Tales told of hearth and home, the warmth that humans instinctively gravitate to the place of safety and security, the undefined home has many definitions, as many as humanity itself. It has no clear distinction, but it is something everyone is in search of and holds value. There is a personal definition and then there is an economic definition. There is no clear demarcation, yet the models are different and at times mingle.
On a grey scale, detailed drawings of the city scape examine the concept of home. The City as Home – A pursuit of Protopia explores the concept of home, the all-consuming concept that dictates everyday life and most decisions. With more and more people from rural areas moving to cities, it is estimated that 40 per cent of the total population is now concentrated in cities. Putting more pressure on already burdened infrastructure and housing.
The artist Haider Ali Naqvi in his solo show takes the viewer on an exploration. The silent grey cityscape depicted by him is curiously devoid of people, it is only cement structures and a bit of sky. This vacuum has an effect – as the viewer leans in, sucked in to the illusion. The viewer becomes both the audience and subject of the work, almost as though the viewer inhabits the grey cityscape. This unusual position allows an undisturbed space inhabited only by the viewer and the creator. In this silent place you hear the ruminations, as the artist from the perspective of a recently arrived rural dweller examines, questions and observes his city environment.
The artist takes us through the city, the city of Karachi. Working in graphite on paper, the recognition of the city is not so much through visual recognition but rather through the familiarity of the rhythm and pace, the speed, the focus and pursuit and the sheer amount of concrete that surrounds daily life. His work sits just below the surface. In the Pursuit of Protopia, a better future, the artist questions whether we have what it takes to live today with hopes of a better future . Is the city equipped to meet the vast population on its most basic needs to make life livable in the now.
The exhibition opens with an arrangement of sixteen, four by four layout of rose-tinted photograph size UV prints wrapped in artificial gold leaf. Each a shiny bauble, yet these beautiful presentations on closer examination are a depiction of a torn down piece of construction replete with steel. While the artist uses a restrained and nuanced imagery, he is bold in engaging with a manipulation of dimensions, the inner eye, suggestibility and memory. This shiny layout seems akin to a mirage in the desert. A far-off image that seems to call with its bounty. Titled ‘All that glistens is not gold’, is the opening chapter that each non city dweller writes in a quest for a better ‘life’. In search of home.
The artist runs a wry, unerring narrative with his monochrome depictions. ‘Come in and make yourself at home’ is a cement infested broken down scape, followed by a triptych, three pieces portraying a cement wall. Both works are on paper, crumpled to fit into the frame, enhancing the feeling of being crowded in and the city as concrete jungle. The artist does this subtly so it does not register immediately, replicating the promise of city life with its glitz and light, the decay and urban density a veneer away.
Before the viewer is overwhelmed he switches the scene to a pastoral one ‘But , it was an unusual viewpoint.’ And here, under this title are four large plastic emulsion on canvas paintings. Noire in presentation and content. A distant pastoral landscape, mud houses , gently clustering together with distant hills seen from an arched thick stoned window of a qilla or elevated fortification. The composition is intriguing, it forces the viewer to examine the presented focal point. Examine the concept of home, of space, of breath and the ability to have perspective, all of which is lost in the city. The heavy dark focus of stones in the foreground and a lighter open landscape in the background also seem an evocation of memory. Of how memory is held as you look back. As a child holds memories of home and family, that remain unaltered through adulthood, as does the yearning desire for its reclamation. And as the viewer is lulled into a sense of security and imagination the scene shifts.
A diptych, ‘I don’t know why you’re homing in on one problematic scene “A larger graphite piece with a blank center, accompanied by a smaller piece, which seems to be the missing piece. Portrayed in both of course are decaying wall and rubble. An appropriate and apt depiction of modern life - ‘Denial’. ‘Denial’ on both a state and/or individual level. The pretense that it’s not as bad as it looks or seems, just close your eyes and life is ‘good’. Ignore the mismanagement, the crumbling institutions, the lack of future (how can you ignore the climate change, as you sit on the edge of the sea with its rising water levels or the 3000 glacial lakes melting up in the North) Cement and concrete makes life good?
As if the question requires elaboration, the dawning bewilderment as the new denizens of the city examines in “It wasn’t something to write home about ‘A series of graphite landscapes of different houses, one more elaborate than the next, built at the beaches. Of course, the original accommodation at the beach was a ‘hut’, but that changed over the decades and the Capitalistic interpretation of the modest concept was changed to rather elaborate structures. But they all met with the same fate, built on the beach, subject to the whipping of high tide and humid saline wind they fell into disrepair, with their foundations washed away and walls crumbling after a few futile years of trying to negate the environmental impact. Fourteen delicately drawn graphite on paper portrayals of dilapidated structures against a bright, open sky and benign sand in the foreground. A portrayal of the lie that is an overpopulated city, the bright presentation, crumbling every which way with no foreseeable future at the current trajectory.
Leading up to the key question ‘Is home only a feeling? Or is it a feeling of that place?,’ portrayed a room facing an open window with doors on either side . A window, a symbol of hope, of opening into the outer world from the safety of an inner sanctum, of a room, of a home. Yet the room depicted was derelict, rubble and broken pieces of cement in the foreground. And questions where a home is.
The endless quest for a home in the city, in a Capitalist structure that is extractive in nature, whereas a home is a nurturing exercise aptly summed up in the desperation of the piece ‘Many days passed before they came in sight of land’ as sailors lost at sea might search for land, echoed in the search for home in a city.
And as if to respond to his relentless inquiry and investigation, as though to an exasperated viewer, his answer in the final piece ‘Welcome Home’. A series of ten model homes built from found waste from Shershah market, all uniformly painted grey . But these models were built by children aged 13 to 16 from the interior Sindh. Low ceilinged structures, with a low railing for a boundary wall. These structures, with their modesty and freedom of style embodied the freedom of feeling the children held, of the connection, joy and safety.
The artist weaves his narrative though the city in quest of a home, but in ‘Pursuit of Protopia’ we are only assured of a prototype, one solution fits all, under the current economic model that chops up everything into smaller and small bits, with little satisfaction. Through the hole poked in this illusion is another possibility, one more modest but with assurance of a home, with breath, space for the present and a future, with security of thought and feeling.
Asma Ahmad is a freelance writer. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer. ‘City as a Home – A Pursuit of Protopia’ was held from August 18 to 25, 2022