Ask the inhabitants of Karachi for their observations on how their city functions, and one of the more common responses will be that they find Karachi to be in perpetual flux. The city portrays itself as a living, breathing organism. It is constantly transmuting and adapting to bolster its survival and become a better host to its surging populace. Construction and refurbishment have become everyday sights. Dug up roads after every few miles make space for underpasses and overhead bridges; recurrently trimmed sidewalks and dividers widen the streets. Intersections and crossings dismantle and resurrect time after time with a new face, re-orienting the commuters who meander through the new course.
Arsalan Nasir sets the premise of his latest work around the constant construction, destruction, and reconstruction of buildings and infrastructures which he observes as a visibly ubiquitous attribute of Karachi. The body of work is collectively titled ‘Dreams on Sale’ and was exhibited as part of Vasl Artist’s Association’s Museum of Abandoned Spaces (MOAS) project.
MOAS is Vasl’s long term series-based project that presents a pop-up exhibition with site-specific work in abandoned, derelict spaces. By stepping out of the conventional gallery space, the project challenges the preconceived notions around what signifies exhibitions, galleries, and museums. These established institutions often present a threshold of exclusivity before the masses. The site-specific works appropriate the disused spaces as temporary public museums and highlight the structures’ historical character and their unchartered future. Under this project, Vasl and the partnering artists also disseminate art further into the public and create space for dialogue around art and other socio-political issues.
Nasir sought inspiration from the growing trend of constructing secluded housing schemes that lure the dreams of living a luxe and elite life distanced from the dense neighbourhoods and their kinetic chaos. Advertisements for such projects have recently gained prevalence across Karachi— appearing as posters, billboards, and paid commercials in print and electronic media. They offer space, privacy, and leisure amenities such as swimming pools, gyms, parks etc. These promotions, however, casually neglect more pressing concerns around basic facilities such as water, gas, or electricity supply.
Most of the construction and development sector in Karachi strictly conforms to this operative thinking. Security, proper sewage disposal, steady and uninterrupted utility supplies are graver issues needing urgent attention but comfortably ignored. Perhaps the reason behind Karachi’s unceasing construction and frequent cosmetic facelifts is that no one pays importance to factors like sustainability and longevity. It makes these glorified and arguably deceitful advertisements risible.
Nasir employs satire to underline the amusingly hollow promises and the clever avoidance from addressing the infrastructural problems infecting Karachi. He situates his work at the Shafquat House in Saddar – a former residential building that is now dilapidated and slowly disintegrating to its demise. Upon entering, viewers find three televisions nestled amidst the concrete rubble, broadcasting the advertisements for such housing schemes on loop. The irony immediately becomes apparent. Visuals of grandeur symbolized through Western ideals of architectural marvel and aesthetics juxtapose the remnants of a historical building.
Nasir highlights how heritage architecture and preservation are still unfathomable concepts in Pakistan. Thirst for power, control, and money leads to frequent and unremorseful demolition of old buildings to give birth to edifices neither structurally sound nor stable in the face of any calamities. Land grabbers and developers continue exploiting people’s dreams of achieving a better lifestyle. They stress maximizing the capacity of occupancy in a limited space without fulfilling the demand for adequate resources. Fuelled by corruption and selfishness of those in authority, demolitions go unchecked and unregulated. Often a natural collapse of a building is completely orchestrated.
While spectating the advertisements on the television, many viewers may think they are genuine and merely appropriated by the artist. However, Nasir recreated each advert from scratch. The artist created the 3D animation, the voice-over, as well as the script. He cleverly leaves some buzz words and statements in his recordings that potentially trigger the audience to suspect the legitimacy behind the ads. Interspersed between the redundant phrases exhaustively used to hook the listeners to these ads like ‘sunehra mauqa’, ‘sahoolat’, and ‘asaish’ are out-of-place statements such as the finite provision of stolen electricity, lack of line water, or proximity to an impoverished slum.
Three infomercial posters designed by the artist accompany the videos. In a similar approach, Nasir sparingly uses statements that facilitate the viewer into distinguishing those as fabricated pieces of satire. He recreates the kitschy features like the typography, composition, and colour palette commonly found in these posters. By doing so, he identifies the quintessential visual lexicon used in subaltern marketing and advertisements. The fact that such visual elements from these advertisements quietly divulge who they target opens further discourses around the subtle continuities of imperialism on a local level and the optics through which they manifest.
Karachi is the seventh most populated city on the planet and seems to show no sign of decline to its rapid growth1. To combat the challenges because of overpopulation, the city keeps making new versions of itself. It is not only stacking vertically but is also expanding geographically, resulting in a continuous shift in its map. Such extravagant housing schemes, villas, and apartments are more common in the outskirts of the city which create another set of problems. They disrupt the ecology by limiting the natural habitat of the wildlife and native vegetation, and they also pressure the indigenous, rural population already living in those areas to relocate. The communities uprooted from their home are not financially equipped enough to rebuild their houses and livelihood. Furthermore, placing such compact housing structures around the city’s peripheries stifles the already overburdened resources that are constantly depleting. They choke the natural drainage patterns and hinder the access to water for the interior and southern regions of the city.
Unsurprisingly, these issues remain unidentified or undiscussed through public discourse to avoid the risk, and the cost of, tarnishing the prospects of such housing projects. Arsalan Nasir has created a body of work that playfully incises this practice. His work encapsulates emotions of both grief and joy. It remarks on both exploitation and gullibility, and is equally contrite and optimistic. It displays a sense of hope, ignited through these false facades that emerge from the cracks and crumbling shamble of despair.
“Dreams on Sale” by Arsalan Nasir was exhibited as part of Vasl Artist Association’s Museum Of Abandoned Spaces project at the Shafquat House, Saddar in Karachi on August 22, 2021.
Image courtesy: Vasl Artists’ Association and the artist, Arsalan Nasir.
Title image: Gulzar Apartment, installation, single channel video on loop: 1 minute and 17 seconds, CRT television & wooden TV trolley, size variable, 2021