The magic and mayhem of a mega-city like Karachi provides unending opportunities for artistic commentary. A recent exhibition at The Full Circle Gallery titled ‘Creative Alternatives’ showcased the work of four artists and one writer-in-residence, all of whom had participated in the thirteenth rotation of the Vasl residency program. The artists came from different cities, yet their responses to the city were strongly linked by structural, architectural and material concerns. During the six-week residency, the dichotomies between old and new, nature and industry, and the relationship between geography and culture were explored. The outcome presented in the show was a credible and engaging one for the visitor.
Ali Shariq Jamali from Jamshoro had four installations of a highly conceptual nature. He considers himself a wanderer in the urban landscape; an explorer of sorts who studies human perception and materiality. His large installation called ‘The Dancing Bag’ enclosed an air-filled plastic bag in a glass box. A rotor fan blew the bag around within its glass case. The work made one reflect on the environmental hazards of plastic bag overuse in Karachi. It also served as a mobile metaphor for the casual neglect that has grave consequences for the future of our environment. By contrast, his site-specific installation called ‘The Silence of Growing Things’ was an organic one. He broke a section of the gallery floor and planted a live plant. Its wilting state paralleled the idea of neglect which was also implicit in the dancing plastic bag metaphor.
Sunita Maharajan from Nepal has concerns about the damage to the ecosystem caused by humans. She had created two large installations that contrasted strongly in their usage of materials. Both installations shared the same title: ‘How Long Can I Hold?’. One installation had an organic, biomorphic form comprising a large, centipede-like structure made of stocking material and filled with dry grass. The other installation was a skyscraper-style tower using cement blocks and PVC girders. The two installations created an eloquent dialogue between natural and industrial form. Its eloquence would have been more noticeable had the two installations been displayed in one room rather than separated by a gallery wall.
Sayera Anwar from Islamabad is concerned with the echoes of the 1947 Partition of India into two nation-states. It is undoubtedly a dense subject with huge relevance to the socio-political development of Karachi. Sayera had created videos of cross-border conversations with Indian and Pakistani women, drawing attention to new freedoms that digital access gives by transcending the boundaries of geography. Her videos were a documentation of the “digital bond” she was able to create with women across a contentious border. Her work studied the “architecture’’ of transformative space.
Anusha Ramchand Novlani from Karachi looked at architectural monuments in the city with the eyes of a tourist. She withheld value judgment with regard to the disintegration of the heritage monuments. Instead, she re-imagined an accommodation between the old and the new in the form of 2D sculptures that paired old and new buildings such as Mohatta Palace with Icon Tower. The older monuments were represented in white Deco paint and the newer ones by colored, laser-cut acrylic sheets. She viewed this juxtaposition as a conversation with multiple resonances for history and urbanity.
The work of the four young artists was a worthy documentation of their intellectual journey within the urban jungle of Karachi. The intellectual journey undoubtedly involved the mentorship of Numair Abbasi who had spent these weeks conversing with the four artists. Numair Abbasi, an experienced artist and critic, was the writer-in-residence for this rotation of the Vasl Residency. His contribution came in the unexpected form of video recordings rather than text. In these video segments, he playacted a role reversal with each artist, in which the artist ‘became’ Numair Abbasi and vice versa. The effect was quirky and unsettling and did not cast much light on the discursive processes that culminated in ‘Çreative Alternatives’.
During their residency in Karachi, the artists had covered significant ground in their mental explorations. The transformative forces of the city, that contribute towards ruin or resuscitation of the urban fabric, permeated their work. A dialogue was created between the physical city and the artistically reimagined one. The show foregrounded the vital role of art in taking the city beyond its socio-physical topography into the realm of the imaginary – a critical imaginary which engenders new narratives and a modicum of hope.