Tradition and transformation

March 26, 2023

Collaborative work of Faheem Abbas, Mubashar Iqbal, Niamat Nigarand Yaseen Khan was showcased at The Gallery T2F, Karachi

Tradition and transformation


ore than a city Karachi is a phenomenon. It transforms a person, i.e, an inhabitant, resident, immigrant, traveller. The change can occur in the duration of a lifetime, several years, some weeks or a few hours. The city unfolds its multifaceted character, which includes a blend of faiths, ethnicities, languages, dresses, professions, trades and climates. On March 17,a part of the metropolis (Malir) experienced a hailstorm, while the rest of districts remained dry and hot.

I recall seeing Caucasians, Africans, Chinese, Beharis, North Indiansin the megacity. Actually all of them were Karachiites: a Pathan, a Sheedi/Makrani, a Hazara, a Muhajir, a Punjabi. The city has the capacity, potential and space to welcome, house and own people from everywhere. It is also ‘mega’ in terms of manufacturing, merchandising, recycling. From wrapping paanto breaking ships, from trading in the stock exchange to working at an off-licence shop, from smuggling goods from Dubai to producing counterfeit stuff.

So when a group of four artists arrived from Lahore, to be part of Vasl Artists’ Association’s Taaza Tareen 15th Residency (named Nirala Sheher/The Peculiar City), they responded to Karachi in a certain manner. The residency programme was held from January 30 to March 4, and included Faheem Abbas, Mubashar Iqbal, Niamat Nigar, Yaseen Khan, along with a writer in residence, Zehra Hamdani Mirza. Their work was exhibited (March 9-17) at The Gallery T2F, Karachi.

A viewer familiar with all four practitioners of visual arts may have had a fair idea of what they could produce in four weeks. Being at theshow, however, one had to discard all assumptions, because the artists – recent graduates from the National College of Arts (NCA) and the Beaconhouse National University(BNU) astonishedthe viewers with their innovative experimentation andsophisticated approaches; notwithstanding the sense of accomplishment and maturity in their works. Probably, besides the participants, the credit goes to the peculiar city, Karachi.

The port city offers a vision – landscape/cityscape – that is more man-made than nature-oriented. From the roof of Vasl apartment (where all visitors stayed) you see the sequence of concrete houses, bare buildings, small plazas, dusty streets and chocked lanes, with occasional tree or shrub. Pale grey/brown dominates the skyline in the area, instead of typical greenish atmosphereof Lahore. The shift in colour – hence construction, may have affected the work produced for the Residency, because the first impression one gets is the scent of industrial and manufacturing element, seeped in the objects on display.

Driving from the Karachi airport to anywhere in the heart of city, you have to cross clusters of apartments, colonies, neighbourhoods, with un-plastered cement walls, metal bars, rawness of material – observed and commented upon in the work of Yaseen Khan. He created a number of concrete surfaces with small iron rods emerging from four sides. (A body of work that in its materiality echoes the aesthetics of Noor Ali Chagani – another artist originally from Karachi).

Khan made etching prints of trees on cement blocks (a Herculean task), added with a layer of grid in reflective tapes (Chamak Patti). Just the act of superimposing a tree (I was so tempted to choose the prefix green, before realising that most of the work is in grey) on a cemented surface is a statement/criticism on how nature is encroachedby the industrial development and residential expansion. Date-palm and other trees as well as the elevation of a building – both in black and white,illustrate the fate and future of a town, which like motor oil, carbon and cement is a variation of greys.

One must acknowledge and respect the creative genius of Yaseen Khan, an artist with an unusual experience of working as a mechanic before joining the art school. He brings in his observation of trucks, buses and their repair into his work, without playing on that past. The intelligence, elegance and progress lie in the way he drops areference to his earlier encounters to fabricate a work that can survive without a personal appendix.

This trait of Karachi, where personal is professional, was evident in the work of Fahim Abbas. A sensitive artist with a background of being a chartered accountant, produced 100 small horses in cement – installed in a row on thegallery shelf. The simplified and stylised form of a familiar entity, so much part of vernacular culture, is repeated in another object, a paper boat, reproduced in cement and terracotta and suspended inside a clay pot. The work is further extended with the same boat perpetually shifting in a short video.

A paper boat, intriguingly, is like a word for the boat. The term has been coined, used and understood by everyone using this common – and untrained pictorial vocabulary. Abbas acknowledges and celebrates the idiom of a populace imagery – somehow to reaffirm his own position:being an outsider, before he joined BNU as a student and became part of the faculty.

Personal history follows an artist like his/her shadow, as in Niamat Nigar’s case. He studied at the National College of Artsand has participated in a couple of group shows here and there. His presence at the Vasl Residency was pivotal, because the artist found a new form of constructing his imagery away from his two homes: Lahore and Quetta. The city of Karachi inclined him to adapt practical solutions, which eventually turned into most relevant artistic options. Nigar created a number of assemblages using muslin with rust sepia on metal, patchwork on Indian cotton and muslin on Italian linen. Reminding the aesthetics of Kurt Schwitters (the artist probably did not have the German artist on his mind, but the temperament seems not too different) with stitching segments of dyed segments of fabric, thread and torn pieces, which on the surface may not convince one about a grand narrative; but in reality suggest the ephemeral state of existence, representation, and compromise. Reconciliation between resisting factions against the structure of state power/presence and the suffering sections of marginalised community. Nigar, a Hazara Shia, in his early years worked as a coalminer in Balochistan, hence a target; survived.Now one can see the stitching of identifies, jobs, affinitiesand explorations turning into abstract imagery in his mix-media pieces.

The fourth artist, Mubashar Iqbal, a painter trained at the NCA, tried to replicate his subtle paintings into flat objects, cut-outs of various things he saw while in the commercial city of Karachi, e.g., a power generator, tyres, cartonsat the back of a pickup van, a window frame, garbage container, a stack of bricks. Within the outlines of these things, Iqbal added contour detailsin sensitive hues and grades. Thus, turning reality into a residue of abstraction. The arrangement of these pieces (made with industrial paint on fibre board) on a wall appeared to be a narrative comprising various clues, symbols, segments: a private map of the city - almost theMaps for the Boundless – the subtitle ofa profound text by ZehraHamdaniMirza, the art writer and the fifth participant of the Residency.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Tradition and transformation