Sculpture is alive and kicking and the recent show at Art Chowk titled ‘Mad in Karachi’ affirms it with aplomb. It is not the lack of artistic interest but sporadic showings (the last group show was in 2008) and buyer/ viewer apathy that has given sculpture low public visibility. The younger generation of artists has embraced non-traditional sculptural materials that has brought forth a rigorous new vocabulary and is redefining the genre. Socially engaged, the works pique the imagination but surprisingly still remain under represented in the market.
Sculptor Munawar Ali’s curatorial project Mad in Karachi, which constitutes the work of 18 artists, is pointedly specific to the flux in Karachi but can easily be read as a sharp commentary on the state of the nation at large. Artworks by senior participants provide the necessary gravitas and maturity that a group show needs to acquire credibility, but it is the humorous, open-ended, playful strategies and highly nuanced personal poetics of the young sculptors that accost, provoke and bemuse the viewer. The show is liberally punctuated with caustic wit and satire evident not just in the choice of materials and execution of the artworks but also in the clever use of double entendres. Playing with the word ‘Mad’ which can also be read as made in Karachi, Munawar brings the same dual readings to his compressed toothpick wall sculpture.
Titled ‘13 mera 7’ (to be read in Urdu as tera mera sath – you and me together) appears to be an unpretentious depiction of two figures projecting male – female compatibility. But the simplistic image turns sinister when subverted as a political statement. Implying through the unsavory connotations of tooth picking, the country is being used as a cleaning agent by foreign powers. Munawar proclaims that we have become a toothpick nation so ‘13 mera 7’ is not easy. Foregoing earlier preferences for traditional terra cotta (wood or metal), Munawar has opted for an unconventional material like toothpicks to sculpt in this show.
In biology, any group of fish that stay together for social reasons are said to be shoaling. Twisting the twister, She Sells Sea Fish, Fahim Rao’s floor piece, a shoal of smoke-fired terra cotta fish, invite the viewer to unravel the mysteries of this particular teaser Sell Fish Selfish, Sell Fish Selfish, with reference to Karachi inhabitants. Dubbed an artist with potential when he first exhibited a few years ago, Rao still remains an infrequent exhibitor.
Another text inspired piece is Asad Hussain’s ‘Karachi Ka Kawwa’ that builds on the Pitcher and the Crow fable to portray the pervasiveness of the current madness. Skillfully crafted out of silicone, the crow, planning to drink water, is mounted atop a large refillable mineral water bottle, so common to homes and offices. With cartridges, instead of stones, polluting the water and a bullet instead of the customary pellet in his beak, the crows in genuity seem completely thwarted by his predicament. The emphasis on the bullet and multiple meanings of the Urdu word goli (deceit), layer this piece with several interpretations alluding to intervention, human deception, error and helplessness.
Artist Sara Khan’s novel play, with the walnut shell as a sculptural device, earned her instant acclaim during her thesis display. For Mad in Karachi, she re configures the shell as a soldier’s helmet adorning an infant, being nursed on a bullet bottle instead of the ubiquitous baby feeder. Nurturing militant babies or suggesting infant genocide, the works uphold the complex premise of Mad in Karachi.
Similarly, the ironical ‘Boom Bloom’ piece, a plastic frame crafted as a page from a miniature album, replete with interlaced border pattern, has a bouquet sprouting from within a bullet. Other than the conceptual and textual tease, it is the resonance with miniature art due to the mini scale and intricate workmanship of the sculptures in a three dimensional approach that is worth pondering over.
Taking inspiration from the cosmopolitan nature of this, Mad City Nosheen Iqbal has crafted works out of a personal melting pot. She welds, secures and fastens mechanical components like computer chips, clock and hand watch screws, tacks, rivets, studs, clips and fasteners to compose minute-everyday objects. Novel as well as contemporary, this interpretation plants miniature aesthetics right into the heart of the mechanical age.
Nabeel Majeed Sheikh’s art on paper also rubs shoulders with the miniature sensibility. He makes clever use of the Karachi shoreline to hypothesize a political dialogue between national and international agencies but it is his protagonists (intricate animal forms like mice, spiders and dolphins) that invite scrutiny. Characterized by complicated well-formed details, multi-jointed complex extremities such as toes, legs, tails and wings, his paper folding speaks of Sekkei Origami, specifically the art form of three dimensional sculpture.
Faraz Mateen’s fallen bust is self-explanatory but the carving on paper impacts more on account of its technical virtuosity and closeness to stone sculpture in appearance than its concept.
Bursting at the seams, Karachi city’s mad growth is well depicted in Abdullah Qamar’s ‘Nucleus’, a bulbous mutating mass in metal. On another wave length, Aamir Habib’s ‘UFO’ (metal, plastic and wires) strangely reminds one of the blinking lights and wailing sirens, now so particular to the chaotic Karachi traffic.
One always has high expectations from Amin Gulgee, a sculptor with a solid art practice. The tangled mass of bronze metal wires in his ‘Memory Totem’ is a disturbing but a quiet exposition, like a frozen scream. For Adeela Suleman, the pandemonium culminates in the dead bird curtain. Crafted in traditional beaten silver, the screen is a bird count tally, a record of the fallen dead.
Riffat Alvi lobbies for peace through ‘Birds of Hope’. Her terracotta and vitrified brick sculpture, complying with modernist staples of colour, form and texture, characterizes the current breakdown of the city. Reconfiguring his signature icons, Abdul Jabbar Gul sculpts with a painterly attitude to portray anxiety. Naiza Khan’s ‘War D Robe’ series of lingerie, body busts and armour pieces in heavy metal allude to aggressive self-defense mechanisms.
The advantage of themed shows is that in spite of the diversity, the works orbit around a central idea and ‘Mad in Karachi’ scores because even though the perspectives are fresh, they target one focal point. The message is reiterated and its concentration is hard to ignore.