“It took the war to teach it, that you were responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later…”
– Michael Herr, Dispatches
Over the last eight years, much has been written about Naiza Khan’s artistic engagement with urban space – with the city of Karachi and with Manora Island in particular. Her art has often been discussed in the context of a critique of modernity and development here, in terms of consequent violence wrought upon land and people and embodied histories.
Khan’s oeuvre has also been considered in relation to a counter-discourse of subjectivity, as it builds in her multi-versed practice. In this regard, the artist’s exceptional shift of loci from figure to landscape has been perhaps marginally theorised. In place of the female form, we are privy instead to a kind of ‘materialist historiography’ of the city, a studied lexicon of urban sites. The spatial amplification in Khan’s work has made us experience the metropolis with altered sense and ownership. It has provided visibility and discursive charge to subjects, to things themselves, otherwise considered outside the realm of art proper.
Khan’s work is thus conceived in terms of profound ethical value – and its emplacement, as critical knowledge formation (held at par and in concert with more traditional systems of meaning making). At stake in both work and its complex elaboration lies the category of experience, that is, the dignity and/or erasure of human experience. This writing continues in the conversation, taking view of Khan’s recent exhibition, ‘Undoing/Ongoing’. Presented by Rossi & Rossi Gallery, London, the show features oil paintings, watercolours, prints, as well as brass sculpture. Khan maintains her specific thematic concerns, and her literal point of reference remains Karachi. The city-site is, however, increasingly resonant with global concerns regarding the politics of inhabitance.
2. Unclaimed Experience
Moving away from significant approaches, this essay attempts to trace a minor thread in Khan’s work – the field of touch. It explores the phenomenon of felt contact, the surface and modalities of sensation, as that which underlie the armature of experience. I suggest that Khan’s multi-layered works stage fields of sensation, as it were, as the ground apropos upon which rest her intellectual and ethical concerns.
In her book titled When Was Modernism, critic Geeta Kapur addresses artistic production in relation to the phenomenon of rupture. She speaks of “the moment when a studio-based artist encounters the limits of an inherited language”. In its very rupture or limit, in that synapse, Kapur suggests, emerges the propelling labour of creation. Set another way, Khan’s work seems to interrogate occasions wherein existent, normative categories of representation, of thought itself, no longer hold. Things, themselves, no longer hold coherence. It were as though the artist engages with a kind of double-voiding, as the inaugural premise of her work.
A number of philosophical traditions speak to the notion of form. As baseline, every phenomenal thing exists within an envelope of form, and this containment is in turn related to order; reciprocally, to human language per se. What happens, however, when one experiences a derangement, or fragmentation, or dissolution of given certainties? This is the sea and this is land – this is the logic of safety – and so on. Khan’s work seems to venture into this difficult terrain, registering both the disturbance as well as its related, emergent sensorium. At the heart of the work, it seems, lies a manner of sensory or visceral realism.
Throughout her oeuvre one has noted the leitmotif of the skein. In earlier work the idea of containment was literally serviced by the bodied form, skin surfaces, be they in the way of charcoal drawing, organza fabric, henna wall chalking, metallic armours… The force of thought, of encounter, relationality, and affect, all were played out upon this containing, chiasmic surface of skin. Given the unstable nature of gendered culture, and female desire in particular, the acuity of her image-making drew upon an ironic visual vocabulary as much as it did upon a more subterranean sense. This approach to meaning continues in the wider spheres of Khan’s art, in her urban landscapes, skeins of structures that appear “on the brink of erasure”.
Since 2011, Khan has resumed working within the traditional medium of oil painting. Large format work, often six by eight feet in scale, this suite of paintings has serviced the artist’s quarrying of the tactile realms of urban experience. The current exhibition seems to take this exploration further. No longer delineated by human reference alone, the works delve into the very nature of materiality under duress. In the risking, here’s a deeper engagement with abstraction. And, simultaneously, the multiple presencing of things mark Khan’s most recent canvases. I look closely at two of her oil paintings for this piece.
In the work titled Breakage (2015), a water tower, split at the center and rendered horizontally, appears across earthen space. The tower is outlined in thin, luminous yellow paint, at once emergent and parsed upon the dark canvas. Its form is skeletal, almost as though it were a broken, incognisant body, rendered afloat, adrift in aqueous space. A softer colour field lifts through, now recedes into the backdrop of the form.
In a disorienting shift, Khan’s signature horizon line is figured at the base of the work. We are viewing an inversion in formal relations – the void earthen matter foregrounded above the sky, and continuing seamlessly, down into the skyline. The locus of weight in the work is indeterminable. Sharp edged shards in red, the shattering itself, hover above the broken structure.
