A flood foretold

November 20, 2022

Artist Rashid Rana has blended layers of history to produce a composite view of contemporary society, particularly Pakistan.

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rtists, like poets, possess some, significant visionary traits. Frequently, their work becomes foretelling or reveals new meanings with a different turn of events. Creative individuals do not make predictions per se, but since they perceive history, its passage and its structure from a non-conventional point of view, they are able to foretell the future. For example, a novel, published in 1983, fictionalised the death of a military dictator, ending up into small bits of flesh. Five years later, such an incident came to pass.

Both writers and artists deal with the past, the present and future in their creations – in a seamless manner. Some events in history appear to repeat themselves; so do attitudes and actions. In a science fiction short story of Quratulain Hyder, the Indian Urdu author, a young man from Pharaoh’s Egypt is brought to modern day India (on a space rocket that travels with the speed of light). The displaced person complains that nothing much has changed. There are still wars, racial feuds, political intrigues, oppression of minorities, hatred of emigrants and class conflicts.

So when we look at It Lies Beyond, the work of Rashid Rana at the third edition of Karachi Biennale, we realise how the artist has blended layers of history to produce a composite view of the contemporary society, particularly Pakistan: a country 75 years of age that also has a past going back 5,000 years. In his site-specific installation, Rana has combined some recent occurrences with our colonial legacy. The work, conceived, created and constructed especially for the Karachi Biennale 03, is a culmination of his earlier concerns and imagery, for instance, Offshore Accounts (2006) which consists of innumerable photos of trash, along with pictures of historic ships. The entire assemblage appears like waves of sea, converged into a corner formed by two walls, but from a distance looks like a flattened view - a comment on how colonial times are perceived through a web/ lens of contradiction.

The route to India’s occupation was a long and winding one. The (British) East India Company arrived in the subcontinent for trade. Soon its agenda changed, and the country was conquered, through alliances, conspiracies and battles, till the British crown assumed control of the colony. The commerce, eventually led to a total subjugation of the Indian population, resulting in human tragedies, such as the Bengal Famine of 1943, in which “2.1 to 3.8 million Bengalis perished.”

Today, the region is politically independent, split into sovereign states, yet it depends on the European and American powers for various aspects of its existence - political systems, technology products, latest fashion, information tools, entertainment - so that one feels that the colonialism has not ended; that has only taken a twist and a disguise. Long gone are the vassals heading the eastern shores, but flights do land at tarmacs and cargo ships arrive at several ports to deliver contemporary consumer goods. The ‘normal’ exchange entails a trail of industrial trash –plastic, which cannot be eliminated (apparently a simple plastic bag takes 500 years, a plastic bottle 300 years and a plastic straw 200 years to decompose).

At the Karachi Biennale, Rashid Rana addresses this situation, current and critical. His massive and magnificent installation at the NED University hall (4.7 x 7.8 x 41.2 metres) is composed of innumerable pictures of trash, superimposed with images of European ships, which become flowing water from a distance. Garbage in our country is collected in polythene bags and contains stuff that cannot be recycled or destroyed. Plastic was invented in the West. Like some other substances, it is a great threat to the eco system. It is also dumped in the former colonies. Arguably, the country is one of the largest dumping grounds for defunct computer accessories. This state of affair was indicated by Rana in his juried award-winning installation Beauty Lies for the second edition of Karachi Biennale 2019, in which the artist (appropriating the iconic canvas, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) by the German romantic painter Casper David Friedrich) transformed a rocky precipice into a heap of garbage (not uncommon for Karachi or any other large city in Pakistan).

Rashid Rana in his latest contribution to the Karachi Biennale has examined the association between multinational/ industrial entities and the hemisphere that lies beyond the mainstream. Most of the garbage accumulated in our surroundings is a consequence of North American and European markets, which get their products manufactured in developing nations like Pakistan (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India etc). Small units around the country emit huge quantitates of non-recyclable waste. Visit any village or small town, and you are shocked by chocked drains, clogged sewers, piles of plastic, fertile fields covered by chemicals or polythene shopping bags deposited in water passages along with other trash, which lead to regular overflow of water after heavy rains causing floods, like the recent one in which a third of the country was submerged and millions of people were affected. Standing in the huge hall of NED University, Karachi, with windows on two walls, a viewer gets the sensation of being surrounded by the sea – if not the flood; because from one side you see the local Burns Road, but windows on the other side (are covered) to reveal videos of flood victims.

Recognising the link between garbage and flood, Rana has added a continuous band of images in his installation – on eyelevel, comprising pictures related to flood. Not the stock or predictable views of water advancing and invading houses, fields, reservoirs but visuals of what happens after the calamity.

Not only the present, and most impressive installation, It Lies Beyond from the Karachi Biennale, but Rashid Rana’s previous digital c-print + DIASEC, Offshore Accounts also acquires a new meaning in the context of this year’s flood. Like every devastation, flood has a picturesque dimension too. However, Rana’s version of flood is composed entirely of garbage pictures; since trash, waste and surplus stuff hindering the course of natural course of water result in urban flooding.

If on the one hand, there was an uncanny sensation of being surrounded by water while being inside a building of the port city (so the river and sea – flood and waves become one, and an unforgettable encounter) on the other it was an extraordinary experience to find pictures of trash gatherers – moving, seen through QR code. After looking at the snapshot of a garbage collector on physical surface, the AR offers video of the person gathering trash (based on 1,100 video footages). With your mobile phone you give life to the scavengers, who like a shadow existence, participate in the entire cycle of transformation – essential for our neighbourhood, climate and our planet.

Rashid Rana always had a great respect for these humble but crucial workers who pick discarded stuff in a city, later to be recycled in another form, for another purpose, and adding another meaning. Recognising their role, Rana in an interview to The Express Tribune Magazine, September 5-11, 2010, shared: “My true heroes are the young boys who rummage through rubbish all day collecting paper from all over the city. After hours and hours of work they barely manage to earn a little over 100 rupees, much less than a beggar would earn after 30 minutes at a traffic light.”

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

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