Sivim Naqvi, the assistant curator at Clifton’s Gandhara-art Space, named her first singularly curated show “Whitewash” because, in her words, “none of this work is permanent. It’s all going to be whitewashed over.”
In a polka-dot kameez, Naqvi appears younger than her 24 years, but she is solemn and earnest about the mission of this show. “We talked a lot before we started working. We wanted to question value and exchange, to address what is personal space and public space, what is studio versus gallery,” she said.
In Whitewash, the works of art cannot be separated from the gallery itself, because the art is the gallery — or rather the art is the gallery walls, as altered by paint, projection or literal deconstruction. None of the pieces can be purchased, and once the show closes and the walls are repaired, they will cease to exist.
The concept of unsaleable art in a commercial gallery is not groundbreaking, but it is unique in Karachi, where, according to 24-year-old Karachi artist Reem Khurshid, “galleries are about pushing a product, not owning a space.”
Hajra Haider, a twenty-something printmaker, concurred. “It’s an interesting exhibit because the galleries are usually very particular about walls — they don’t even want holes for nails,” she said, gesturing to the drips, paper cut-outs and twigs that Kurshid has applied directly to the ones at Gandhara. “I hope this is the start of a new genre for Pakistan.”
The exhibit includes work from five artists: Khurshid, Naqvi, Abdullah Syed, Atif Khan and Sumaira Tazeen.
Khurshid said her pieces represent a “ghost narrative, something you can’t forget, something that leaves a residue beyond the mainstream. I tried to take ‘whitewash’ and play off the connotations. One of those connotations is censorship, because any dissenting opinion is censored. There’s this identity crisis in Pakistan, so there’s a [problematic] need to have a single identity. There’s a lot of fear and silencing.”
Khurshid’s best piece is an acrylic painting of a sinister gang of blank-eyed, half-savage girls who bear a definite resemblance to the artist herself. The piece is reminiscent of Lord of the Flies-style anarchy.
While there was said to be a crowd of 50 at one point, by the time I arrived at the opening, only a handful of people were milling about the villa-cum-gallery. I was immediately captivated by a small, submerged nook where the Lahore-based artist Khan has hand-stamped the tile floor with thousands of roses and ants. The busyness of the design, the way the crimson and black suggested blood and gore and the presence of so many ants evoked a gruesome Victorian picnic.
Inside the nook, the walls were covered with childish pencil scrawls, where Naqvi traced the different patterns of sun and shadow throughout the day. The collaboration establishes a creepy, old-fashioned parlor ambiance, and perfectly incorporates the architecture of the gallery, creating a space I felt compelled to enter.
Blooming and Centre/Margin, by Australian-based Syed and Karachi-based miniatures painter Tazeen, respectively, are separate pieces that function as a collaborative. A series of small “targets” march across one wall like a computer printout, a video game, a graph or a timeline. Some of these circles are bold; others are half-faded, mere suggestions of what they could have been. From a distance there is the concept of time passing, of history, of technology. Up close, the targets bring to mind guns and violence, foreshadowing Syed’s upstairs showpiece, “They see neither their heads, nor the stones, nor even the walls.”
On the adjoining wall, Tazeen has painted small, textbook-precise flowering plants. Taken together, the pieces juxtapose organic forms and new growth with violence and technological posturing.
Plaster crunches underfoot, and a soundtrack of rocks smacking plaster wafts overhead as I take in “They see neither…” In a series of digital photographs, Syed has documented himself destroying a gallery wall by pelting it repeatedly with stones and then drilling a messy hole through sheetrock and plaster, to open air. The destruction and the rocks are there too of course, but only as testament to the true essence of the piece, the process.
It’s Haider’s favorite part of the exhibit. “You can see the action and reaction in it,” she said. “You can feel what he has done.”
There’s violence, catharsis and perhaps unbidden political implications, as well as a tactile satisfaction to the piece, and — ever-present throughout the exhibit — the inescapable heaviness of history. Despite this heaviness, Haider finds freedom in the exhibit and in installation art in general. “You know it’s not going to last, so you can take more risks,” she said. “It’s nothing that gets sold, no one’s going to put it in their homes, there’s no preciousness to it. So you are more experimental, more playful, you use common things like rocks that you would normally overlook.”
Naqvi appreciates boundaries, so she found it overwhelming to have free rein over the gallery walls, ceilings and floors. “But you have to set your own boundaries, you have to be disciplined,” she said. Appropriately, Whitewash is as much about the negative space — the white space — as it is about the art space. It feels like complicity and marking time, or perhaps it feels like an interrogation of complicity.
It feels almost-realised. And for Karachi’s art scene specifically, it feels like hope.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2011.
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