Stuff. Everywhere the eye goes, there is a plethora of ‘stuff’. Gleaming and lucratively packaged in mammoth shopping malls, hoarded up in our home-stores and attics, or trashed on our streets, all types of stuff is ubiquitous now. We are excessive consumers, and when we have had our fill of all that was necessary to be consumed, and not so necessary too, we delegate the cleanup to our landfills and seas. Now, the shores of the Global South1 have truly met the Anthropocene2, as they acknowledge this earthly age impacted by human desolation by spewing out all that has continually been jettisoned in its waters.
Sohail Zuberi, on the other hand, collects the astonishingly varied seawaters purge. For the past twelve years, Karachi-based visual artist, photographer, and graphic designer, Zuberi has been frequenting the shores of the “Sahil beach”, a narrow strip that meets the larger Karachi coastline, where he has chanced upon hundreds of objects wasted upon the wet sands. Zuberi has stumbled upon a ton of wood— these are often scraps from local Sindhi fishermen boats. Utensils like bowls and mugs used on these boats, wooden brushes, anchors, sinkers, fishing ropes made with sisal and hemp, damaged helms, seashells, dead mangrove seedlings, urchins, and bones of dead animals and fish, all contribute to his collection. There have also been medical supplies wastage which is often discarded recklessly, by healthcare institutions and providers, in the waters including blood bags and syringes.
Ah, the sea, the waters return to us what we pour within. And so, it is no surprise that collectively, we have now come to bear catastrophic consequences of years of a neglectful interaction between nature and us— ecological trauma, and over-consumption of things.Zuberi’s collection of these chanced upon items, nothing short of a peculiar and atypical archive at this point, had been presented as Archaeologies of Tomorrow II (2022) at Koel Gallery as the second iteration of an exhibition which was first held in 2018.
For many years every Sunday accompanied with his pet dogs, Zuberi has walked these shores of the Arabian Sea, which is an essential marine exchange route since 3000 BCE, connected to the area of Gizri Creek in the city. The Sahil beach is a two-km long stretch of the 27km long coast in Karachi that is open to the public (and private property owners), sectionally. 3 Over these years, Zuberi has encountered many objects on the coast that he brings home to his private studio and storage. Recently, he hired a team of eight persons who shipped an enormous and heavy piece of a rare and presently ultra-expensive Burma teak wood, which was exhibited at the show. Titled Traces (2020), the Burma teak is uniquely suited to local boat manufacturers due to its durability and decay resistance, however, the material is not used anymore due to exceptionally high cost.
Zuberi’s home is overflowing with these objects. Once the objects and scraps of materials are hauled off the beach and transported to his residence, he lays them all down on the floor, and the categorization process is initiated. Sometimes, these found objects are treated, cleaned, and assembled into deliberate artworks.
Best viewed mounted on the wall, the series Seascapes 3-12 (2022) comprises several rectangular scraps of brightly colored painted wood (Rosewood, Teak, Pine, Almond, Neem, Kale etc.), most likely from local Sindhi fishermen boats. These pieces of colored wood have been assembled, in the fashion of geometric abstractions, to pay homage to the land, the sea, and the sky. Similarly, heavy pieces of wood are assembled, rather recycled, in a minimal fashion, to function as benches, as seen in the series Bench I-IV (2022). Recycling, as suggested by Malcolm Miles, may now be an active “cultural shift” as individuals deconstruct affluent societies that are invested in making and consuming stuff, toward conserving attitudes.4 This notion of “ruined found-wood turned into a bench, is also a work of art” which deliberately confuses the viewer. I found myself thinking if I may take a seat on this bench as perhaps that completes any viewer’s gallery experience. In an age of exquisite museum displays and glass framed works, an “art is untouchable” sensibility within me is unsurprising. I resist the temptation to take a seat on these sturdy benches and move on. Later, Zuberi tells me that the seating utility purposefully questions the dichotomy between art for art’s sake and functionality within a gallery space.
Other times, the found objects are left as they are, like the many functional utensils presented under the banner Kitchen (2010-2022), Kharaad (2010-2022), DIY Fishing Accessories (2010-2022). Some items are partially worked upon in Zuberi’s studio, sometimes even outsourced. Traces, the found beam of Burma teak, has been split in two due to issues of mobility. Objects like religious talismans (taweez), seashells, animal bones, product advertisements printed on paper that are then reutilized at the local tandoors and food stalls, and plastered all over the city walls, commercially produced glass bottles and children toys are exhibited; framed on the walls under the collective label Look What the Tide Brought in (2022). Here is evidence of careless human consumption of things, and poor waste management— left to rot on the local beaches and in our waters.
