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Parde Mein Rehne Do, Parda Na Uthao: Opacity and The Refusal To Represent In Contemporary Artworks In Karachi

opacity for everyone.”
Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation
“The veil was worn because tradition demanded a rigid separation of the sexes, but also because the occupier was bent on unveiling Algeria.”
Frantz Fanon, Unveiling Algeria
Frantz Fanon’s controversial 1959 essay, Unveiling Algeria, chronicles how the veil became a site of struggle in an Algeria rising against French colonial rule. According to Fanon, reframing discourses around the veil was a primary strategy used by French colonialism to entrench completely their domination. Outlining the ways in which their supposed attempts to ‘liberate Muslim women’ served as a means to further solidify and legitimize colonial rule and ownership of Muslim bodies in Algeria, Fanon then describes the way in which the veil, and the French assumptions around it, were subverted and incorporated into the guerrilla strategies of the men and women of the FLN (the National Liberation Front of Algeria).[i]
A writer, a revolutionary, and a psychoanalyst, Fanon’s analysis of the veil and its meanings in the eyes of the colonizer, extended into a concept of the gaze that is central to Fanon’s understanding of race, power and subjugation. As Stuart Hall puts it in Isaac Julien’s experimental documentary ‘Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask’, for Fanon,
“racism appears in the field of vision…the sexualized nature of the look, looking always involves desire… a desire not just to see but to see what you can’t see, to see more than what you can see, to see into, to see beyond, to see behind.”[ii]
In Fanon’s analysis, the veil was not just utilized in French discourse to frame the Muslim man as savage, backward, misogynist and the Muslim woman as weak, abused, exploited etc. but there was (/is) more to the French relationship to the veil. The veil grates on the nerves of the colonizer, the colonizer fears the veil, the veil is seen as defiance because: “the woman who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer”[iii]. The veil obfuscates what the colonizer considers is his right (and also what is his need, in order to establish absolute power) to complete access.

Fanon saw in the European obsession with the veil the relationship between the act of seeing the other, the desire to know the other, and the desire to dominate, to conquer, to have the other. Edward Said made similar connections inOrientalism, between knowledge production, exploration, and conquest. Said highlighted the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 as a crucial moment in the construction of the discourse he calls Orientalism. Important to Said are those who came into Egypt with Napoleon’s armies: the scholars, scientists, artists and engravers who came to document, archive, understand, explain and illustrate Egypt. These artists and scholars produced the 23 Volume Description De L’Egypte, and their role was integral, indispensible to Napoleon’s project in their service of making Egypt “totally accessible to European scrutiny”[iv].
Such is the utility of artists in revealing to select audiences unseen worlds, undiscovered peoples and inaccessible places; in helping the privileged world of art-consumers to see, know, understand the Other; in rendering societies and communities, nations and peoples, cultures and experiences, transparent, comprehensible objects of knowledge. Last year, Imran Qureshi’s well-received roof garden commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bore one such burden. The striking installation marked a new stage in the diverse trajectory of a single gesture that has surfaced repeatedly in various pieces of Imran Qureshi’s work since first being developed by the artist in the aftermath of a Lahore bombing. The floral, organic forms that are painted into and emerge from the sinister splatters of red paint have bloomed and sprawled across many of the various surfaces that Qureshi has worked on in the past years – from vasli to a courtyard in Sharjah and most recently, the rooftop of the MET. Wherever Qureshi paints it, the imagery recalls and echoes the violence that Pakistan has suffered since the onslaught of the war on terror, the violence that haunted the artist’s imagination as the imagery was first conceived. But whatever the radical possibilities may have been of visualizing and communicating that trauma through Qureshi’s simultaneously delicate and frenzied miniature-inspired mark-making on a rooftop in Manhattan, they would seem largely lost on the museum and its audiences when one sees the installation publicized alongside free gola gandas “inspired by the Rooftop Commission”[v](“request a shot of vodka for an added kick”)[vi]. The mental image of rich, tipsy New-Yorkers consuming so light-heartedly such a powerful and loaded artwork (followed by our native cuisine of gola gandas as desert) comes as a reminder perhaps, that context is everything, and that work is evolved, consumed, transformed, developed, corrupted and sometimes even destroyed, through and under the gaze, or even the mere presence, of the viewer. Also a reminder perhaps that site-specificity must not only refer to the physical topography of the immediate surroundings, but must also consider socio-political context, the realities and the positionalities of the audience and viewership.
