After Indus

January 29, 2023

The River Indus acts as the country’s axis. So in a sense the art of Sindh, is the art of Pakistan

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here are two Sindhs. One is a tract of land, the province with its boundary attached to the edge of the Punjab, Balochistan and the Indian border. This is a territory with pockets of population speaking Sindhi, Urdu, Makrani, Brahui, Gujarati and other languages; comprising cities like Karachi, Hyderabad, Larkana, Sukkur and historic locations such as Mohenjo-Daro. It has a distinct culture, manifested in dress, dance, music, artifacts, food; and a blend of urban and rural areas.

Then there is another Sindh. The Indus that flows from Skardu and travels across mainland Pakistan. It’s a river that receives waters from other sources, gathers debris, collects silt, changes its pace, course and width till it meets the waters of the Arabian Sea; which merge with the waters of oceans, because more than the ‘workers of the world’, it is the waters of the world that are united.

Not limited to a province, the River Indus is the spin of the Islamic Republic; that becomes a bridge between parts of the country. So in a sense the art of Sindh, is the art of Pakistan, because art, like waters of a river, cannot be contained within a national/ regional boundary, or confined to one society, period, usage, meaning. In the course of history, art has formed multiple connections, invited various connotations and encouraged diverse interpretations. It is not exclusive, and like the flow of water, it keeps on adding stuff from surroundings, but due to its current, it is considered pure.

The purity attained through multiplicity was recently witnessed at the Sambara Art Gallery, during its three-day Art Fest Karachi 23 (January 20-22). Waheeda Baloch curated the exhibition, Revolution/ Evolution (supported and organised by the Culture Department, Government of Sindh), with work of established and emerging artists. Even though it was an official affair, the exhibition did not resemble the exhausted, pointless and hollow events, with repeated participants, recycled discussions and rehashed pieces. The curator and the organisers offered something new, exciting and energetic.

The display included artists one would not have imagined showing on the other side of the bridge (that signifies spatial, social, economic divide in the city). A careful selection of works presented points of our contemporary life: tradition, violence, security, gender, existential concerns. The exhibition consisted of two sections, separating established and emerging artists. Yet some works among the young artists’ show conveyed a level of maturity and understanding at par with the established ones. The most promising work in the emerging section was of Axel Lucas. A composition of rectangular pillars, made by binding blank pages of ordinary exercise books, producing an installation out of a stuff every school going child in Pakistan is familiar with, was impressive. At the same instance, this skyscraper-like sculpture alluded to the Tower of Babel, because lines printed on the white pages suggested words, reminding viewers of the people of Babel who “said to one another”, “let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven” (1:11:3, 4). Before building this structure “they have all one language”, but “the Lord scattered them”, “and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech”. (1:11: 6, 7, 8) quite like the blank pages of paper.

In a sense, Lucas had created varying towers of Babel. He had also produced a wall piece, with sensitive drawing/ painting of a similar pattern of exercise book; representing language, due to its absence and anticipation. Language is an important entity in our society, mainly because in a Muslim household the most sacred object is not a figurine, a painting or a stone, but a book. Celebrated artist Amin Gulgee in his large bronze sculpture Zero Gravity, has dealt with the ascent of language. A medium to communicate with God. To read His word, and offer prayers to Him. Gulgee joined characters of Arabic script in the text’s attempt to reach heaven.

A number of authors from South Asia, writing in English, have observed that unlike the West, paper is regarded as sacred in the East. A dropped page is picked after giving it a kiss. Because paper is the carrier of the (holy) word. In Muslim history, books have been supreme. One locates examples of high aesthetics in their pages. Calligraphy, illustrations, miniature paintings.

In a number of important manuscripts, accounts of famous battles, heroic figures and historic narrative are illustrated. Adeela Suleman picked those depictions of violence, of headless figures, assaulting soldiers, landscape of combat, to denote the presence – and the never-ending impact – of violence in our midst. However, her work No Glory in Death (2020) pointed towards an impossible but probable situation: wounded animals attacking their prey. Men with blood sprouting from their necks, slaughtering their enemies. At the Sambara Art Gallery, the cut-outs of these exquisitely painted characters delineated the condition of a community in which the victim is also an oppressor.

Violence appeared again in the remarkable work of Asad Hussain, a series of silicon, paint and human hair profiles of seven men, some of them supporting tiny beards (like Hazara men), who were scarred, patched and had a red substance collected in their ears. Not only the connotation of red to blood, hence death, these super-realistically fabricated layers/ crusts of skin reminded one of death mask of ancient Romans, who “kept likenesses (images) of their ancestors… in their homes.” In a subtle, yet strong, manner Hussain described the plight of a people for whom their face is the testimony of their faith, and a target too.

As Mohsin Hamid declares: everyone is a minority. Likewise, everybody here is a target. For reasons of sectarian, ethnic or economic differences. Seher Naveed, in her immaculately rendered pair of Barricade (paint on HDF), depicted two views of safety. Contours of metal containers that are used to block buildings, roads, cities. On one level these delightful paintings could be understood as excursions in abstractions, but another reading unravelled them as a tale of our quest for security amid a landscape of fear.

If Naveed’s imagery dealt with the outside insecurity, the sensitively rendered canvases of Muhammad Ali (aka Mirchi) were about domestic vulnerability. Paintings of beds (both titled Tuesday) in monochromatic and colour indicated the human touch that has just abandoned the setting. The warmth, depth and desire that Mirchi managed to attain in these surfaces reaffirmed that art does not recognise, respect or retain a national, regional, cultural, stylistic boundary. The exhibition also included a work of absolute abstraction by Mohammad Ali Talpur, with its mesmerising presence of marks; and the metal sculptures of Fahim Rao which on the one hand resonated to the skeletal structure of human anatomy, yet at the same instance could be about the poetry of formalist constructions.

The third edition of Art Fest Karachi, due to its choice of artists, curatorial sophistication, imaginative layout of display, has become the premiere art event that is not confined to one school, city, province, style or medium and stands for the diversity that starts from Sakrdu and continues till the shores of Arabian Sea.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

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