Before the end of time

December 25, 2022

During 2022, the art world saw a string of successful art shows and exhibitions

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n the recent past we have been hit by a different kind of flood: a deluge of information and social media networks. Posts, pictures, stories, reels, videos and comments move like advancing water, till they disappear under the waves of newer posts, pictures, stories, reels, videos and comments. The constant flux has altered every sphere of life, much like the flow of Covid-19, that spread across nations and borders, and buried age-old customs, life patterns and work habits.

The year 2022 witnessed the end of the pandemic. There were fewer and fewer cases of the disease, but as soon as people relaxed on that count, the country was hit by another calamity. Floods. A third of the country’s area was submerged. This caused death, disease, loss of property and possessions, and the dislocation of a huge population.

The work of Rashid Rana, It Lies Beyond, an installation on a monumental scale for the Karachi Biennale 22, dealt with the flood; a disaster caused by the shift in climate, increasing pollution and environmental imbalance. His multi-media work consisted of thousands of garbage pictures that together gave the illusion of waves next to images of historical merchant (read colonial) vessels sailing on the waters. Photos of the latest deluge were interjected on the montage, with their QR codes, that unfolded videos of flood victims. Through this magnificent and ambitious work, Rana created the sensation of perpetually shifting waters in the hall of the NED University.

This installation was a part of the 3rd edition of Karachi Biennale curated by Faisal Anwar, and held from October 31 to November 14 at nine locations. If the list of artists – including Shezad Dawood, Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, Andreas Lutz, Justine Emard, Nobumichi Asai and Madyha Leghari – was impressive, the sites selected for the mega event were also significant. These incuded the historic Hamid Market, where Imran Qureshi displayed his installation, Deen aur Dunya, in which a video featuring a house front in Lahore’s Riwaz Garden was projected on a wall surrounded with mirrors covering all sides of the room. The work captured ever-changing lights, colours, texts and shapes that were originally put together to celebrate the festival of the Holy Prophet’s (peace be upon him) birth. The video projection was accompanied by the recording of a qawwali piece produced by Qureshi. While it superficially sounded like a conventional qawwali; a careful listening of the composition revealed the absence of religious content. Yet the experience of being in that space and sound was like that of a spiritual encounter.

The journey from material to metaphysical and back was also observed in veteran artist Rasheed Areen’s exhibition (April 6-July 1) at the COMO Museum of Art, Lahore. The artist, using tangible stuff (paint, surfaces, wood, metal, neon lights) attempted to create a subliminal sensation through paintings, sculptures and installations.

Islam and modernism have been a main motif in the aesthetics of Araeen, with his hard-edge abstract canvases, comprising variations on God’s names, and the personalities from the Muslim history, those who performed great feats in the realm of mathematics, science, chemistry and medicine. These were fabricated in a diction not different from the minimal language of modernism, along with neon installations delineating the name of Allah formed in a simplified geometry. The other part of Araeen’s display included formal/ grid constructions/ sculptures that could continue ad infinitum.

Another exhibition of Araeen’s work was held from October 20 to November 19 at Aicon Gallery, New York. Adeela Suleman had an important museum show, Allegory of War, at the Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham (July 17–October 9). On one of the gallery walls Suleman narrated the landscape of war, of killing, beheading, bleeding: a scenario of violence, which remained a buzz word in the country for several years, and still resonates in its life and art. Suleman’s installation The Killing Fields of Karachi: became a means to remember (and denounce) the brutal murder of a young man allegedly by a Karachi police officer. Initially part of the last Karachi Biennale, but vandalised and destroyed soon after the opening, the work was recreated and revisited far from Karachi, as a sign of resistance.

Resistance and resilience take place in varying forms and on different grounds. For instance, a seed that splits the hard crust of earth to sprout and then grows into a plant; a tree is the story of great survival. Plants, symbolising separate entities, were rendered by two artists in their solo exhibitions (Talha Rathore at Chawkandi Art Karachi – November 17-28; and Wardha Shabir at the Grosvenor Gallery, London – October 5-18).

The pictorial elements of Wardha Shabbir’s paintings in her solo show, The Water You Seek, include trees, leaves, flowers, grass, water, rain, enclosures, perspective and non-representational shapes. The artist’s vision saw and translated the world around her into another world. The relationship between the material and the imagined was transcribed into the realm of paper. According to Talmudic and Christian systems of knowledge, the physical universe created by God is like a book to be decoded, understood and full of meanings. (Much like the structure of miniature painting). Shabbir, in her remarkable paintings, negotiated between multiple versions and representations of reality. So, a tree or vegetation in her work, could simultaneously be from a page of a Mughal miniature, a common site at a palatial house’s lawn or a symbol of garden of eternal bliss.

It could also be a reference to the Garden of Eden, a subject Hamra Abbas has been dealing with in her work. In her two-person exhibition (with Mohammad Ali Talpur at the Canvas Gallery, November 1-10) she extended the depiction of heavenly streams into geometric and precise shapes. The other participant of the show, Mohammad Ali Talpur, elevated his geometry-based practice to a level, where straight lines, sharp edges and standard black started to dissolve into depth and density of an unknown space. Two other artists, Maria Waseem and Waseem Ahmed, held their exhibition, The Other Side of Silence (September 21–October 5) at Dar Al-Anda Art Gallery, Amman, Jordan. In their works – a blend of photography and miniature painting, and a combination of various times – both travelled to an ancient land that consisted of folds of Roman, Jewish and Arab history/ presence. Their art was not merely a documentation of the area or a record of historic monuments; but also a comment on the state of human beings, about common heritage and disputed claims to the same shared territory.

The art of Risham Syed was installed at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. The exhibition that started on December 7 and will continue till May 14 next year, presents her The Seven Seas, (2012), “a series of large-scale quilts where the artist connects the intricacies of contemporary geopolitics with the 19th and early 20th Century cotton trade of the British Empire”. Risham Syed’s earlier solo exhibition at Canvas Gallery (September 27-October 6) had investigated other routes, other trades, other exploits, as she fabricated the narrative of colonial conquests, imperialist influences and the present day consumerism – a travelogue between class and kitsch, with its epitome in images of high-rise buildings in her mixed media works.

Voyages in time were also apparent in Ali Kazim’s solo exhibition, Suspended in Time, (February 5–June 31) at Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The contemporary artist’s works were displayed next to historic artifacts, figurines and illustrated manuscripts from the museum’s collection, providing a context to the work and reaffirming the continuity of tradition. In a way Ali Kazim is an heir to artists who shaped clay, bronze and other substances at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. All great works are alive, whether they are from prehistoric caves, Egypt (called contemporary by Pablo Picasso), Mesopotamia, ancient China, Crete, pre-Colombian Mexico or Indus Valley Civilisation.

Musarrat Mirza reconnects with the sense of timelessness in/ of our region. In her work (from her retrospective at Koel Gallery, August 27–September 17), she transcribes existence that survives beyond the demarcation and discrimination of time. Like a bullock cart like the one from Mohenjo-Daro that you could see on the street and lanes of many small towns today, the houses Mirza paints have a genealogy in a distant past. Her remarkable canvases rendered an eternity that belongs not only to this but also the other world.

In 2022, a few Pakistani artists left for the next world. Masood Kohari, Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali, Rabia Zuberi, and Raheel Akbar Javed, who died in France, Lahore, Karachi, and the USA, are still living in Pakistani art, which like a meta-verse, has boundaries in unlimited space, unknown possibilities and unimagined exposure.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

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