Art of Karachi

by Maniza Naqvi

JinnahI've traveled across the city from M.A. Jinnah Road and the Pioneer Book House in the neighborhood of Meriwether Tower to an art gallery off 26h street Block 4 Clifton in Karachi now in the shadow of another occupying towering tower. Same story. Of ground breaking points of references reaching back 1200 years. This route that encompasses galleys which brought Sidis and slaves and the Empires' soldiers, of alleys, and gullies and godowns and corridors, and mandirs and mazars and mosques, and synagogues. This route of the gods, part men-part women, and their many guest houses, whore houses, book houses, teahouses, sharab houses and more. I've crossed them all.

I have two hours before I call in to work—thousands of miles away–in the world where I am not quite like this. But still I hope the same. I'm here, this evening to meet my friend Hani. But instead in the moment I've walked into the opening reception in the courtyard for Taqseem the art exhibition. While I wait for Hani to arrive I go in to see the exhibit.

I stare at a photo shopped gigantic portrait of Jinnah by the artist Imran Channa—Jinnah in all his different iterations—perhaps seven different poses, now European now Indian, now Pakistani, so cool, so well dressed, debonair, effete, sophisticated, immaculate. And I'm there—gazing at him, this beautifully dressed man—and I'm dressed in my 20 year old khadi kurta—regretting not having washed my hands or feet or having taken a shower before I came here—And would it have killed me to have dragged a comb through my hair? But there wasn't enough time to fix things. For him. I mean. And I could've scrubbed my face. The one in the shades I'm picking that as the one I'm feeling…

The founder of the Gallery, Noorjehan Bilgrami takes me aside and asks me whether I'll try my hand at writing about this exhibition and critiquing it. I'm astonished. I've never done this. And what would I know about critiquing art? But she insists that I do this and so here I am in between being at the Pioneer Book House and finishing a report on remittances in Somalia and discussing a Safety Nets Core Course's next agenda iteration.

Of course you can. She says. I know you can. Try it at least. She guides me to Omar Wasim….who is standing near his art work……This artist has a partner for this art—Saira Sheikh but she is not here. I ask him if he's telling me the truth is there really another partner in his work or is she just a figment of his imagination a part of the conceit—The she of he? And he assures me she very much exists. And he tells me about her. And why she is not here this evening and I listen to him tell me about her. And I wish her the very best. And then I listen to him explain to me about the art work—and how developers have divided and destroyed and made the earth sick.

Over the noise of the milling guests, the noise in my own head, I piece together his narrative of how monuments precede the land grabbing and the land destroying—and I examine the image on the wall, a black and white tower in a desolate landscape—and the way the light falls on it and given my references of homelands—it appears to me as if it is that tower. That one tower that drives all narrative now. That towering tower. Monuments that precede destruction……

Just then a pointy headed pale young man lithe and long walks past and inadvertently with his foot he grazes the side of part of the installment—a mud embankment growing grass—his pink sneakered foot chips of a chunk of its corner—I see that happen and I see him walk away I call after him Hey look what you've done—you've damage the art work here—He stops stares at me and looks at the damage and replies in defense of his action—what is he supposed to do—I say come back and help fix it—own up to it –do something—He comes back and with his pink sneakered foot starts to kick sweep the fallen scattered dirt back to the base of the installation. Not like that I say—show some respect gather it up with your hands…..He looks at me and what I place to be a Belgian accent he demands haughtily–Who are you to tell me what to do—you will not tell me what to do—you cannot tell me what to do—I will do what I want and he walks away as quickly as he can. I have been left there shaking like a leaf—saying yes I can tell you what to do—I am telling you what to do. Now do it. Who the hell do you think you are some kind of spiked hai–pink toed thug? That's in my head. I find out later that he is a ballet dancer from Albania via Berlin.

The curator, the gallery staff, the artist himself—all of them–try to calm me down— They are hesitant to accost this foreigner—they are somehow intimidated by him I feel that they are not willing to confront this arrogant creature—and I am incensed. I go after him but he has left the premises…..left the gallery entirely.If there ever is a narcissistic moment as all art is expected to be–I think I'm engaged in it at full tilt and throttle.

And I am so angry it colors the rest of my evening—hot pink angry. That pink toed creature.