Historians are moving away from a model of understanding historical knowledge of objects, in which a stable corpus transfers from one point to another. Rather, the routes and journeys an object takes is now considered crucial, as they create new knowledge. Historian of Science, Pamela H. Smith considers these social, intellectual, and economic paths that materials and objects take as “relational fields”; where meanings attributed with materials and objects, their usage and manufacturing processes change along ways of transmission. 5 The objects collected and assembled by Zuberi act as archaeological devices of the future (as suggested by the show’s title), and provoke queries pertaining to our relationship with these objects, their materials, relational fields, and functionality for the historian. When and where were these kitchen utensils and boats made? Who were the artisans that designed and processed these items, and what were their lives, identities, socio-economic positions, and environments like? How may we proceed to inquire about their relational fields? The artist found broken steering wheel from a ship helm’s, titled At The Helm (2022), that is displayed in the exhibition. I am deeply moved to think about the expertise dedicated to this item. Is this knowledge of making and doing preserved beyond oral means of transmission? Can it be written down and the processes replicated?
As the coast’s wastage becomes another person’s art, I am also thinking about the monstrosity that is transpiring clearly; our sands and waters are contaminated for the worse. Toxic waste has given rise to climate change as frightening consequences are being witnessed in the form of recent ruinous floods in the country. Several Pakistani cities are ranked as the worst polluted in the world. Scientists have provided evidence that everywhere nature is in misery: the Great Barrier Reef is dying in the Coral Sea in Australia, marine animals are ingesting plastic waste all over the globe, oceans of the Global South have become homes of industrial waste, our smog infused air is silently killing us, the food we consume is contaminated with toxins, and our indigenous plants are fading away. Zuberi has collected innumerable mangrove seedlings from the Sahil beach (the specie is called Avicennia Marina) that are presented as photographs titled, We Still refuse to Mourn Their Death (2022). Washed up on the beach instead of making way into the coast, the seedlings are uprooted from their origins as mangrove forests and swamps in the city continue to suffer at the hands of urban structures, concrete seawalls, land grabbers, and businesses. Given the extent of detrimental ecological changes, new tools and methodologies are now called into question by scholars and artists alike, including Zuberi, whose archival body of work raises such complex areas of investigation that call to reassess the ways we use planetary resources and understand art making.
I consider Zuberi’s engagement with ecology, discovery, solitary walks, chance, and studio processes as an extension of land and earth art that has been seen since the 1960s. American artist Robert Smithson created The Spiral Jetty (1970), by depositing tons of salt, rocks and crystals in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Over the years, the fluctuating levels of the lake water have revealed and concealed the spiral structure, raising inquiries into themes like preservation of natural land, human activity, and ecosystems. A year before Smithson, another American artist Michael Heizer employed earth-moving equipment to remove 240,000 tons of rock from to leave a 1,500 foot-long, 30-foot-wide, and 50- foot-deep trench titled Double Negative (1969) in the Moapa Valley in Nevada. Like Heizer, Zuberi does something similar, expect that he does not remove the earth’s naturally contained rock and matter but expunged out deposits that let us explore a complex connection between human activity and nature: human made processes (medical supplies and paper products), naturally occurring materials shaped by artisans (wood used to create fishermen boats and utensils), deaths of marine wildlife (bones, and skeletons), and dead plants. The itineraries of life and death of these factory-made items and natural creatures entangle with the artist’s studio, which now serves as another relational field granting new interpretations and processes (cataloging, assemblage, recycling, archival, displays etc.), before the works are being displayed in a gallery for wider viewership. Where do these journeys end? The found objects from the city’s shores may perhaps make their way into private hands and collections or stay with the artist: the ultimate destination continues to stay elusive and open-ended.
