Considering that mankind has only been on this earth for 200,000 years, and civilization dates back only about 6000 years, the amount of havoc we have caused in this time is intriguing. In this small amount of time the greed for progress has led to the colonization of almost every living species on the earth and the devastation of an environment that outdates us by billions of years. As urbanization continues and cities continue to expand to house an explosive population growth, climate change is becoming a reality we can no longer deny or ignore.
Koel Gallery inaugurates its new gallery space with a show that focuses on these very issues, exploring the effects of urban development on the environment through a study of the changes and decline in its population of birds. The show is curated by Seher Naveed as part of her research into urban disasters and includes 18 artists whose practices not only feature birds in a literal and symbolic sense but also engages with the city itself. The plight of the birds in the largest urban center of Pakistan is treated as a symptom here that signals the consequences of human activity. The implications of these works are manifold, with political, environmental, social and personal nuances placing each artist in a unique position within the larger narrative.
The drastic decrease in migratory birds is the result of development projects taking away their homes as the city devours the natural environment in every direction, from the sea and its mangroves to the flora and fauna inland. Seema Nusrat’s work seems to be most visually and conceptually attuned to this idea as she talks about the urban environment and infrastructure of the city. Her “cityscape” of sorts is constructed with wire mesh blocks used in construction and stands on the legs of a crane talking about the eviction and hostile takeover of the natural habitat of these birds by urban infrastructure.
However, it is not just rapid urban development that is to blame but relationship of the city with the birds itself. The issue turns political in Noreen Ali’s work, who provides us with another tangent to the argument. The Houbaras Bustard is commonly hunted for sport the Arab population, who have been killing the rare bird by the thousands for mere entertainment while the authorities are disinclined to step in due to the power dynamics between the two nations. The sad realities highlighted here are also echoed in Saba Khan’s work who talks about our affinity with Dubai and Arab culture resulting in the replacement of local natural trees with date palms as a form of beautification, not only revealing our insecurities as a nation but harming the habitat of local birds in the process. On the other hand, Asma Mundrawala’s “So we ate them” series provides another morbid reason for the decline of birds while also underscoring our desensitization to it.
There also seems to be a parallel drawn between these birds and various marginalized communities within the city who seem to be pushed out. This idea is actualized in the works of Veera Rustomji and the artist duo Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajani as they talk about the diminishing Parsi community and the displaced indigenous communities in Gadap respectively. Rustomji’s research into the Parsi community led her to these old abandoned houses as the Parsi’s who occupied them move away. She paints them featuring the white crane within the space, the bird that has lost its home as the mangroves get cut to make way for the very buildings that ironically lay abandoned, and are reduced to living in roadside gutters instead. Malkani and Rajani present an archival display featuring samples of the soil and local flora and fauna of Gadap which is left deserted and barren due to housing development projects in the area that transform its ecosystem.
However, the ill fate of the birds in itself is not the issue here, as is evident in Jamil Dehlavi’s video clips taken from the film “Towers of Silence”. He talks about the disappearance of the vulture from the city as they consumed contaminated buffalo meat. While man and his greed caused their decline, it is the effects of this that becomes the real issue as the city can no longer adequately cleanse itself of dead animal carcasses.
Throughout the show however, there is an underlying thread that compels one to feel that the birds themselves are not the final victims of human activity, but man himself. Perhaps it is the arrogance and selfishness that comes from believing oneself to be the more evolved species that leads one to ponder the repercussions of another’s plight for oneself, but both metaphorically and as a matter of cause and effect, the eventual victim seems to be mankind. We mess with the ecosystem and ravage the landscape to feed an ever-growing population, unable to see the hole we dig for ourselves. We eat the birds, but fill the stomachs of the rich and powerful, and the ones they pretend to serve are no better off than the birds themselves.