Art in the 21st century has long since tread beyond the cursory, with artists testing, stretching and breaking the boundaries to redefine what art means and the forms it can take. While visual and formal concerns remain crucial to the experience of art, the layers of intellectual debates are what add true value to the art of today. Omer Wasim and Saira Sheikh’s latest show, ‘Optics of Labour’ at Koel Gallery raises important questions not just about their subject matter but about the ethics of art practice itself.
The artist duo has been actively producing works through a research based practice and an avant-garde perspective on the city of Karachi and its urban spirit. Their latest project features two video installations and a number of photographs and sound pieces. These works are reminiscent of Bani Abidi’s style along with her love of the eccentric individual and her championing of the underdog amidst the underlying political commentary. We also see a bit of Huma Mulji’s recent photographic works (also recently displayed at Koel Gallery) of Christian sanitation workers.
‘Optics of Labour’ picks up yet another aspect of the city through eleven street cleaners from the artists’ neighbourhoods, who perform their futile labour of cleaning up an fast growing metropolis with an ever increasing multiethnic population producing alarmingly high levels of waste every day. They show these labourers attempting to clean the sand off of Seaview, as the sheer volume of it and the inevitable sea breeze renders their efforts fruitless.
As the videos play on an endless loop, the audience becomes the passive onlooker of this pointless charade. The moral of the story here is not as simple as a city’s waste problem or the representation of a worker’s daily life, but a broader critique of the political structures that perpetuate these ineffectual systems of governance, and consequentially, maintenance of a city. It is due to the ineptitude of our leadership that we find ourselves living in a broken city, where underpaid labour turns into another form of waste due to the inadequate appropriation of resources.
Accompanying the videos are a set of photographs of the labourers; closely cropped headshots and body shots with the heads cropped. These works serve to acquaint us to these men, and through sound pieces hidden in plain drawers we hear their stories. The work seeks to give us an insight into the labourers’ backgrounds, lives, hardships and helplessness in a way that humanizes them, but one cannot help but question whether the artists are also guilty of the same kind of exploitation that they seek to critique. The work is in danger of creating an elitist mindset which turns the subjects into the “other”, objectified and treated as a poster child made to perform for the appeasement of the audience.
This danger is somewhat mediated by the artists’ acknowledgment and subsequent incorporation of it into the dialogue, as they talk about the “colonizing gaze” behind the camera that the labourers “perform” for. “The videos highlight how we as artists are co-opted by — and perpetuate —these exploitative socio-economic and political regimes, and are meant to run on an infinity loop, signaling the incessant recurrence of these phenomena”, says Wasim in the accompanying essay.
The work further raises questions about how artists and art consumers hailing from a certain socio-economic background view poverty and the impoverished. While the labourers are shot perfectly, color corrected and edited in order to be raised to the status of art, they lay bare our own conceit; our empathy and philanthropy begins and ends in the comfort of our social setting, content with viewing poverty through our lenses and captured in frames, reaffirming our own privilege. The work deliberately helps put them in the neat little box that we want to see them in, taken as a point of amusement that can be aristocratically discussed from a safe distance.
Further questions can be raised pertaining to the ethics of utilizing these faces and bodies and their labour as spectacle for the purpose of making a statement. One is forced to wonder at the level of transparency between the subjects and the artists in term of the context and application of their presence. Does the work in any way take away the labourers’ agency and authority? While these are exactly the kind of questions that are meant to be raised by the work, is it a justifiable reason to do it?
While these are interesting points to ponder for an audience or a critic, the need for the artist to be aware of the inherent politics inevitably present within their work, both the deliberate and the inadvertent, is crucial. The strength of any piece of art lies in its ability to make us question, and subsequently gain a deeper understanding of not only the social structures that govern our world but also the ethics and politics of art making itself, and in this regard the work definitely succeeds.
‘Optics of Labour’: Omer Wasim & Saira Sheikh was shown at Koel Gallery, Karachi, from 27th April to 20th May 2017. Images courtesy of Koel Gallery.