Microcosm 4
Microcosm 4

Microcosm 4 is the most recent in a series of exhibitions held previously between 2017-2019 and curated by artist-curator Adeel Uz Zafar at AAN Gandhara Art Space in Karachi. This iteration considers artworks by thirteen1 emerging Pakistani contemporary artists who work in several media including metal, velvet, acrylic, clay, plaster, mirror-work, wood, gouache painting, erasure residue, mesh wire, video, and electric pumps. The current edition is certainly a refinement in the series’ selection of emerging material practices. The multiplicity of media is so conspicuous that perhaps the future edition of Microcosm should centralize creative exploration of material in Pakistani art. However, I also say this because the running curatorial statement that zeroes in on the idea of ‘youthfulness’ as a ‘highly subjective topic’ 2 catering to political, identity-based, social, and sexual expressions of the artists altogether, can be limiting and inchoate to ascertain that most works are ruminative or conceptually compelling.

Like the media, the subject matter is also varied throughout the exhibition. Rabia S. Akhtar paints a semi-symbiotic relationship between three animals (or are they birds?) – no, more like fantastic creatures over a green background. The absence of human figures in the painting Sunless Incantations may indicate that these creatures are stationed outside of the human world. The intricately painted central creature, largest of the three, floats with its open wings as it holds tight a fish-like creature in its paws. Its beak opens wide and as you follow it to the tip, your eye will be directed to the third creature flying at the top which also exhibits some human-like features. This painting is a contemporary Dali-esque surreal moment, a dreamworld that demands all your visual focus.

Figure 1. Rabia S. Akhtar, Sunless Incantation, 13.5 x 13.5 inches, Gouache on wasli, 2021

Rabbiya Ilyas’s extremely corporal Untitled, a wood life-size sculpture, is the stark opposite to Akhtar’s wistfully delicate imagery. Shaped like what appears to be a space launcher the work appeals to the kitschy side of your mind as it evokes craft practices that involve mirror-work. At the top and the bottom of the sculpture are silhouettes of a woman bearing no recognizable identity. What you see is what you get with this glitzy sculpture. Through the semi-erotic female contours and mirrors, symbolically recalling the notion of vanity (vanitas) in art history3, Ilyas wants you to contemplate social taboos that weigh down on women who choose to express their sexualities openly— a certainly challenging process for the average Pakistani female.

Figure 2. Rabbiya Ilyas, Untitled, 14 x 14x 57 inches, mirror on wood and plaster, 2020

But not all pieces in the show are designed to please your eye. The wire and fiber-mesh wall pieces by Sadia Safder showcase the curatorial strength of the show. Visually organized in a grid-like structure but texturally rough and sharp, Untitled 1, Untitled 2, Untitled 3, and Untitled 4 conjure the spatially suffocated and concrete jungle that is Karachi, or any metropolitan city for that matter. Ruqaia Abdul Aziz explores colourism in present-day society with small and capped glass jars that contain erasure residue while a connection between art and science is explored by Syeda Sheeza Ali whose iron cubes fitted with magnets channel a kinetic energy in one of the dimly lit rooms inside the gallery. The rigid plasticity of magnets, wires, and erasures residue is expanded in an experimental play of materials as I pause to think about their previous and current use in contemporary Pakistani art. Other participating artists in the show included Aqsa Khan Nasar, Ammara Jabbar, Hamna Khalid, Hareem Jamil, Lujane Pagganwala, Sadqain, Shanzay Sabzwari, and Syeda Kainat Jillani.