The concern, of course, is not specific to the encounter of the white gaze and the work of the artist-as-native-informant. The local encounter, within the Pakistani context too, shaped by the class disparities and ethnic tensions that manifest so radically in art spaces in Pakistan, is fraught with these concerns. This essay explores two contemporary art pieces/practices in Karachi that grapple with this question of the contemporary art audience and its hungry gaze with an active (dis)engagement, an addressing of the audience’s voyeuristic desires with a steadfast refusal of the demands placed on the artist to show, reveal, inform, educate and to provide insight on ‘difference’. These artists respond to the demands made of them to represent other people, other spaces, with opacity. They acknowledge the positionality of the art audience and maintain a site-specificity with regards to viewership. In doing so, these collaborative works do not attempt to speak any truths to power[vii], or to engage with power (or those who represent it in the art-world context), but instead, to ‘turn their back on power’.[viii]
Down the river, I met a boy
The link between knowledge production and conquest can be seen clearly in the proliferation of researchers, artists, journalists and anthropologists from the elite enclaves of Pakistan turning to Lyari for material and inspiration, seeking to know, understand, investigate and explain this Karachi neighborhood. Over the past few years this neighborhood has been singled out, studied, poked, prodded and mined for information. Lyari has been raided simultaneously by rangers, police, land-grabbers, politicians, NGO-walas, journalists, artists and academics alike, producing narratives that focus little on state violence and the systematic impoverishment of this primarily Baloch neighborhood, but more on the purported pathologies and propensities towards violence of Lyari natives.
Fazal Rizvi and Dostain Baloch’s collaborative video installation titled ‘Down the river, i met a boy’ addresses this desire for, and this fearful fascination with Lyari. First displayed in Frere Hall at Art Fest, a major art-world event for Karachi, the starting point of this piece is a clear understanding and acknowledgement of its audience. The installation consists of an image projected onto 28 sheets of paper. The projection is fixed on a serene, quiet view of the Lyari river, with the faint sounds of nearby traffic bleeding in, while the sheets of paper contain fragments of a conversation about Lyari between two unknown and unnamed others. One person asks naïve, probing questions about Lyari, while the other, seemingly a resident of the neighborhood, offers vague, quick answers. The conversation was curated by Fazal and Dostain to specifically contain questions that reflect an ignorance and a distance, an understanding of Lyari typical of hegemonic discourse about the neighborhood, while the responses are deliberately evasive, offering very little information or insight. On one sheet, “Does your mother ever tell you not to go anywhere? Does she worry about you?” is answered by: “Yes she does sometimes. Maa toh Maa hoti hai…”
Other answers seem deliberately insular, reminding the viewer of his/her status as outsider:
What is it like to live there?
Yeh bilkul mast jaga hai. Yahaan sare apne hi hain.
On other sheets questions remain unanswered, and on some, words and sometimes entire sentences, are scratched out and obscured with black ink, emphasizing again, to the viewers, that we are outside, straining to listen in on someone else’s conversation. That there exists information, knowledge, spaces we may not necessarily be entitled to.
Meanwhile the image projected over the sheets of paper refuses to budge, to pan out, to indulge our desires for more, more material, more images, more visuals, more narratives. One finds oneself dwelling over not what the image shows, but rather, what it must be hiding. The picturesque image of the Lyari River disappoints, it presents no narratives. It refuses even to offer a counter-narrative. It is what Goddard called ‘not a just image, just an image’.
The installation constantly plays on our desire to know, to understand, to see, constantly refusing it. It demands that we respect, as Martinican poet Edouard Glissant put it, the right of the other “not to be understood. The right to be unexplainable. Ununderstandable.”[ix]It demands that we “embrace the limits of the other’s and ones own understanding.”[x]
And so the invisible encounter that happened down by the river remains secret, clandestine, unknowable. And despite, on the one hand, giving voice to our naïve questions and invasive concerns, the piece leaves us learning little about Lyari, frustrating our attempts at knowing, and we end up experiencing only our own ignorance, distance, foreign-ness. It turns a mirror on ourselves, while turning its back at us.
Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema
Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema is an ongoing collaborative project launched by the Karachi-based Tentative Collective in November 2012. The project utilizes the democratization of the film medium via cheap cell-phone technology to collaborate with residents of various communities in Karachi, creating short films conceptualized, directed and produced by the artists, that is, members of the community themselves. The interventions of the Tentative Collective are limited to minimal editing under the direction of the film-makers (which more often than not simply involves the weaving together of the different takes that the artists have shot on their cell phones) and providing the technology for the screening of the films in a community gathering at the end of it all, in the form of a projector powered by a rickshaw, i.e: the mobile cinema.
Importantly, the videos remain the property of the community members. The screenings do not take place in galleries or museums but rather, within the community, and the videos are not shared or screened publicly or on the Internet. The community maintains ownership over their labour and their images. The guarantee that that will be case and that their images will not by utilized without their consent, is something that according to Yaminay, one of the founders of the collective, in some cases has taken months of trust-building with the community to assure them of. The power of the project lies in the scattered and diverse archives it has produced over the years, in its explorations of the possibilities of inexpensive and widely accessible media, and in the encounters it provokes within communities through its impromptu screenings.
Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema is a contemporary art project that, despite working in diverse communities all over Karachi, does not put the lives, the art and the labour of marginalized communities on display for elite art-world consumption. The embrace of cheap technology in itself forms a sort of an obfuscation, a refusal to make the image more digestable, clearer, easier to understand, while also inhabiting that realm of intimacy that cell phone images seem to intimate, as a technology that is primarily utilized to document moments that are more often private. Though the utilization of cell-phone technology is not an aesthetic decision but rather a practical one, it works on an aesthetic level to ward of the gaze of those who demand aestheticized hi-res images of impoverished communities and their daily lives/struggles. The absence of interventions from the Tentative Collective in the content of the videos means there are no attempts at translating the material for consumption outside the community. The only discourse, the only communication that happens is within the community. The need for privacy, for opacity is understood, embraced and there are no patronizing attempts at rendering the community and its people, transparent. The videos produced speak in multiplicity, but they do not speak to us.

For Opacity:
The concept of ‘Opacity’ as a political act of self-protection and preservation is borrowed from Martinican poet, Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. Glissant argues that the desire, or demand for ‘transparency’ from the other, the desire to see and understand the other, necessitates that we ‘reduce the other’[xi]. The art practices mentioned above, then, work to “displace all reduction”[xii]. They refuse the viewers their desires to understand, to ‘grasp’[xiii], to ‘eat the other’[xiv]. These pieces turn their back on the art audience, they disengage, and in doing so, they reveal the positionalities of the contemporary art consumers to themselves, instead of revealing the other.
As demonstrated by Fanon in Unveiling Algeria and by the women of the FLN during the Algerian struggle for independence, Opacity works as a form of self-protection because the colonizer cannot control what he does not see, what he cannot understand. After all, power also works, imposes, protects itself through opacity – obscuring its locations and mechanisms, gating its communities, raising its boundary walls, tinting its windows. How could we then not ‘clamor for the right to opacity for everyone’?[xv]
Notes:
[i]These strategies and this deployment of the veil were also depicted in Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film on the Algerian struggle for decolonization, ‘Battle of Algiers’.
[ii]Hall, Stuart. Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask Documentary, directed by Isaac Julien (1996. UK)
[iii] Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, (New York, NY: Grove Press, 1967), chap. 1.
[iv] Edward Said, Orientalism, (Penguin Books India, 2006), 83.
[v]The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accessed March 30, 2014. http://www.metmuseum.org/events/programs/membership-events/young-members-summer-fridays?eid=R001_{53052F1B-662E-4FF8-A771-76D9B06F1324}_20130628173000.
[vi] Time Out New York, Accessed March 30, 2014. http://www.timeout.com/newyork/bars/rooftop-bars-in-nyc?package_id=42858&pageNumber=2.
[vii]Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual, (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012).
[viii] Irmgard Emmelhainz, and The Otolith Group, “ATrialogue on Nervus Rerum,” OCTOBER, no. 129 (2009): 129-132
[ix]Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, (University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189-195.
[x] Ibid.
[xi]Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, (University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189-195.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii]Ibid.
[xiv] bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, (South End Press, 1992), chap. 2.
[xv] Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, (University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189-195.

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