Urban delights

May 21, 2023

Seema Nusrat’s work is about a reaction to our altered urban environment

Urban delights


n buying or building a house, one is always concerned about the solidity of the doors and security of the locks. Typically, a new tenant or owner replaces the pervious fittings to install a new set of bolts, or raises the boundary walls, reinforces the metal gates and adds extra rails on windows. But some small settlements in the Punjab still do not need doors (let alone a padlock) at the entrance to the mud houses; often a fabric curtain functions as the separating line. The architecture of these hamlets conveys the mutual trust, respect and relationship.

Urban delights

However, in most of Pakistan, the first part of the house you encounter is the door, either wooden or metallic. One often wonders about the artisans who can be seen turning and twisting metal rods, cutting steel sheets, welding, riveting and joining various sections to manufacture windows, grilles, gates and spikes. Sweating, slogging, sometimes swearing, these men are producing functional pieces comprising geometric shapes, stylised floral patterns and uncanny chromatic compositions.

This affirms a human need, to see aesthetic elements on objects that could be used without these layers/ embellishments. A person could wear plain clothes, purchase unicolour crockery, own a house without decorative details and relax in a sparse interior. Yet, there is a cavernous urge in the mankind that has compelled all – from our ancient ancestors to present day potters, tailors and masons to add something on/ in an otherwise utilitarian product. There could be various justifications: mythological, religious, commercial, cultural, for primordial pieces of pottery daubed with bands of dark hues, stylised animals, birds, fish and the complex, elaborate and exquisite designs carved, stitched, painted and printed on a number of modern-day artefacts, products, structures – even the currency notes.

The intricate patterns of currency notes are a means to discourage intruders (forgers of counterfeit money). An invasion is not only a threat in the monetary realm, but also to an urban deweller. Seema Nusrat, a resident of Karachi, has been focusing on the fabric of her city (a microcosm for Pakistan) where the security situation has forced citizens and the state to install barriers, barricades, fences, protective walls, sandbags, hedges in various buildings.

Actually, all this, especially the aftermath of terrorist attacks from the recent past, is the manifestation of a persisting fear of the other. A thief, a cop, an unwanted relative, an unwelcome guest or a peeping Tom are the threats that drive us. So, doors are locked and windows bolted. If they are opened, we have curtains or blinds. They remove the alien stares and make the inhabitants of a house blind to the world outside. This is a physical process with psychological and societal underpinnings. By drawing curtains, you chop the world into two halves: ours and theirs.

Security gates, barriers, barricades, barred windows, barbed wires, elevated boundary walls are signs/ efforts to concoct a no-man’s land between the insider and the outsider.

The intruder can be an extremist or a criminal, but he/ she could also be a job seeker, an insurance policy agent, a preacher, a polio worker. They are all treated with equal suspicion and severity.

This has become a pattern in our society. So much so that when you visit a place that has no security guards, no scanning machines, no strong gates, no tiers of safety checks, you feel uncomfortable, if not vulnerable. These stiff, strict and severe security devices, the essential component of our surroundings, are transformed and upgraded to the level of beautiful. Barriers and barricades are designed and coloured. So are grilles and gates. Thus, along with the matter of protection, the appearance of these apparatuses is also important.

Seema Nusrat, in her new work (from her solo exhibition, Studies in Integrated Facades, from May 9 to 18 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi), reminds us of the reaction to our altered urban environment. Her images, derived from her observation of diverse security contraptions, barricades, facades, appear to be liberated from their painful origins. Nusrat’s work could be a comment on the way grave realities of our life eventually turn into pleasurable sites. She has created a range of facades in varying dimensions, formats and complexity. These edifices are small, bright and have different layouts; some resembling the outside of certain residences.

Nusrat has been engaged with this motif/ article for a number of years, but in her new body of works, she seems to shake concepts and constructs related to power, protection, exclusion, invisibility and invincibility. Nusrat has negated the threating presence of metal entrances, string of steel bars, dominance of concrete walls – in favour of facades composed of acrylic sheets, unable to resist any pressure and small in size, hence a decorative item in a house rather than an imposing outer layer of security structures.

The artist is known, respected and admired for her investigation of these, the urban artefacts of power, but her new works indicates another turn. The change can be traced to her site-specific project at the Second Pioneer Canvas Residency, 2018, Khushab, in which Nusrat she transformed a watchtower into a slice of some house from a nearby locality. A building erected for a guard with loaded gun looking out for intruders, was converted into a pastiche of colourful patterns, arabesque details and garments left on the balcony. Executed in attractive, pure and entrancing hues, in collaboration with a local painter who applied glossy enamel paint to render the entire scenario. The recent pieces (at Canvas Gallery) are fabricated in acrylic sheets, with glowing colours and in a materials normally not used for art but for industrial purposes (like enamel paint).

As Nusrat in 2018 deconstructed a watchtower into an ordinary abode, she is now treating bars and barriers as picturesque visuals. Having discovered ingredients of geometry within window-grilles, gates, railings; she has by stripping those of their fearsome associations, transformed those into refined and minimal patterns – of colours, lines, shapes and spaces. A viewer aware of the genealogy of her imagery, can detect the bars of old lifts, entrance gates; sequence of yellow and black bands from a traffic police barrier; outlines of a high-rise building; and some plantation in the front.

In some of her work (City Planter and Integrated Elevation IV), the floral elements are rendered quite mechanical. Looking like screenshots from a videogame or an NFT, these could be about harsh realities we experience, or fear, or envisage in our city and country. Modifying them into comfy patterns/ pictures could be a way of escaping; or controlling and taming these objects.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Urban delights