‘The Weight of Things’ – well worth the wait. After a series of critically acclaimed solo shows internationally, Naiza Khan exhibits her solo show at Koel Gallery. Seen sporadically in Pakistan in the past few years, her work comes together in this exhibition, in full bloom. It was a privilege to see Khan’s thoughtful and massive oeuvre in coherence – the puzzle complete.
The exhibition at Koel was to honour Khan who was awarded the prestigious Prince Claus Award in recognition of her multifaceted accomplishments in the development of contemporary art in Pakistan. Ribbon cutting ceremonies by diplomats and ambassadors are an oddity in the contemporary art galleries of Karachi but Khan’s show made quite a statement when Mr. Marcel de Vink, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Netherlands, inaugurated the exhibition followed by a well-deserved eulogy for the artist. Grounded in research and investigation, the body of work is thorough, resolved and highly patronized.
Naiza Khan transcends the genre of traditional landscape in art and treats her core narrative with subjectivity and compassion. Feeding off from her previous work about the female form, gender and public space, the artist renders the landscape as a corporal body and a tangible living space where histories are created and destroyed. She draws upon her association with the city of Karachi, particularly about her excavation and reflective journey of Manora Island and its coastal skyline. She finds her self immersed between two times: between the history of the land and its water and her present experience of being in that space. The works are melancholic, drenched with memories and submerged in nostalgia.
According to Maha Malik, the curator of the show, Khan’s exhibition may be interpreted as an “anthology of landscapes” keeping in mind the range of “spatial contexts” in her work. Ussman Ghauri’s curatorship for Naveed Sadiq’s show, Gemma Sharpe’s for Seema Nusrat and now Maha Malik’s curatorial undertaking for Naiza Khan’s exhibition substantiates the growing acceptance and appreciation of curating solo shows in Karachi. Malik was in correspondence with Khan for about a year to bring this show together. The curator’s aesthetic background and academic interests in literature, body and spatiality resonated with that of Khan’s, which is what gave the impetus for them to collaborate. Malik’s exquisite selection and display of the works at Koel maximize their singular impact. She offers an “interpretive lens” to Khan’s creative discourse and navigates her own intellectual thought process by reworking it through visual art.
Talking about the artist’s narrative, Malik says that “it is at the juncture of lived duration that internal and external space become dynamic, sensually co-extensive, and expressive”. The work suggests, “an embodied, historicized, and landed concept of selfhood” which in Malik’s opinion is a key feature of the artwork that “is capable of quarrying meaning deep within its viewers. Even in its most conceptual mark-making, Khan’s work remains powerfully personal.”
Four captivating watercolour series, Fossilized Land, Land-marked, Censored Sites/Sights, The Land Itself and Map-under-construction, entice the viewer and set the ambience for the show. The cartographic paintings address the ossified and ruinous state of a land that once flourished. The intricately crafted, linear drawings of decks, ships, cement pipes, fishermen’s tents and Indian boats are judiciously suspended in translucent watercolour washes – washes that look like nomadic souls scampering from one place to another.
How We Mark the Land Becomes Part of its History is a sensitively rendered charcoal drawing that discreetly reveals small mounds and islands in the sea through a hustling storm. A busy urban cityscape emerges further behind, interwoven with free-flowing hand-written text in the foreground and mid ground, reiterating the title of the artwork. The work is reminiscent of colonial style map-making with landscapes and text running across its dusky surface.
With her abrasive marks, murky rubs and decisive strokes intently rooted in drawing, Khan beautifully captures motion and gesture in Merry-go-round, through charcoal, conte and acrylic on Fabriano. Contemplating the fragile and unpredictable landscape of a coastline, the artist brings An Invisible Landscape Conditions the Visible One to life with oil on canvas. Multilayered and poetic, her imagery represents linear drawings of abandoned household accessories, organic debris and mundane objects of everyday use that are withered by harsh littoral weather and neglect.
Khan masters an interdisciplinary approach to her art making and employs a diverse range of materials and mixed-media in the current body of work, that include oil paintings, photography, watercolours, drawings, prints, videos and sculptures. The showstopper for many is the large-scale work, Constellations Adrift, consisting of over a 100 objects cast in brass. Perspicuously installed altogether on a painted dark blue surface that occupies a full wall at the gallery, these small, nifty miniature casts are reminiscent of a sense of loss and fading of cherished, precious memories. The sculptures; comb, hammer, metal netting, mobile case, action figures and objects of everyday use, however lose their individuality owing to their crowded placement. However, profusion and sophistication fuse together to bring the intricate sculptures to life.
In Homage, Khan documents herself painting the broken ruined furniture of a school in Manora which collapsed years ago, the remains of which the artist documents and redrafts with her own diction. She pays tribute to the children who once occupied the school by painting the wooden furniture blue, with an intention to assimilate it with the sky. The Observatory, a video documentation, delves into the wreckage, remains, and rubble of the hollow and resounding buildings in Manora Island. The Scattering is a screen print that further establishes the idea of eroded spaces created by an explosion of broken school equipment and deserted architectural edifices.
Secrets from the Nautical Almanac is a series of graphic documents mounted on larger sheets with Chine collé. These images were thoughtfully reconstructed at londonprintstudio to represent and articulate the various elements printed on old manuscripts that Khan found lying on the floor at the devastated weather observatory in Manora Island. The old parched papers, eaten by bookworms, comprise of advertisements for communication devices, Pakistan Navy and Karachi Port Trust equipment, hand-written journals dating back to 1916, weather reports and nautical almanacs from the British Raj and post-Partition times. The bookworm bites, creating their “own meta-narrative” with linear patterns in the old books, inspired Khan to add laser-cut Urdu script excerpts on them. The obscure text, derived from General Ayub Khan’s rhetoric speeches about development and economic prosperity, ironically adorns the recreated, tea-stained images on paper. Building Terrain, a Digital C-type print, bounces off from the “Marconi” double-loop formation printed on one of the found nautical almanac pages. One side of the loop constitutes a silhouetted man holding a telescope while the other illustrates a far shot of Manora’s coastal terrain.
Naiza Khan’s work is a poignant, inquiry-based visual documentation that sets the tone for culturally and socially responsible art practices in Pakistan. She intellectualizes and, at the same time, aestheticizes her research about a previously dormant land zone, with transdisciplinary skills and hybrid thinking. So – time to indulge in an elevated experience that gracefully blends intelligence and creativity!
‘Naiza Khan: The Weight of Things’ was shown at Koel Gallery, Karachi, from 23 Jan – 10 Feb, 2014.
Rabeya Jalil is a visual artist and art educator who is currently affiliated with the Fine Art Department at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, Pakistan