Multiplicity of Meaning
Multiplicity of Meaning

Adeel uz Zafar’s show Unrealized aims to capture the narrative of the unfinished, the forgotten, and the discreet through the musings, and behind-the-scenes of an artist at work. This secret playroom tucked away in a wonderworld of its own ‘Third Space’ is a religious site for an artist, one where he is free to worship and play. Here, we explore the other side of the finished gallery space— imperfection, process, and all the mess it accompanies.

The solo show was curated by Zarmeene Shah, and is not a usual art show following an archetypal pattern. The show sets itself up in a manner that not only encourages, but dictates various interpretations. In the curator’s note, Roland Barthes is significantly quoted to stress on the ‘multiplicity’ of meaning. As part of my interpretation of the show, Barthes states and I quote, “… we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” In Unrealized, I witness a transference. This comes in the form of a shift— one where the burden of explanation and interpretation is seized from the artist and passed onto the viewer.

In part, this is due to the curatorial intent to convey a specific message about the artist and his artistic process. The message is clear: a piece of artwork may be deemed ready and labelled as complete, but the process behind it, never really is. In conversation with Shah, I come to an understanding that there may be a number of reasons for this. If practically viewed from the standpoint of Karachi and Pakistan, an abysmal lack of funding, absence of space and dismissal towards the arts come to mind. Needless to say, the State is complicit in this, and may even stand as a prominent contender for the current state of affairs regarding the arts. More universally shared reasons are the reality of rejection that every artist is much too familiar with, including the slippery corporeality of time.

The show opens with a hard-hitting mantle of precluded artworks (a namesake of the show). This display clearly evinces the continuous labor that went into Zafar’s signature work, 1 indicating its conspicuous presence in the space. This means that the artist conscientiously made the decision to include the rejected and ‘imperfect’ pieces thus, honoring the circular nature of artistic life. In its entirety, the show comes across as a metaphor in itself— one that speaks of artistic celebration, and process as a means to an end. This is a celebration that is underrated and goes unrecognized in a struggling city like Karachi that barely keeps itself afloat towards basic survival, much less attend to art, galleries and exhibits. Despite this, the city finds a way to not only incorporate and honour art, but declares that art can be that pillar of strength if given the chance, and Unrealized is an instance which unironically realizes so.

LOOKING BACK TO LOOK FORWARD 07 Office filing cabinet with artist’s belongings 1999-2022.
REALIZED REJECTS (Panel no 1), 24 Rejected etching prints from 1 plate printed on Montval 300 gsm (image from front and back), H92.5 x W48 in, 2021-2022.

Following Barthes2, we see that “the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt… the book itself is only a tissue of signs…” Zafar can then best be summarized as an artist who is not a divine creator but rather a collage-maker who is piecing together ideas in a myriad of innovative ways. The original and intended arrangement of his piece, Living Archives stands out. It is set up as a lit graveyard, with the light shining from within the tombstones rather than above it, as is usually experienced. The installation was originally created for Karachi Biennale 2017 as Tombstones/Katbay and was first exhibited at the Jamshed Memorial. The process behind the piece was quite the arduous journey, travelling to and documenting 182 graveyards in Karachi, out of which 50 made it as final pieces. The visual imagery of Living Archives is inclusive of the socio-religious and political makeup of Pakistani society. This intent comes through, as all classes of society are displayed in a way that seem to have no specific order or sequence, indicating equalness. The inclusion of religious, ethnic and gender minorities add an entirely new layer to the piece, turning it into a powerful statement.

There are some famous names such as Jaun Elia, Sadequain and Mian Akhtar, and some obscure ones, as well. A tombstone is engraved with ‘Pyaari Amma’. The selection of these tombstones is very deliberate. As the viewer, I experienced an egalitarianism through the grim route of death. There is something haunting and beautiful about the tombstones being set alight in close proximity to each other. For the artist and viewer both, the main takeaway could be a realization of the carbon copy characteristic of death; all too eerily similar when contrasted with how vastly antithetical an individual’s life is to one another.

LIVING ARCHIVES, 51 light boxes of cardboard, LED light, inkjet print on a blacklit film, H13.5 x W9.5 x D05 in (each box), 2017-2022.

