February Issue 2013
Before beginning this art review, I must confess that I’ve always been sceptical about performance art. Admittedly, my exposure to this form was limited to reading about performance artists who placed themselves in danger or even self-inflicted injuries for the sake of art. Performance art, I felt, often resorted to shock-value and gimmicks and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when I witnessed performance art first-hand that I learned to see it in a new light.
The event, Riwhyti One Night Stand (dress code: kajal), curated by the brilliant and flamboyant Amin Gulgee, saw artists from different mediums with varying styles come together under one roof for a two-hour event. Stepping inside the front courtyard of the Amin Gulgee Gallery, one walked by a small red carpet area on one side and artist Muhammad Ali, in a pinstripe suit, washing clothes by hand on the other. Upon entering the gallery, visitors were welcomed by Gulgee who anointed them with gold glitter. With nearly 20 performances taking place simultaneously, including the two at the entrance (the red carpet was Frieha Altaf’s rather vapid take on Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame concept), it’s impossible to review everything. However, the evening certainly had its share of the good, the not-so-good and the what-the-heck-was-that?
Some of the performances invited audience participation. Percussionist Sikander Mufti, for instance, invited onlookers to become participants by encouraging them to have a go at the set of cymbals, resulting in a cacophony of sounds throughout the evening. Next to him, Syed Ammad Tahir provided audiences a more voyeuristic experience as they watched him go into drag, trying on different wigs and admiringly gazing at his own reflection.
In a nook under a staircase, fashion designer Fayez Agariah sat inside a suitcase and stitched sheaths of fabric into his clothes, wrapping the material around his limbs and the steps above so that by the end of the show he was swaddled in a suffocating cocoon. Agariah wasn’t the only one whose performance evoked a sense of suffocation. In an adjoining room, sculptor Munawar Ali Syed performed Gasping, which consisted of him standing inside a massive inflated plastic bag and blowing up balloons which could be heard popping ever so often over the course of the evening.
These performances certainly roused curiosity, but the most striking acts of the evening were ones in which the performers completely immersed themselves in their art. Nimra Bucha and Madiha Aijaz’s Swimming Pool was one such act. Bucha cut an eccentric figure with her swimming get-up and forlorn, wistful expressions. There was a beach chair placed next to her on which visitors were invited to sit and listen to a pre-recorded monologue penned by Aijaz and performed by Bucha. Watching Bucha stay in character for two hours, unmoved by the crowds observing her every move, was a testament to both her dedication and her acting skills. Every time an audience member put on the headphones to listen to the narrative, Bucha would subtly play along. When she described getting married in the recording, Bucha (who couldn’t hear what was going on in the audio) turned to show me her hennaed hands. And when the narrative ended with the listener left wondering if her character would ever go back to swimming — her first love — Bucha took off her swimming cap and replaced it with a niqab. She went through this cycle many times and it was the combination of her incredible performance and the nuanced, understated narrative that made it one of the more successful acts of the evening.
Salman Hassan and S.M. Raza too were completely immersed in their performance which began with them sitting across from each other on a large piece of paper, drawing indecipherable scribbles, to later rubbing sand on their limbs to eventually falling asleep. Meanwhile, Irfan Hasan took the two hours to make a self-portrait that might not be performance art per se, but his ability to block all the noise and cameras constantly hovering over his shoulder was certainly admirable.
However, it was artist and calligrapher Muzzumil Ruheel who came up with one of the most creative performances of the evening. Around halfway through the show, a small group of people dressed in black and holding umbrellas made their way through the gallery and slowly attached themselves to a handful of unsuspecting attendees. For the rest of the evening, these mysterious figures followed the attendees everywhere, without ever saying a word. When I first realised I was being followed, I wasn’t sure whether I should acknowledge the shadowy presence or not.
Salman Hassan and S.M. Raza were completely immersed in their performance which began with them sitting across from each other on a large piece of paper, drawing indecipherable scribbles, to later rubbing sand on their limbs to eventually falling asleep.
Eventually I became used to it and even took care to stay in the less crowded parts of the gallery so that my follower wouldn’t have to fight for space. Not everyone had the same response. One young man was evidently amused about being followed and started pacing around the gallery so that the poor umbrella-holding girl behind him had to rush around after him. Towards the end of the show, these mysterious figures disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared and one was left wondering what their objective was, how they felt stepping into a stranger’s personal space and what went through their minds as they overheard our conversations and observed our reactions.
However, the show could have benefited had the individual performances been spaced out since the gallery often felt overcrowded. The drum beats from Sikander Mufti’s performance felt jarring when one tried to become part of the quiet, introspective world of Swimming Pool. And Danish Raza’s poor goat was easily overlooked since it was tied to a tree right behind a dressing table being used for a different act. Not all performances were of the same calibre, but regardless of how one feels about the individual acts, or even performance art at large, there is no doubt that Amin Gulgee orchestrated a thought-provoking show that pushed audiences to engage with art in a way seldom seen in Pakistan.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.