Naiza Khan is an internationally acclaimed artist living and working between London and Karachi. She is Senior Advisor at the Department of Visual Studies, University of Karachi, and a member of the Board of Governors, Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi. She received her BFA from the University of Oxford, Somerville College, Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, UK. Her practice traverses the urban expanse of Karachi and investigates its geography and history through its strategic relationship with the ocean, presented through a subjective context. Her latest show opened at Koel Gallery, Karachi on the 28th of December bringing together old and new works that anchor her central concerns and display the multiplicity of her visual language.
Nimra Khan: How did you first get interested in art, and what was your journey as an artist like?
Naiza Khan: Well I went through school choosing art as a subject and went to art college. Thought I might pursue a juggle between languages and visual art and really I went for what I just loved and wanted to do. It was also a kind of split between architecture and fine art so I chose fine art and moved through art college training as a printmaker at Ruskin. So did a lot of, you know, years of experimentation with woodcut, copper engraving, lithography, etching and was painting and drawing at the time. So, you know, art college sort of puts you through that rigorous training of thinking through image making and through process and technique.
And I suppose coming to Karachi was a big jump culturally, having grown up in Beirut and England. And I think then the space and the city and its energy was something which was really – we all either tried to hide from it or we just throw ourselves into the deep end and swim with it. Well, you don’t hide but you need to also create some barrier because it’s a lot to take in. So I think in the beginning I was trying to screen myself a little bit and still working very much within the studio space, working with the body with the female form and engaged in the city in certain ways, through art college through teaching at the Indus Valley since ‘91, the early days at Tipu Sultan Road, continued till about 2009 almost. I was engaged in the city in different ways, through the Vasl Artist Collective; I helped to create the programming.
NK: Your earlier works had more gender based concerns and focused more on the female figure, but in 2010 with your Manora Project it kind of shifted to architecture, space and objects. Did you consciously shed your previous concerns or did it happen gradually and naturally as you started exploring the themes of the city further? What motivated you to start the Manora Project?
NK: you know, I would say it was like, if you are driving a car at a 180 miles an hour and you do a U-turn. Actually it was really fast but it took about 18 months to make that shift. So that 18 months is like [that], if you translate that through an artistic practice. But I think there were certain reasons and I think I responded to that kind of imperative to make that shift. I didn’t say, “OK, I’ve had enough of this and now I want to do that.” I think actually within my studio I could have worked for another 5 years producing really interesting armor works, because although I was feeling that I’ve done this and I need the work to change [now], I would’ve changed into a more performative space. I would’ve worked with soft sculpture because the metal pieces were becoming more like soft objects that could be worn, that you could perform wearing them; it was about the body and the gesture of the body within the space.
So what happened was I think I went for a walk and I started going to Manora, and I think I didn’t go there to start a project. I really went because I wanted to have some space, in a very personal sense. I wanted to get out of the city and just be able to walk. Karachi during the mid-90’s was very difficult; a lot of violence, a lot of ethnic strife. So just being able to physically negotiate the city as a woman, to walk through the city was not always that easy. So I went to Manora and I thought “wow, this is really nice, I can just walk alone.” So this started happening and I just kept going back and I would just have my notebook and my camera maybe at most. I started chatting with people, somebody is telling me something about Manora – the island has its own history, its own social space. And so that shift happened when I realized that every time I go I’m thinking and finding a lot of interesting things and a lot of ideas are emerging. And I realized I didn’t have that thinking space in my studio. So that’s how it started unfolding. For about a year things started coming out which were really interesting and a bit all over the place. Conversations, recordings, photographs, a watercolor, drawing, a filmic kind of idea, something which could be site specific, another idea.. So Manora became like this space where I was coming back with a lot of ideas and it became more urgent to follow my instincts even though there was a very productive and exciting production of armor works which I could have also carried on for another decade.
NK: Even your “Heavenly Ornaments” with the armor works on the beach, was that also during that time, as it kind of seems like a transitional work with both ideas coming together.
NK: That photograph was taken in 2007 when Manora really hadn’t surfaced as a project. But I wanted to place those armor works in the desert or in the landscape and visualize that kind of juxtaposition, and so Arif Mehmood photographed those images, those black and white ones. It’s become a very important image for me because not only does it talk about a turning point in my work, but also because you see the landscape of the buildings along Clifton beach, and then you see the beach with the low tide, and all the plastic bags! When we look at it, it’s an aesthetically really strong image. I look at that image and I always place it at the cusp of [my practice].
But I think the shift is really interesting because I mean in the last few years there have been really interesting conversations about the body and the city and how these landscapes and the idea of walking through a space has been kind of accumulating the imagery but also embodying a certain kind of landscape. So these are not just views or scenarios of a city but it’s also very much about a subjective experience of me as a female body traversing a space which is a very public space, which is a very gendered space. So I see that notion of the body very much present in this work.
NK: Why do you continue to work with the sea as a recurring theme and visual motif? Is it a personal affinity or a love for the sea, or is it more about what the sea means to Karachi strategically or geographically?
NK: I didn’t think I was a sea person of a whale person or an anything person really [laughs]. But I find the relationship of the land and the sea within this context of Karachi is really interesting. There’s a lot of the way people have their relationship to the city and they have their back to the ocean there’s a lot of people writing about it theorizing it and painting it. I think there is definitely a very physical experience that I want to talk about through my work, which is like direct but then there are things that are more cerebral or conceptual where I think it kind of creates a wider discourse on like what the sea means and its ecology. I find the politics of the port city really interesting now, of course we know Karachi’s strategic position in the supply chain much more now with the Chinese BRI project and CPEC. So I’m thinking about the ocean as a wider more expansive space, more so now because I’m based in London so I’m thinking about Karachi and the ocean in a different way. The sea is definitely a kind of an abstract kind of a thing that I’m researching also but it’s also based out of a very direct experience of living in a port city – can’t get away from the ocean.