Moreover, there is a clear and intentional disconnect in the show in that the subject of the pieces do not follow a singular, defined theme or direction. The way that the curator has handled this is to separate them via rooms or open spaces with an invisible partition. The ‘rooms’ confidently stand independent of each other— in either texture, colour, or thematic concern indicating a new ‘era’ of the artist. One of these is a space tucked away in the corner of the gallery that displays the piece entitled, Prerana and Lal Peela. This is a storybook written for children that is illustrated by Zafar and written by Buddhi Sagar and Rumana Husain.

POST SCRIPT, 14 original illustrations of a storybook PRERANA & LAL PEELA (framed), mix media and collage with colour papers H10 x W10 x D1.5, 2012-2022

A collaborative project between writers and artists of Nepal and Pakistan, Prerana and Lal Peela, is an eco-conscious tale which challenges the current, environmentally catastrophic world, reimagining it through the hope and fantastical future of the Symbiocene. 3 This is shown through the example of the young Nepali girl in the storybook, Prerana, who says to her newly found friend Lal Peela, “… a beautiful bird, whose wings had the many colours of the rainbow”: It seems to be as if there were dense forests here once, with many different animals, but now the trees and the animals are disappearing. Lal Peela urges Prerana to sit on his back, amidst his strong wings to fly across the mountains of Nepal and Pakistan, using their “hearts’ eyes” as guide.

Preraana and Lal Peela  is also indicative of Zafar’s process of becoming an illustrator as this project kickstarted his career in illustration. The storybook and illustrations were exhibited at the 2nd Kathmandu International Art Festival, ‘Earth/Body/Mind’ in 2012. The process interestingly consisted of converting a storyboard of three-dimensional drawings into two-dimensional ones, which later resulted in the form of a published book in 2019. This furthers the concept of Unrealized that demonstrates how a creative process is neither stagnant nor momentary, and continually stretches through space and time just as Prerena and Lal Peela’s friendship. Art can be circular and transcendental.

Lastly, as the show ends, I open up a discussion with the curator of possibly welcoming further artistic processes post-Unrealized. She feels that artists need to move beyond the gallery to find an ‘alternative space’; one that is rooted in ‘authentic artistic’ process. For this to take place, curation in the art-world needs to be taken more seriously. However, she opposes what curation has become of late and calls it a ‘buzzword.’ Her understanding is that it is misused and overused due to a severe lack of curatorial understanding. Examples she cites are Instagram-worthy posts, contemporary fashion stores and outlets, and pop culture in general, stating that there must be present- a conceptual framework embracing the curatorial endeavor; that only those who have studied and practiced curatorial method in extensive detail can properly curate.

The fact that the country prides itself with only a few trained curators forces me to question the stance. Can this tabooed space of the digital world, or new form of ‘pop’ curation in this postmodern, pandemic age not be accounted for as The Third Option; this alternative avenue that the curator longs for in this show? How else can Pakistani artists develop a taste of curation when the only space available to them, one that is highly inaccessible to the common person, is the White Cube? It certainly cannot be denied that to succeed as an artist in Pakistan one needs a certain amount of money, privilege and connections to make up for the severely lacking state patronage, support and even camaraderie from the general public and community. Shah makes a valid point about the uninspiring and monolithic standing of the gallery spaces within the city, and that a radical re-imagination is needed. But must this new ‘buzzword’-style of curation be taken away from young, upcoming artists? Can this not be seen as the breaking away from the White Box? This, of course, constitutes a critical discussion that goes beyond my review, but it is a point worth noting and delving into, as we continue engaging with insights and critique of the contemporary art world.

The show “Unrealized” by Adeel uz Zafar, curated by Zarmeené Shah was exhibited in Canvas Gallery from the 18th of October to the 27th of October, 2022.

Title image: REJECTS REALIZED, Inkjet print strips on Somerset 300 gsm (framed), H22.5 x W74.5 in, 2021-2022.


  1. Etchings and bandaged soft sculptures inspired by children’s plush toys such as teddy bears and bunnies.
  2. In conversation with the curator, Zarmeene Shah
  3. Generation Symbiocene: an ecological thought of an era that welcomes the interconnectedness of life and all living beings. This is said to occur after the recent period of Anthropocene.

Zehra Jabeen Shah is a writer, oral historian and academic based in Karachi. She recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing on a Fulbright scholarship. She is currently working on a poetry collection focused on the rape culture in Pakistan, and investigating the role of women in folk and ancient mythology found on heritage sites and tomb paintings in Sindh.

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