Environmentally driven art that necessitates larger conversations around eco-aesthetics6, climate change, and environmental damage is now actively pursued by artists globally. Zuberi’s archives of these future archaeological materials and objects are reminiscent of French-Swiss Julian Charrière’s project called Terminal Beach.7 Charriere set out to explore the desolate Bikini Atoll in the Marshal Archipelago of Micronesia as he approached the site’s coral reefs as hypothetical future archaeology. There he found decaying bunkers of underwater ships, radioactive wild coconut shells and palm growths on the island. The history of the island reveals that Bikini Atoll was a nuclear testing site for the United States military in 1954; Charriere’s images of the sites and films created in 2016 thus sought to reveal the connection between environmental catastrophe and human action, displacement of local peoples, and the fierce enthusiasm of international political powers to test weapons of conflict despite the devastating trail they leave behind. In a similar way, Zuberi’s collected pieces of ship helms, religious books, amulets, decaying marine life, wooden boat pieces, and utensils indicate loss of ownership and connections, between local fishing settlements and communities, with the city’s coastline— disregarding the significance the coastline holds.
Egregious quantities of stuff now inhabit and colonize our waters as shown by the artist. Additionally, things like blood bags and syringes on the beaches are clear indication of the city’s incompetent authorities responsible for waste management. Over the past twelve years, Zuberi has observed significant changes within the shores of the Sahil beach. Electric poles and wiring systems made way in 2010, concrete seawalls, humongous sharp stones, new urban structures, roaring towers and fully grown internationally sourced date palm trees that do not even survive for long in the city’s atmosphere have all made the beach their new home as they encroach upon land rights and settlements of the fishing communities. “Time, like the sea, unties all knots,” writes novelist Iris Murdoch8. Through Zuberi’s work, we must take our caveat: nature screams for cessation of human destruction and removal of material inhabitants that have been bestowed upon it mercilessly— before time bequeaths us with more natural calamities.
Sohail Zuberi’s solo show, ‘Archaeologies of Tomorrow II’ was displayed at Koel Gallery in Karachi between 24th September till 4th October 2022.
Images 1-7: courtesy of Koel Gallery
Image 8: courtesy of the artist
Shah, Zarmeene. “On the Works of Sohail Zuberi: Archaeologies of Tomorrow,” in Archaeologies of Tomorrow I, curatorial catalog, Koel Gallery, 2018.
Miles, Malcolm. “Cultures and Climate Change,” in Eco-Aesthetics: Art, Literature, and Architecture in a Period of Climate Change, Bloomsbury Academic, UK, 2014.
Smith, Pamela H. “Nodes of Convergence,” in Entangled Itineraries: Materials, Practices and Knowledges Across Eurasia, University of Pittsburg Press, USA, 2019.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes. “Marine Permutations.” in Art and Climate Change, Thames and Hudson, UK, 2022.
Murdoch, Iris. The Sea, The Sea. Chatto and Windsor, UK, 1978.
Mahler, Anne Garland. 2017. “Global South.” Oxford Bibliographies in Literary and Critical Theory, ed. Eugene O’Brien. https://globalsouthstudies.as.virginia.edu/what-is-global-south
- The “Global South” has collectively come to represent areas in Asia, Africa and Latin America that a) are characterized as politically resistant toward a capitalist transnational exchange often lead by the Global North, b) economically disadvantaged nations of the South, and c) post-colonial or post-national states that have been economically, socially and politically impacted by contemporary capitalist globalization.
- The earth’s current geological age is called the Holocene which began 10,000 years ago after the last major ice age. The Anthropocene is a suggested age within the Holocene or after, that is uniquely characterized by human alteration and activity. The term has been made popular by biologist Eugene Stormer and chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000. The Anthropocene is suggested to have begun after the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 1880’s or post WWII with the catastrophic nuclear bombing of Japanese cities by the United States military
- Zarmeene Shah, “On the Works of Sohail Zuberi: Archaeologies of Tomorrow,” in Archaeologies of Tomorrow I, curatorial catalog, (Karachi: Koel Gallery, 2018).
- Malcolm Miles, “Cultures and Climate Change,” in Eco-Aesthetics: Art, Literature, and Architecture in a Period of Climate Change, (UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 171.
- Pamela H. Smith, “Nodes of Convergence,” in Entangled Itineraries: Materials, Practices and Knowledges Across Eurasia, (US: University of Pittsburg Press, 2019), 6.
- As a relatively recent field, eco-aesthetics investigates the intersection of art making and aesthetics, with literature concerning environment and ecology.
- Maja and Reuben Fowkes, “Marine Permutations.” in Art and Climate Change, (UK: Thames and Hudson, 2022), 95.
- Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea. (UK: Chatto and Windsor, 1978).
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