NK: Tell us about your current exhibit at Koel Gallery, and some of the concerns you are exploring in these works.
NK: You know, I think there’s a lot of sense of thinking about the ecology of the ocean, the space of the ocean as a space of transformation. I’ve been looking and thinking about objects within a cultural sort of context that move from one place to another and how they transform. I am looking very much at company paintings, so kind of the idea of how the images of the factories and the representation of a colonial sort of map on top of the landscape of South Asian, particular kinds of cities. So how a place like Calcutta was envisioned through the colonial lens but especially through the structure of the factory for example, and how space was demarcated. I think of that also through the experience of living in Karachi and I think about what was the map that was laid out in Karachi by the British in the mid-19th century and how do we still live through the rupture of that space. ‘cause we do live it, every day, even though we don’t know it, even though we don’t see that map, it is under the layers of so many things, whether it’s the violence or the land grabbing or even the experience of not being able to access water or electricity. You know there are layers of other maps that are superimposed. So I’m sort of playing with this idea of looking at certain kinds of historical mappings and thinking about contemporary experience of the city so this is what some of the works in the first room are about.
The text piece by Pottinger is interesting because it’s his 1816 travels in Sindh and Baluchistan so the text is really quoted with these little headings, “Chapter 9”, “Karachi town” and he goes into these little headings. He describes appearance, dress, tribe, Thatta, Bhambor, all these different things that are in the text are little paragraph headings in the chapter. So he’s describing the custom, appearance of things, he’s noting down, observing everything, classifying everything and that book actually becomes like a guide for the British government, and also to many of the travelers who came to South Asia at that time. It becomes like a forensic mapping of the place and what could be gained by having the empire, what could be extracted out of this place.
NK: The series of drawings and prints featuring the image of the porcelain are a bit of a change from the rest of your works. Tell us about that.
NK: The “Pepper and Porcelain” started kind of earlier on. I started, then I put them away, and then I thought I must finish these works, and that this was a good time to show them. I would say the language of the screen print is the most minimal in all of these works. As a printmaker I feel that each process has its own identity its own sensibility and you have to respond to that. So in the screen print I started with these cracked porcelain images and I worked for 3-4 months producing a lot of screen prints. It just didn’t work for me, so I started reworking all of these and then came to this point where I just wanted to work in a very minimal way and I liked the freshness of the image. I liked the fact that there weren’t many, many layers… that it was very distinct. So these pieces of porcelain became like a way to look at how Ming Dynasty porcelain from China was transported through the trade of the Dutch East India Company and before that into Holland and moved to produce what we know is the Dutch Delft Pottery. So this is just one example of what I felt was a really interesting space to explore the nature of objects, especially cultural objects.
NK: A number of these works were displayed in London in 2015 and Delhi in 2016. How did the experience and reception of the works by the audience differ between there and Karachi? Since the work is primarily about Karachi and its coastline, and is highly relatable to people here, do you think the work has the same kind of relevance for foreign audiences?
NK: You know I think work for many artists start specifically in some place whether it’s a geographical location or a personal idea. One has to think about the ideas beyond that also. Which kind of resonate out of the work, which look at more global concerns, perhaps. So I find that in a place like London I would still talk about certain starting points and talk about the city and the experience of place but I think the work kind of moves beyond it also. Of course, Karachi is a really special place for me because the work is understood in a particular way, I have a history with the audiences here and a community of artists here, so there’s a visual understanding of how things have evolved, and I find that really precious. So it’s a very important show for me and it’s really wonderful that certain key words have come back here and are being shown together with current work or something earlier like “The Streets are Rising”, so it’s a very wonderful opportunity to make those connections that move through the works. I don’t find that people looking at the work in London or Delhi necessarily don’t understand it or don’t know how to access it because I think there’s a kind of visual language which you can access, and which is appealing. In a place like Delhi it’s interesting because it’s a city that suffers the same kind of issues that Karachi deals with, urban expansion and modernization and the city as a space.
NK: What are some of your favorite pieces from this show that you perhaps enjoyed the most or that are more dear to you, and why?
NK: When you look at your work and as time goes on you start wondering “how did I produce this?”, “What was I going through when I did this?”, “What was the reason for making it the way it is?” The more recent works in the first gallery space, “Spill” and the smaller oil paintings, I really like the way those images have been produced. I find it personally a surprise element in working with that process of using the stencil tape and painting over it and creating a form or cutting a piece of paper and sticking it on the canvas and working over it and peeling it off. So I like the formal language of that work very much and I really enjoyed producing it.
The Whale is an extraordinary work for me because I’m still thinking, what was I thinking about and it’s a very interesting work to place in this exhibition because the seduction of the paint is so appealing on one level.
In “Streets are Rising” the language is very much a narrative, it’s like a collage narrative of images and incidents. So you know I’m sort of like looking at them with a sort of retrospection and thinking about reconstructing the work and how did I produce this image in this way. You know it’s not just the formal language but it’s also the application of paint, it’s moved in a different direction. So I would say that the most recent works in the first gallery are what I’ve enjoyed producing a lot. And I really enjoyed working with the screen prints because it just offers a language that is different for me to work with.