Given aerial as well as planar perspectives grafted one over the other, the viewer is hard-pressed to register a stable impression of the work, of breakage per se. And yet that is what its scale seems to demand. Its striking visual geometry lures one into the work. But within this proximity, a sense of mute affect (or inchoate speech) engages the viewer. One senses the invisible lines of force acting upon and around the structure, in the instant of the image. This, as a kind of evidentiary echo of interior splitting.
In its several, dissociated contactual surfaces, Breakage appears to signal the loss of a unifying language of address. It may be suggested that critical reflection regarding urban materiality draws, in turn, from a “base matter” of sensorial logic, mark-making in Khan’s canvases. Herein lies the life force, perhaps, (the responsibility and relevance) of the art work.
5. Thinking Thingness
In her excellent essay on Khan (2015), Karin Zitzewitz comments on the relationship between the artist’s practice and the formation of embodied knowledge. “Her work, though improvisational, proceeds along a course determined not by conceptual design [per se], but by the conventions and material possibilities of the media in which she works”. Zitzewitz notes a “unique conceptual freedom” generated within the craft itself. She elaborates upon her observation with reference to Khan’s application of oil paints and, in particular, vis-à-vis her critical approach to the genre of landscape.
Plumbing further into the matter, the artist speaks of a kind of formal errantry in her current work. The gestural spontaneity, or randomness as she suggests, appears in her watercolours and oil paintings as well as in etchings, sculpture works in brass. “In the watercolours, I apply masking fluid across straight lines or indents of something structural (a technique I had earlier used in my text pieces). As I put down a flow of colour it floods against the masked out boundaries. And a region of stoppage is created. The work will dry over night, sometimes it takes longer. But each time, you don’t know how that form would really sit. The process itself is not self-conscious. Once the paint dries, then readjust, work with another line perhaps, push it out a bit more, reapply paint, and so on.”
This craft-based exploration of boundaries is visible in works such as Breakage as well, where the artist works with masking tape in place of fluid. The sharp-edged linear forms also seem to powerfully reference earlier works by Khan. I am reminded of a particular genealogy – her “membrane” based images – which in turn reference a site-specific occasion, the lot of discarded school furniture at Manora Island. She narrativised the found image in her single channel video of the time,Homage (2010). Subsequent renderings of debris emerge in the literally titled, Membrane (graphite and screen print, 2009), and later in Kurrachee: Past, Present and Future (oil on canvas, 2013), The Scattering (screen print, 2014). The original site of the sea, and a narrative of erasure, seem to echo through the minimalism of Khan’s contemporary marking. We may thus view her surfaces in their current conceptual context – as studies of lived boundaries and their increasingly volatile breach. And we may receive, in echo, ever-widening fields of sensation that the scatter or scar marks bear.
Khan’s central thematic, cartographies of (intimate, historically conscious) space, are serviced by another material investigation in ‘Undoing/Ongoing’. Earlier in the year, the artist was part of a Tentative Collective intervention, Projections. In view of their mandate, short films were shown to local audiences in various public spaces across Karachi. Khan’s Manora-based film, Near and Far Sights/Sites Converge (2014), was projected at an inner city neighbourhood in Golimar. This experience, of casting moving images against a granular wall surface, may be seen deployed in current works, including the oil painting Shoreline (2015).
As with Breakage, something tactile happens in the attempted “seaming together” of multiple realms. The seascape is familiar – though rendered here in mature tones of blue-greys, with bare hints of other delicately muted colour. Sea and land merge in an indistinct, amorphous way. We are not clear where one begins and the other ends, and the overlap is felt more as a kind of absence of energy (rather than a welling over or possession). An enclosure, a “bubble” or tent-like structure visibly lighter than it surrounds, foregrounds the image. Figures are revealed there in distant silhouette.
Shoreline may be considered among the masterworks of the exhibition, according to this viewer. Conceived in a year of unprecedented human upheaval and displacement, (both in terms of war refugees within Pakistan and globally), the work registers a spectral sense of passage. The faint, almost separable interior form is projected, as it were, onto an identifiably realist landscape. “I was thinking of how to bring together two different material qualities into the scope of the work.”The query is resolved in terms of a “sheering” of spatial volume. Khan describes how she worked with filmic form – with transparency and opacity of light – sharpening the edges of the dwelling structure against its dark background, now softening them, until an ultimately detached but proximal set of visual textures is achieved. Distended projections appear to coalesce in the work, but without real adherence. Its effect of material thinning, or formal haunting, prefigures meaning inShoreline, towards socio-political consideration.