In the evening as I think back to what has happened. I wonder what did happen. How did I go from serene earth mother, peace love and rock n roll—Faiz—dirt under her fingernails to raging crazy person ninja bitch? Was all that art? Was his clipping the side of the piece of land—destroying it—breaking it apart—taking off a corner of it—then my reaction—my almost hot rage after being all sweet and gentle all day long—then his arrogance and refusal to fix it—restore it-fix what he had broken— and the rest of it—including my impotent demand that he come back right now, right this second and fix it—fix it—–was it all part of the installation—was that all supposed to happen just that way. Did I just get taken in by an elaborate artistic theater?

Or am I as always reading into things only what I want to. Projecting whatever it is that's going on in my head onto the art that I engage with? Or for that matter anything that I engage with. Did I just walk into this?

Next Noorjehan introduces a very rattled me to Jamil Dehlavi. He is standing near his own work and looking at it. Noorjehan introduces us. I am expected I feel to know who Dehlavi is but my brain is already dealing with ten different poses of Jinnah and a pink sneakered poser and I can recall who this person is. So I immediately ask him about his work—the art in front of us. Just as we begin to talk, Noorjehan leaves us, and a newly discovered nephew of mine, an artist in residency at a collective in the neighborhood who is standing nearby greets me but I tell him that I'll catch up with him. He wears sun glasses—its night and we're indoors. He's young. He's beautiful. He's an artist. Of course he's wearing shades indoors, at night. And he reminds me of a sepia photograph of my father and two uncles—and a photograph taken in India—before partition, all of them wearing dark glasses—for a studio photograph.

I learn from Jamil Dehlavi that he is a film maker. And he made a film on Jinnah. I haven't seen it. Can't imagine how Christopher Lee gets to play Jinnah. Have they ever used an Indian or Pakistani to play Churchill or Mountbatten? I'm distracted by this and I tell him that Imran Aslam would make a great Jinnah. I don't know why I say this at this moment. Maybe the seven poses of Jinnah remind me that I had said that to Imran Aslam the one time I met him.
Koel had invited Dehlavi to create art for this exhibition Taqseem. Divide. His work is based on a personal history spanning the globe.

And now as I recall my conversation and piece it together in my memory—the script goes something like this: The scene is an art gallery—full of people. I am still recovering from the rage of art being damaged —a bit of earth being disrespected, damaged and kicked around. While the ‘natives' quietly gather it and try to fix it all the while not confronting the destroyer. I am tired. I've been trying to save a bookstore. I'm grimy. And I add to my anxiety another one, that I have here a nephew whom I should get to know better and I hope that he doesn't think I'm ignoring him. I tell Jamil Dehlavi about myself. I request the artist that on all the things on my resume —the different categories of me I'd like him to focus on the fact that I'm a writer. We are so many things at once. My hands and feet are dirty because I'm trying to restore a bookstore, the oldest in the city on the street named after the man of seven images and I'm trying to save it from closing down. And the man I'm talking to is a film maker who has made a film about the man of many images and he is other things too.

His father was Indian when he met his mother and married her. She was from France. They traveled back from Europe to live in Bombay. She brought with her many books. I asked if the bottle green ocean liner trunk carried the books his mother had brought with her. No he replies. Puzzled at the question.

I say—in the world we live in what is home? Is it a house? Can it be books? A bookshelf? A book house? The choice of books as luggage. The heaviness of it. The lightness of it. Or perhaps the seafaring trunk is just a metaphor for what is home. Or a coffin. He listens and shrugs and contemplates his work.

I wonder why he considers himself divided after all we are all many things—no one is just one thing anymore–never ever not now not ever was or is—and everyone is always traversing many different cultures, nowadays, every day–why– in a given day—within a few hours. I check my watch and turn my gaze to another place.

At the far end I look towards the metal panel—Amin Gulgee's work. The rectangular piece is suspended from the ceiling, like a grill–like a gate— the lattice work appears as if Urdu calligraphy— it casts a shadow of itself on the wall—as light passes through it. And as I think back to it now—-I think—even the hint–the very image of what might be words—-needs light to take on fleeting meanings—and it leaves an indelible impression.

Taqseem Exhibit (here)