As a young woman living in Karachi, I am fascinated by the rapidly changing landscape of this city. People from varying ethnic backgrounds coexist here. Different parts of the city boast different styles of architecture. But, as I commute to work every day, my heart aches to see the sorry state of ‘the city by the sea’.
The solo presentation of works by Shameen Arshad, Memoirs of a hybrid, exhibited at VM Art Gallery, highlighted the issue of identity. Anyone who loves Pakistan will find a lot to connect with the artists’ ideas at the exhibition.
Basically, the installations looks at the fluidity of identity and the evolving nature of the category “Pakistani”. Stemming from her personal experiences, she explores a confused sense of the self. and various ideas of ownership by giving tangibility to the multi-dimensional yet indeterminate character of that label.
Also reflected are the effects of colonialism and cultural imperialism. Arshad’s artwork illustrates a sense of displacement and dislocation, the feeling of residing in no man’s land and being unable to call any place home. Let’s look at some of the pictures from the exhibition…
By using common imagery, the artist leaves her work open to interpretation. One can equate the vastness of the sea to the complexity of identity and its ever-evolving nature, or even the idea of delving into unchartered waters.
This map is based on real topography, yet fictitious. We have studied in school that the Indus River is the lifeline of the country. Here, Shameen revisits her childhood when her knowledge of the Indus was shallow and she had not quite understood its complexities, reflecting the issue of disconnect with the home soil.
The artist talks about her memory in this installation:
“From my window, I would endlessly see jets fly away into the distance, always curious as to where they would end their journey or rest before their final descent.”
Home is but a foreign feeling. The artist writes, “For me, ‘home’ cannot be reduced to a single structure, town, or map. It can be several places or none at all, a mere intangible feeling or even an abstract concept. I try to understand the ever-shifting meaning of ghar.”
The effects of colonisation are deeply embedded in our everyday life, and have become a part of our hybrid identity. It has massively contributed to a sense of disconnect with one’s South Asian identity.
This installation is inspired by the event in 1898 when a drunk British officer, James Squid, apprehended a tree. The officer claimed the tree to be hovering over him and hence had it chained for insubordination. The tree, many centuries later is still chained, reflecting the psychological hold of the colonizer.
The work “Maneater’s Victim” is inspired by the famous Champawat, a tigress that turned into a maneater after a gunshot wound to its face and was eventually slayed by a British hunter turned conservationist, Jim Corbett. The title encompasses both perspectives; the maneater being the brutish Indian local or the invaders that altered the course of many lives. Thus, the title is open to interpretation.
Here Shameen compares her life in Pakistan to her life abroad; neither feeling like home. The feeling of vulnerability in both spaces gave her a sense of displacement and the experience of perpetual dislocation. The map is what Pakistan looks like, but the lack of specificity and accuracy makes it more of a figment of her imagination. It is a map that only exists in her mind, crafted from her limited knowledge of her own soil.
Photography by Shani Danish