Several assumptions underlie the trajectory of this essay. Foremost, a bias: I am moved by the artist’s long-standing engagement with surface. In Khan’s work, the trope of skin/skein continues to offer up significance. It has been conceived as a field of containment, and as a fragile film that may bear tearing, breach, dissolution, as well as pleasure. The surface (of an artwork, as of experience) is rendered as a rich field where sensation is registered, and where meaning may be made legible. It is, above all, a relational space (a contactual space).
My reading of such a space in Khan’s work draws up on the term “chiasm”, literally, a crossing-over. Developed by philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his final years, the term suggests a peculiar imagining of the material body, in that it is both a form of subjective agency and something that is object-like, that can be figured. This reversibility of orientation has two further applications. One may infer a cognisable relationship between vision and touch, the impress of one stirring presence in the other. And second, the (subjective) material body itself generates a palpable, visible world, as much as its object-self is intertwined with otherness, is constituted by it. Khan’s work with the nature of materiality (“physical things” as well as processual craft) unravels this visual/tactile and subject/ object bind.
In so doing, and for the purpose of this essay, it opens up meaning within a fraught contemporary reference, that is, shelter. Khan’s multiple presencing of material bodies, including the motif of the tent, returns us to our primary consideration of form. What happens, when one experiences a derangement, or fragmentation, or dissolution of given certainties? This is the sea and this is land – this is the logic of safety – my body – this is the logic of shelter. ‘Undoing /Ongoing’, the exhibition, presents images that reflect both the disturbance and the emergent sensorium, that the term shelter now, in our times, signifies.
Notes on Naiza Khan’s exhibition, ‘Undoing/Ongoing’, on view at Rossi & Rossi Gallery, London from 18 September – 28 October 2015. All images courtesy of the artist.
More on Naiza Khan: The artist speaks to Simone Wille about her experience as Rybon Art Centre’s first international artist in residence in Tehran. Naiza Khan and fashion designer Sonya Battla discuss their collaboration on the Manora Collection. Rabeya Jalil reviews The Weight of Things, curated by Maha Malik at Koel Gallery, and Seher Naveed reviews ArtAsiaPacific’s monograph on the artist.
Maha Malik is a freelance art writer based in Karachi. She has a background in contemporary English literature and serves as adjunct faculty at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.
 Michael Herr. Dispatches. Esquire Magazine (1977).
 Naiza Khan, as quoted in David Elliot’s catalogue essay, “In the Guts of the Whale. Image and Revelation in the Work of Naiza Khan”. (2015) Abandoned architectonic structures, spectres of the modern ruin, objects of daily use, forgotten souveneirs, personal notes, archival material and references, the bare indistinction of sea and land…these are some of the forms that are now signature to Khan’s image-making.
 From the title of Cathy Caruth’s book, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore: 1996.
 Geeta Kapur. When Was Modernism? Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India. Manohar Publishers, Delhi: 2000.
 Attendant to this, the dialectical concerns of space/ spatiality – weight, volume, texture, etc.
 Naiza Khan, quoted in the essay by Karen Zitzewitz, “This Space is at the Brink of Erasure: Intervention and the Aesthetics of Ruination”. Naiza Khan. Monograph. ArtAsiaPacific. 2013. (pg. 42)
 Khan resumed oil painting in 2011, with Between the Temple and the Playground. This, after a hiatus of sixteen years.
 Breakage echoes an earlier work, Whale Under Construction, Here, the beached form’s dehiscence, or coming-apartness, is also physically palpable. Again, its remarkable surface rendering draws in the viewer. And in the same proximal gesture, the abject body reviles, lying gutted open in its own viscera. A discussion of visual pleasure (an erotics so to speak), its powerful ambivalence in Khan’s work, may fully be addressed on another occasion.
 “Life in Ruins: Materiality, the City, and the Production of Critique in the Art of Naiza Khan”. Karin Zitzewitz. The Journal of Asian Studies, 2015. (pg. 21)
 In a similar way, the process of casting in brass offers the artist both conceptual metaphor and method in her work. The casting of a mold, and its innate marring, occasions of spillage, are incorporated in her ongoing spatial exploration.
 Apart from their interrogation of flow, other calibrations have come into Khan’s watercolours. A colour palette of blues, and greys, and elm green, is used here. And, as the artist indicates, “the weight of colour has shifted across the surface.” The images have become sharper, flatter, and the centralising of form mostly excised from the works.
 The Tentative Collective has as its primary focus collaborative public art in the context of urban landscapes. “Our projects are committed to a lived engagement with the sensory, social and physical architectures of the city.” (digital statement)
 The single channel video was projected near Khan’s brass casting workshop in Peetal Gali. The locality’s name, ‘Golimar’, has recently been changed to ‘Gulbahar’ (S.I.T.E. area), Karachi.
 Studio conversation with the artist.