir succeeds in engaging the viewers by her use of calming motifs against pictures of tragedy.
Although she is mourning for the loss of life, the flowers and leaves are also symbolic of hope, of growth and of life. Munir is not the only artist to have been affected by the violence around her. Imran Qureshi – the only Pakistani artist to have painted the ceiling of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – used his training in miniature to create Blessings on the Land of My Love, a large-scale painting that looked like blood but upon closer inspection, were delicately painted floral forms. The work had been a result of the Lahore bombings in 2013 followed by those in Boston.
Cyra Ali, also a graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, chooses a completely different route for her definition of ‘the fine line’. Her work discusses one of the most taboo topics in Pakistan – female sexuality, the mere existence of which is ignored by pretty much everyone in the country, at least till a woman is married off. Even thereafter, the woman is a participator in sexual activity and cannot openly express sexuality or sexual desires. Ali combines acrylic with needlepoint to create her pieces – some of them repeat patterns – and it is only when one looks closely that one sees elements of the female anatomy.
In Sada Khush Raho (may you always be happy), Ali depicts society’s expectations from a woman. Sada Khush Raho in Urdu is a blessing bestowed upon women at the time of their marriage. In the above piece, Ali paints a picture of this ‘happily ever after’ for a woman in a conventional setting. Being pushed around by a brother, being somebody’s wife and eventually, being the resident rosary reader in the household. Ali uses the typical symbol of inequality in the background – an off-balance scale. The play on words continues throughout Ali’s work – Raat ki Rani, With a Cherry on Top, Dil Baagh Baagh Hua and Heroine.
In the above piece titled With a Cherry on Top – Ali uses actual cherries between pairs of female legs to create a repeating pattern. The fairy lights incorporated within could signify a celebration and acceptance of female sexuality that is repressed in patriarchal societies like ours.
Working purely with form, Umar Nawaz’s pieces bring a completely different dimension to the show. Nawaz describes, in his statement, that the content of his pieces is informed by the intense manipulation of the material. His pieces, made of iron and steel, are extremely open to interpretation and can be read into many different ways depending on the viewer’s ability to derive content from the form itself. In a way, a lot of times, a people’s lives are restructured by the processes they go through, the manipulation of thoughts and actions, their experiences in work and relationships.
‘The Fine Line’, Canvas Gallery, Karachi, 1-10 September 2015. Images courtesy Canvas Gallery.