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January 28, 2024

Work focussing on climate change dominates the ArtFest Karachi, 2024

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We have such a short memory as a people that today some of us have to be reminded of the horrible days of Covid-19. The pandemic claimed many lives and generated an unprecedented amount of alienation, uncertainty, fear and depression. Yet, there was a silver lining to the cloud. I recall sitting on my terrace and looking at the brilliant blue sky in the heart of a busy metropolis. Pure white clouds, clear air, healthy plants. There was hardly any air traffic, very few automobiles and no industrial smoke. Zero air pollution.

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One certainly does not want to bring that phase back, but one can certainly learn about how to return to a desirable state. Our ancestors spent their lives in brick houses with lime coating, high ceilings and vents. There were no cement, no concrete, no plastic and no housing societies. Today, a number of architects are introducing solutions to survive in a world perpetually in the grip of harsh weather, poisoned environment, smog, receding water tables and shrinking natural resources.

The architects are not alone in this endeavour. Artists, too, are proposing ways out of this crisis. As far as art is concerned, pointing out a problem in a unique, imaginative, thus lasting manner serves the purpose. What the artists create is an extra object. It consumes paper, wood, cement, electricity, water, stones, earth, minerals, oils, etc. They can absolve themselves if what they produce is an intellectual addition to the society and not just more stuff, a mere addition to the environmental trash.

This was observed at the recently-concluded ArtFest Karachi, 2024, where artists, responding to the theme of Ink, Earth and Visions: Echoes of Climate Change, expressed their views, visions and versions about the near future. In the exhibition, curated by Muhammad Zeeshan and organised by the Culture Department of Sindh government, a viewer could detect several approaches. Some of the work directly addressed the environmental issues and climate change; some responded to these concerns in a remote tone, while a few artists focused on their regular practice. The thoughtfully curated show, besides turning our gaze towards climate change, invoked another matter, an essential question for creative individuals: how to marry their continuous, recognised and admired art practice with a theme/ issue prompted by an outsider: the curator.

Quite a range of responses were on display at the Sambara Art Gallery, Karachi, (January 16-19). The display, unlike previous years, was not strictly split between work by established artists and the emerging talent. (Many of the emerging artists from the first show are now established professionals.) In that sense, a visitor got to look at the work purely on the basis of its imagery, idea, medium and technique. One feels that the exhibition included some highly unusual and extraordinary work.

Mudassir Chandio, still a student at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, presented his video installation, Flood in the Boat, 2024. Paper boats of printed magazines were placed on a luminous base, containing the video of flowing water. Due to the darkened display area, the shining and shifting water surface was a mediating visual; a reminder of the recent floods in Pakistan that wiped out a large part of land, agriculture, livestock, possessions and people, most of them in Sindh. The devastation of the flood was also represented in a poetic manner by Samina Hassan Laghari. Her After 1992-I, consisted of a single channel video, showing a sequence of images under layers of washed up and floating forms; surrounded by a set of seven photo prints, After 1992-II, that documented the aerial maps of water passages, cracks and vehicle tracks on barren and brown tracts of land (before or after the flood). The title of Laghari’s extraordinary installation referred to “the 1992 India–Pakistan floods… caused by five days of heavy monsoon rains and severe weather that occurred on September 7, 1992.”

Responding to the theme of Ink, Earth, and Visions: Echoes of Climate Change, artists expressed their views, visions and versions about the grave concerns of our time.

Another artist, Faraz Mateen, installed two pieces (Tree of Knowledge-9, and -10), which dealt with the spread of waste – physical as well as verbal. He cut a thickly bound pile of newspaper, turning it into the section of a tree trunk: chopped and blackened. If you touched its outer layer, you flipped through closely joined pages of an (English) daily, only to realise that the majority of information we receive from climate change organisations – is printed on paper, a material manufactured by cutting down trees, from Amazon and other forests, s that it is a self-contradictory message. It was reminiscent of a roadside campaign about the importance of trees launched some years ago by the Horticultural Department in Lahore. The importance of plantation, protection and preservation of trees was conveyed in convincing texts painted over freshly sliced tree trunks.

Probably, the officers responsible, following Marshall McLuhan’s dictum “medium is the message,” felt that the presence of a natural substance could enhance the impact. Two remarkably crafted low-relief images executed in graphite - Autaak and Marvi House by Hasnain Ali – showed either of a shut gate and the adjoining boundary wall or a brick wall with an AC unit, door, entrance steps and a window with two panes slightly ajar, along with construction rods at the rooftop. Graphite is the most popular, easy and affordable medium for drawing. Yet, in the context of a climate theme exhibition, the graphite assumed another significance. More than a regular art material, it appears like a charred residue of urban surroundings. The image is not meant to be just an image, but a replica of reality, like a slightly raised black and white photograph.

A similar treatment of the living spaces was observed in Haider Ali Naqvi’s The House Between Tides, a painting split between two frames. The view of a beach house in shades of grey was sliced into identical sections still in the process of being separated. The work may suggest the torrent that had ransacked a humble structure and vulnerable construction. It could also be interpreted as a metaphor for societal, political and religious divides. We live in a society disintegrating at its core. The climate issues are urgent, but the matters of power, tolerance and rights are also essential.

Artists are often disconnected from the political rhetoric. At the same time, they are distanced from the slogans of their times, both of lasting relevance and temporary. Looking at the work of many artists, which may not have an obvious or immediate link with the theme, provided a satiating feeling because the curator and the organisers recognised the freedom of an artist to explore the proposed theme – no matter how distant and disconnected. Thus, Adeel u Zafar (Purgatory Mountain), Attiya Shaukat (The wound is where the light enters–IV), and RM Naeem (Now 1) took a different route to their usual art production. So much so that an informed visitor had to read the label to recognise the tiny and sensitive mountain with the last bit of snow by Zafar; and the reflective and stitched surface that dealt with the pain and was composed of a large embroidered flower by Shaukat; and a face down female amid a composition of spaces all rendered with delightfully textured brush strokes by Naeem.

If the work of these famous artists needed to be read in order to know their makers, it meant a change – even though not the climate change envisioned by the ArtFest Karachi, 2004, the curator and the organisers – but in the art practices of the artists.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

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