In Jovita Alvares’s current solo exhibition, Artificial Sensation, at Chawkandi Art, Karachi, one finds the bougainvillea plant represented in varying formats, techniques and contexts
uring the process of Lahore’s beautification in the ’90s, several intellectuals criticised the agricultural intervention – or invasion: of planting date palms in the middle of Gulberg’s Main Boulevard. Local trees, they said, should have been preferred, since these were part of our landscape, suited our soil, agreed with our seasons. An alien vegetation was not welcome.
Compared to human beings, it is easier to add the label of local on a tree; because as Lebanese author Amin Maalouf observes in his family memoir Origins; “Trees …. need their roots. Men do not.” Roots are fixed in a specific place on the ground, whereas “we use our feet to walk”. People move to distant regions, emigrate to foreign countries, settle in unknown locations and conquer continents far from their land of origin.
Plants, despite having deep roots, and a connection with terra firma, also migrate. Today, Indian cuisine is identified by its hot flavour, use of chilli pepper and staple ingredients such as tomatoes and potatoes, but chilli “was introduced in India by the Portuguese towards the end of the16th Century”; it was brought from the Americas. Likewise, tomatoes and potatoes were cultivated in South America, and after its “conquest” were transported to the subcontinent through the Portuguese.
Therefore, the idea of indigenousness associated with vegetation must be revised or dumped. Seeds, and stems – like systems of thought – travel from one land to another. Bougainvillea, abundantly grown in Pakistan, especially in Karachi, is another South American variety brought to India in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. At present, it is the most popular plant in the port city. Amid dry, harsh and stifling conditions, one can see its flowers blooming inside and outside many houses in Karachi. If jasmine is our national flower, bougainvillea is our favourite.
Jovita Alvares, a resident of Karachi and a graduate in fine art from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (2016) has been dealing with this plant “to investigate the underlying themes of urbanism, hyper-security and the dictated relationship the city has with its flora”. In her current solo exhibition, Artificial Sensation, at Chawkandi Art, Karachi (July 26 – August 5), one finds the bougainvillea plant represented in varying formats, techniques and contexts.
The artist seems to hint at the life of a city hit by layers of security concerns. Elevated boundaries, perpetually raised brick/ stone walls, clusters or stretches of barbed wires, buffer zones between buildings and streets, road barriers, checkpoint barricades, metal fences, spikes, bars, grids are attempts to protect oneself from political protestors, agitating citizens, intruding thieves, invading dacoits – and unseen terrorists.
In Alvares’s work the security contraptions have a decorative presence (which is not different from real life); because all these apparatuses are illusions of invulnerability. Safety measures, in the form of material and human (guards), offer some solace, consolation and hope – but their physical function stops at that point. Many a times you see security guards, in their dark blue uniform, with a gun in hand but a look at them reveals that this unfortunate staff would be the first victim of any act of trespass or blowing up of a private residence or an official building. On morning walks, I come across these personages – off from their night duty but still in their imposing gear, collecting plastic bottles, metallic cans, cardboard boxes, to earn some extra bucks by selling trash left in front of posh houses.
In Alvares’s work the security contraptions have a decorative presence (which is not different from real life); because all these apparatuses are illusions of invulnerability.
The delusion of safety (devices) is not different from these humble guards, yet everyone believes in it. Security in our circumstances has become a residue of Gen Zia ul Haq’s policy of censor and confinement. Now we are comfortable in concealing ourselves. Physically, architecturally, medically, politically, ethically. Hijabs and head scarves, face masks, bulletproof jackets, reinforced boundary walls, are efforts to create a safe distance between us and the other: the enemy or friend who must be kept at bay.
Jovita Alvares, in her impressive and meticulously made artwork, reminds us of these shields of exclusion. In the series, titled Veil (graphite and papercut) she renders a hedge, creeper, plantation put to preserve the privacy of inhabitants. What you see from the street are flowers, leaves, stems, branches, instead of people, things, interiors. Alvares translates these external – or the first layers – into patterns. She states that taking “inspiration from the works of William Morris and other creatives of the Arts and Crafts movement, this series of works expands to explore the repeated landscape of the city”.
Any visual we define today as design, is an exercise to modify elements/ entities of nature into a structure, with precision, stylisation, repetition. Jovita Alvares draws the bougainvillea in detail, but in some works, transforms it into motifs, a shift from nature to nurture. In Veil, the cut-out botanical shapes are as colourless (neutral white) as any disinterested person safeguarding your home. A watchman on duty at night, a private guard, a policeman. Taking this practice further, the flowers and leaves of the bougainvillea are transformed into intriguing imagery (Through Blossoms I &II). Stylised petals of the bougainvillea are joined with the repeated representation of an ordinary roadblock usually put by law enforcing agencies (Obscure I & II).
Bricks, barbed wires, iron grilles, bars, metal gates are human concoctions, but the bougainvillea is a natural screen that covers a house, a building, a construction, and – though not protecting physically, saves it from an intruder’s gaze. This plant, as her statement elaborates, “thrives in the overbearing climate” of Karachi. In her works, whether painted or perforated, it is a symbol of resistance, resilience, reaffirmation, along with its aesthetic aspect (those delicate petals of lovely pinks, violets and other colours, blooming under a scorching sun).
In the past, Jovita Alvares has explored this flower with multiple approaches, but the recent artwork – with bougainvillea being an outer layer, alludes to a personal narrative. Roots. The population of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in popular discourse claims to draw its roots from Arabia, Persia, Turkey, Central Asia, Afghanistan; and there may be ancestral links to Myanmar, North Africa, South India, including other parts of the world. Alvares recognises her family’s Goanese origins (both her maternal and paternal grandparents were from Goa); hence, her recurring portrayal of bougainvillea could be a way to identify with displacement, relocation, assimilation.
This body of work by Jovita Alvares revolves around the artist, her family, her city, her situation, but due to its poetic diction and political connotation, it is not about an individual, a metropolis, an epoch but encounters the age-old conflict/ connection between the insider and the outsider.
The author is an art critic based in Lahore