Figure 3. Sadia Safder, Untitled 1 (39 x 22 inches), Untitled 2 (33 x 22 inches), Untitled 3 (22 x 18 inches), and Untitled 4 (35 x 25) inches, mesh wire and fiber mesh, 2021
Figure 4. Ruqaia Abdul Aziz, Untitled, variable, erasure residue, 2021

All iterations of Microcosm reflect Zafar’s curatorial aspirations and dedication. But with many other works that are executed in acrylic, clay, video, and kitschy performative works, I remain in the premises anxiously waiting for my curiosity, intellectual thirst, and visual interests to be stirred, quelled, and shaken. No, the provocation does not come. The criterion for selecting an artist based only on the notion of an emerging practice may not be well suited for a Microcosm 5, because it limits a calculated emphasis (or a multi-thematic focus) that ‘unifies’ a variety of distinctive art (based on material, technique or subject matter etc.) that can be shown in a gallery. The next Microcosm wishing to survey contemporary art must find that unique element that sets it apart from other group-shows in Karachi, thereby making the former’s role essential, allowing for a larger discourse on evolving contemporary art (and material) practices; even if the number of artists is slashed to achieve this outcome. Possibly, this change can begin by shunning Microcosm’s generalized curatorial statement like ‘based on the conviction that some of the most radical gestures in the art history (sic) have been carried out by the artists in early stages of their careers …’.4

‘Microcosm 4’ ran at the AAN Gandhara Art Space gallery between March 25th, 2021 till April 25th 2021.

All images have been provided by AAN Gandhara Art Space.


  1. The number of artists is not fixed for the series Microcosm and may vary from show to show.
  2. Curatorial Statement, Microcosm 4, A Current Survey of Contemporary Art Curated by Adeel Uz Zafar.
  3. Vanitas in western art is a symbolic reminder of the transience and passing of beauty, pleasure, and life. The mirrors in Illyas’s work urge you to look at yourself as the outlined women fill up the reflective space that is allocated for them, in addition to the viewers. Here, spectators join the figures and become subjects in this artwork, as the piece invites us to introspect over not only physical beauty but also our actions that can lead to better constructed and safe spaces for all women.
  4. Ibid.

Nageen Shaikh is a Fulbright scholar, art historian, critic, and industrial designer. Her research and pedagogy prioritise questions of production over ideation in South Asian art, contemporary artists’ studios, and collaborations between materials, design, and science. She is particularly interested in geographical itineraries of material complexes in the early modern period, foreign languages, design histories and practices, anthropology in art, and notions of materiality in transnational art. Her critical writing is published in Hyperallergic, Dawn News, The Karachi Collective, and other forums. She has a B.D summa cum laude in Industrial Design from University of Karachi and an M.A in Art History and Criticism from The State University of New York at Stony Brook. Her paper “Studio as Mediator: The Geographical Ceramics of Shazia Zuberi” is forthcoming in the double peer reviewed Journal of Art and Design Education Pakistan (JADEP) in 2023/24. Nageen is sparingly on Instagram as @pressedpulpandink and Twitter as @nageen_shaikh.

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  • An artist’s work lives on in the eye of the audience, to deny objective bias is a quelling task,however as participants we would like to remain in conviction with the conceptualization and presentation of the works. Radical work doesn’t inherently require provocation but rather the nuance present within the works itself manifests as a quiet act. The implication of a survey of emerging artists allows for the thematic to be a more enriching rather than limiting, since it offers a space for a dialogue of multiple voice to co-exist, which by default allows for the myriad material explorations to also exist. The latter follows the former. A show centralized on material exploration could possibly not be considered a vehicle for dialogue. Unifying emerging voices allows for a precedent to be set for the following years, which again exists as a hypothesis. That what if this was the voice of the future? Given the range of dialogues it offers a meaningful insight, but it should be seen as survey, a conflict within the ideas and conversation presented is more welcome rather than diminishing the voices into a generalized trope. Since the pre-text expressed within the curatorial note thrives on the multi-disciplinary nature of the artists questioning a range of issues that pertain to their personal experiences, it offers an enriching scape. The unification of this range is radicality of Microcosm.

    The intention of sharing this is to keep the conversation flowing, with due respect for the writer, and would like to know from a more objective point-of-view how Microcosm could be more effective in the future.

    Thank you to the website and the writer for taking the time out to share the article, and for reading our comment.


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