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Reimagining the Past

The recent exhibition at Koel Gallery offers a snippet of the interesting concerns that Karachi’s young artists are grappling with. As five Karachi University Visual Arts graduates bring together their work under curator Mahreen Zuberi, the viewer can take into account efforts from all the artists to recreate the past and connect it with today’s troubling times. ‘Past, Present, Parallel’ omits the “future” and concentrates on history – is it a subjective story? Can we ever really rewrite history’s cold hard facts?

Karachi has become a different city over the past years – home is now where fear lurks behind each corner and familiar streets throb with unfriendly vibes. Zehra Almas explores this phenomenon, which every Karachite is all too well-versed. By photoshopping fairy/party lights into dark scenes, the artist strikes us with the difference a light can make in the dimmest corners of a city. She taps into our everyday fear of turning into a dark alley, our constant twitching around to check if anyone is watching us. The deep midnight blues of her pictures intensify the spark of the lights, similar to that flutter of relief we feel when we see a well-lit street in Karachi. Almas has created a short video as well, of a camera following a rickshaw scuttling aimlessly across a dim road, with animated lights playing on the spare wheel attached to the back of the vehicle. The digitized play of art is reminiscent of Funland theme parks and gola gandas. Butterflies flutter away over the engine of the rickshaw almost as if the choking smoke of the engine transforms into an unexpected ray of hope – perhaps this is a parallel to how we always hope and long for the better and safer times our grandparents reminisce about.

Nostalgia prevails in Batool Zehra’s display of photographs with which we are all too familiar – of childhood birthday parties around the family dinner table, the cringe-worthy 90s hairstyles of aunties and uncles, planned group photographs of all the cousins on the sofa together. The normalcy and mundane nature of these photographs offer viewers an insight into the artist’s life, but as each photograph has been erased through the simple technique of sticking the pictures together and gently pulling them apart, her work creates a slightly disjointed atmosphere. There is something unsettling about the harsh and empty white patches amongst happy familiar settings. Aptly titling the series You own a bit of me, Zehra indicates that the photos are of course dear to her, but juxtaposes the blotches of blankness to great benefit. The simplicity and tangible method of removing portions from the pictures highlight that the artist has been probing into the past but the emptiness and unanswered questions in her memories are so different from the captured moments of which photographs are made. The artist pointed out that seizing memories and (metaphorically) flipping through lost chapters are frequent for her yet with time, colours, compositions and narratives largely fade away. Her simplistic approach in editing a material highlights how this exhibition collects artists who have a minimalist approach to versatile material.

The versatility of material is a defining factor in Syed Hasan Raza’s art work. These portable yet comfortably unbalanced sculptures are made with found wooden rulers which Raza bought in bulk. Layered across and upon each other creating a scene of disproportionate and jagged edges, the wooden rulers look like mini Karakoram ranges or the series of high-rise buildings toppling over each other in the metropolis. The rulers themselves are interesting; Raza himself remarks that he was very intrigued the first time he came across a man on the streets making these rulers. With the “Made in Pakistan” tag brandished into the wooden scales, numerics and measurements scale up and down these sculptures effectively bringing attention to how unstable the infrastructure of Pakistan is. Raza may overtly be drawing attention to crass landscape planning and senseless building opportunities in our country but his art work indicates how our society is as well completely dysfunctional. Raza talks about how there zero foundation is set for people to work together or to live together, in fact his squiggles of numbers form almost like an ocean in Dense City II drowning the sculpture mid-way. Raza has also created drawings and paintings of measuring tape which are simple yet honest reflections on his concerns. His little sketches of a figure in an abaya clouded by a circle of squiggly numbers yet chipped off measurements from the wooden scales knock on the possibility of our progress as society being immeasurable in all the wrong ways.

Similarly, Batool Mandvi has created art which is simplistic in its visual aesthetics but rich in mystery. Fictionalizing narratives through collecting objects such as spectacles, diaries and photographs, Mandvi finds that history and stories are free for the artist to deliberate upon and recreate. The ochre stains of paper and the aching history behind her “collection” reiterates the artist’s curiosity and interest in the lost and forgotten. Mandvi explains that sometimes she just enjoys playing with the nature of the objects and focusing on letting her viewers interpret the story for themselves. Using strange open-ended statements to describe or narrate the photographs, Mandvi dissolves reality and converses with her objects like a fictional detective. Vacillating through time seems to be a trend in this exhibition as suggested by the title, ‘Past, Present, Parallel’. Despite the age of the objects we are presented with, the artist brings a pungent modern voice to the text on the photographs. Written with a typewriter, they convey a essence of antiquity but the text suggests contemporary social issues, daydreams and taboo conversations. With notebooks, buttons and personal items opened up carefully for the viewers to peek through, it seems as though we can hear, feel and smell the people to whom these objects belonged to.

Sarah Hashmi too attemps to bringing the essence of particular individuals into the show, as she delves into an almost archaeological study and display of a person. Her subject is rendered to life by objects labelled with stories behind the anatomy or age of the object. Take a pearl broach, a distressed wallet or collectable coins, for instance; the artist encases these objects carefully and her exhibition shows a keen interest in using display to accentuate the meaning behind her work. Although these found objects are presented as museum-worthy pieces, Hashmi’s section of the exhibition really tantalizes the viewers to pick up the objects and touch or tap the aged pieces. Each piece has its own personality and Hashmi recognizes that by writing a little story for each of her exhibits. Her display is almost as if one has walked into a forensic case study room, as the artist has researched and interviewed her subject quite substantially. Letters, notes and pieces of sentimental objects are interesting enough on their own, but with the blank spaces and unanswered questions, the artist puts a smile on viewers’ faces, as we attempt to imagine and visualize the people who owned these objects.

‘Past, Present, Parallel’ is on view at Koel Gallery, Karachi, from 28 July to 10 August 2015. Images courtesy Koel Gallery.

Veera Rustomji is a Fine Art student at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. She has been a freelance writer for the past two years and enjoys conducting research within the field of art.

 

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