A SIM-ful of messages

August 22, 2021

Many of the popular gadgets have been continuously decreasing in size

A SIM-ful of messages

After the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age, we are now living in the Age of Plastic or Silicone. A unique aspect of our epoch is that the plastic products (particularly those used for information, entertainment and social interaction) keep on reducing their dimensions/ weight, until they disappear. We still remember how the LP records evolved into audio cassettes, then CDs, DVDs and USBs, till they all became redundant with the coming of YouTube. Computers initially were of room size, then transformed into desktops, laptops and tablets. I recall seeing a mobile phone that was so large and heavy and that a servant had to carry it for his employer; now these devices have become slim, smart and sophisticated.

The progress has added to the convenience of human beings. However, it has also created a new problem: what to do with the discarded objects of desire. I have been so attached to my laptops that I have never dumped or sold any. However, a large number of people throw their dysfunctional equipment for the sake of space – and sanity. In his novel, Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro addresses the issue of one’s attachment to some gadgets and how ‘human’ these, in particular Artificial Friends (lifelike robots), can be. One wonders what happens to the video cassette recorders, audio cassettes, transistor radios, old TV sets, earlier mobile phones, computer monitors, and other similar stuff once they outlive their owners’ longing for them and have to be discarded as rubbish.

Like former teachers and old friends, these things have contributed to expanding one’s thoughts, providing knowledge and the achievement of a higher place in society. Today, our cellular phones are like our buddies, companions and guides. They provide a number of services and facilities. Reflecting on this phenomenon, Raheela Abro has suggested a new Urdu acronym SIM, made of Souch (thought), Ilm (knowledge) and Maqam (position).

A SIM-ful of messages

SIM, of course, has another, global and trans-lingual usage; it stands for Subscriber Identification Module. It’s a tiny plastic card that slots into our phone and connects it to the service providing networks. Earlier, there used to be a standard size, but with the advent of smart phones, you can now extract a smaller version out of a ‘normal’ SIM card. SIM, like several others concepts/ products/ phenomena, is universally recognised and named; but one can imagine that a time will come when telecommunication companies will get rid of it and the connections will be made without it. Then there will be an abundance of disused SIMs. Already, in every house there must be a number of extra SIM cards, from blocked numbers, expired accounts, and international travels etc. There are several options to dispose of them: cut them into two halves, shred them, or keep them as souvenirs of some happy moments.

One can also use them as surfaces for painting, like Raheela Abro does. At her solo exhibition, SIM (Canvas Gallery, Karachi), Abro displayed art created on/ with SIM cards. It is only while looking at these works, miniatures, that a viewer understands Abro’s Urdu acronym, because she has picked this object, a SIM, to signify identity, information, position, faith, posterity, wealth, globalisation and connectivity.

Raheela Abro, in her meticulously rendered surfaces, has found a utility for deactivated SIM cards and expression for ideas in confrontation, in connection and in compliance with the global spread of information technology.

A SIM card – which contains a mobile phone number – is by its very nature a form of identity (in future it might replace the Computerised National Identity Card, the passport, the credit cards etc). Abro, in her meticulously rendered surfaces, has found a utility for these deactivated SIM cards and expression for ideas in confrontation, in connection and in compliance with the global spread of information technology.

After every air travel, I keep the remaining part of my boarding pass to use it as a book mark, but Raheela Abro did not just reuse these things; she reinvented them, rather reincarnated them. Her SIM cards are, a book mark with a traditional pattern and a tassel, the cover of Pakistan passport, a national identity card and a cloth cover for the Holy Quran. Two SIMs have been joined to make a rihal (wooden stands usually for religious books), a prayer mat, pages of a stained diary, a carpet, tablets with sacred scriptures, a map, wads of currency notes, a calendar, bounded old letters and envelops and front or middle pages of a book.

A SIM-ful of messages

Hugely admired for her skill in painting microscopic details of complex objects on such a small item, Abro has moves beyond her capacity for replicating reality. Now, it is her choice of ‘reality’ that makes her work intriguing. She has deliberately selected things that have a close and strong connection with the idea of identity. In his book Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen argues that no one has a single identity. Following Professor Sen, one may discover multiple (and simultaneous) identities of an individual from our surroundings: being a woman, a Baloch, a Pakistani citizen, a Muslim, a Shia, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a pet lover, an engineer, a cricket fan,a singer of classical music, a supporter of a certain political party. These identities may differ from one another, but nevertheless comfortably exist in the same human being.

SIMs painted by Abro present diverse identities and information about faith, nationality, learning, money, human relationships, all comprising on this minuscule chip card. Apart from utilising this, familiar, surface/ product, Raheela Abro suggests multiple ways in which our cell number has become our dominant identity and a source of concepts, information and status to us.

A SIM-ful of messages

The exhibition consisted of objects convincingly transformed from being a SIM card to her desired items, but looking at her art pieces one does notice a disparity. When it comes to a single SIM or a few that denote a simple image, these communicate something more than merely the artist’s skill in painting on a minute scale. These address social structures, psychological aspects, economic and political systems, and personal elements in a society – but in arrangements of SIM cards with the artist’s previous painting’s print and found objects (eggs in a basket); part of a room setting with tiny chair, a dice and some dried vegetation; two chess pieces, a glass, and a red ball (probably an orange); a hollowed book under a pair of spectacles and an insect partially painted at its base; the selection of SIM card becomes a means for constructing a small still-life.

This unfortunately takes away all that was exciting, intelligent and impressive – and meaningful in her work, all that made swift and strong connections, like a good, reliable and powerful SIM card.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

A SIM-ful of messages