February Issue 2014

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 7 years ago

Suspend reality for a minute and imagine you are a scuba diver, scouring the depths of the Arabian Sea for buried treasure. You luck out when you see an oyster yawning open, and some glinting objects inside it. Rushing forth, you find the remains of a massive city sprawled in front of you. There is all sorts of debris littering the ocean floor: Broken combs and mobile phones, sunken ships, the rotted frames of houses and — you reel at the sight — disembodied limbs. In and out of the ruins swim sharks and other denizens of the deep. It’s clear that these objects have been there for a long time from the fact that molluscs and barnacles have clambered over them.

You’ve heard the legend: A city used to exist here once. It was called Karachi and it was a violent place. Eventually greater powers deemed it beyond redemption and, in a furious storm, swept it under the sea. If you were to write a history of the civilisation that existed here, you could do it only based on these found objects. After all, men are wound up inextricably with their materiality, with the space they occupy and the objects they choose to fill it with.

Snap back to reality and realise you’re just staring at ‘Constellations Adrift,’ the arresting highlight of The Weight of Things, Naiza Khan’s exhibition at Koel Gallery. Against a navy blue backdrop, hundreds of objects moulded in brass jut out at the viewer. Each of the objects is actually a cluster of disparate things — tools, chairs, sinks, limbs, fish —  held together by a mesh of what seems to be scaffolding or iron grills. It seems as though these are adrift under the sea, remnants of some great disaster. This is suggested by the postures of the figures here, the marine wildlife swimming around, and the fact that most of the things are torn apart. This sense of destruction is amplified in various other pieces. The video ‘Homage’, in which Khan paints a pile of broken furniture in a demolished school, also evokes feelings of loss.

Khan has engaged, through her work, with Karachi and its coastline. She tells the story of a city made up of ordinary things, connected in unexpected ways, which make up the larger narrative of our identity. The symbiosis of space and identity is the key theme Khan has explored through her collection. Human beings change the land and, in turn, it changes them. In ‘An Invisible Landscape Conditions the Visible One,’ we see a calm cityscape at sunset at the top of the canvas, and a gaping well beneath it, full of random items and wildlife. The message is that what goes on at the surface is influenced by the subtext of individual lives.

With time, changes both natural and human, shape identity. ‘Building Terrain’ presumably shows how land was claimed from the ocean to build this city. ‘How We Mark the Land Becomes Part of its History’ portrays a murky image with the words of the title scrawled over it, reasserting human influence on space. On the other hand, ‘Small Creatures Glowing in the Dark’ and ‘Seepi Ghar Under Construction’ show crustaceans starting to take over abandoned human things — nature reclaiming what was hers. ‘The Observatory,’ a video of a destroyed weather observatory in Manora, mentions various natural disasters like gales, storms and hail. This shows that no matter how much we try to control and predict nature, it is ultimately indomitable.

A specially interesting piece is ‘Secrets from the Nautical Almanac 1966,’ a series of advertisements for naval equipment, but the pages themselves are eaten by bookworms. Khan has added excerpts from Ayub Khan’s speeches about progress to these images, but the text is laser-cut and barely legible. It is an interesting depiction of nationalistic anxiety and the urge to explore and conquer. All this ambition, too, ultimately decays.

It really felt as though I was viewing a city lost long ago to the sea, and the experience was startling and contemplative. Karachi was carved from the sea, it is rooted in the sea, and back to the sea it must go. Perhaps, over time, thousands of tons of water will be able to smooth its sharp edges; perhaps only as a ruin can this space be calm.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s February 2014 issue.