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Archaeology of disparity

The duo of Saira Sheikh and Omer Wasim translate disparity in society into artworks in their solo exhibition at the Canvas Gallery Karachi

Archaeology of disparity

The moment you leave the city of Karachi with its last clusters of small shops, factories and makeshift settlements, you enter into that vast land called rural Sindh. That short journey makes you realise the division between rural and urban Sindh which is as much about ethnicity and language as economic imbalance.

Differences do not lie in regions or communities only; these can also be observed within one society and town. For instance, one notices the change within Karachi while moving from Kemari to Clifton. Even in a posh area like DHA, one finds pockets where workers, employed as maids, drivers, cooks, guards and gardeners for big bungalows, live. Chauffeurs and watchmen sitting on wooden stools or plastic chairs in scorching heat outside palatial houses is a common site in all big cities.

These two worlds existing side by side never merge. It is so common that we hardly ever notice it, and accept it as normal. Not Saira Sheikh and Omer Wasim, the two artists who work as a team. In their solo exhibition, disparity between the sections of society has been translated into works.

24.8615 N 067. 0099 E, held from August 16-25, 2016, at the Canvas Gallery Karachi comprised drawings, watercolours, photographs and found objects, most of them in the form of installations.

It is difficult to discern the individual and personal part in the creations by artists who work in pairs (Gilbert and George, Chapmen Brothers, Singh Twins). On one level, making art is like reading a book: a solitary person’s pursuit. But like a good composition of music in which one is unable to distinguish between voice and instrument, in the works of artist-couples, one is unable to pick the singular touch of one partner. This is how it is with Sheikh and Wasim. The exhibition offered a comprehensive and convincing account of how the two creative minds have responded to the system of inequality. However, the artists’ duo refrained from expressing the obvious, and instead chose a mode that indicated more than what was the intended content or concern.

Pleasure to pain, or the other way around, seemed the real content of the works. The misery of ‘subspecies’ provided an occasion to investigate the grammar of a pictorial language.

Thus, there were two large drawings in charcoal and conte on reinforced canvas hung in the first room of the gallery opposite each other. The clever choice of using the space to install a work that dealt with the structure of a container enhanced the effect of the imagery. On one wall the inside of a container was rendered in sensitive marks, while on the other Abu Dhabi Palace from Khayabane-e-Hilal in DHA Karachi was drawn with the same materials. The connection or key for the two visuals was provided on a third wall with the picture of container and huge building next to a piece of text, a map of the location (in watercolours) and an installation on the floor with light box and torn sleeve of a man’s kurta.

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Interestingly the view of container, from its open side and the scheme of displaying, gave an illusion of being inside a confined space. The contrast between the huge house often referred to as Arab Mahal with the container and small hut where people live in dire condition was reiterated in the entire exhibition.

“These palaces and liminal structures, with their myriads of relationship, become representatives of a broader spectrum of economic and exclusionary politics, hinting at the condition of the nation-state and its varying institutions…” — the artists’ text. Representing this idea, all 16 pieces included in the show in a way were components of one comprehensive work. Hence, the work with two photographs of empty plastic chair against a posh house in the vicinity of ‘Dubai Mahal’, street map, excerpt from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and segment of a broken tube-light suspended on a short metal stand alluded to the plight of drivers, security guards etc. who spend hours waiting for their masters to come out of their luxury surroundings and make a move.

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The contrast between these two parallel spheres of existence was repeated through another large drawing, showing the inside of a tent with two ordinary and basic beds and other knickknacks associated with those who live in dire poverty. Yet the vigour in making the objects, details of imagery and the overpowering scale of these drawings turned them into pieces which denoted something beyond a specific point of view.

Pleasure to pain, or the other way around, seemed the real content of the works. On one level, the artists intended to showcase the misery of ‘subspecies’ as referred in the wall text, but on another level their conditions provided an occasion to investigate the grammar of a pictorial language. This contrast or contradiction was probed but, understandably, not resolved in the art pieces. Hence, the culminating component of the exhibition, a series of frames with digital prints, location diagrams, and text next to 26 corresponding objects suspended on small structures placed at separate light boxes. Some of these ‘exhibits’ consisted of dried parts of vegetation (seeds, roots, branches), pieces of dresses and cloth, segments of broken porcelain, thread and wire mesh, feathers, strings and a folded national flag.

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All these items retrieved from the actual neighbourhood were displayed as reclaimed specimens from an archaeological site, an effect that complimented the dry, rational and precise diction of the wall texts. The entire arrangement conveyed a sense of impartial, scientific and objective approach — almost a laboratory-like layout. Certainly, the installation with various components served as a long essay on the disparities between working and affluent classes, rendered with the pleasure of making and seeing.

The viewers enjoyed the application of mediums to construct the inner space of a container and a worker’s hut; as with tiny objects which, due to their size, appearance and placement, offered a sense of poetry, and the impression of an array of items excavated from a buried site. Especially, the name of the show, 24.8615 N 067. 0099 E and similar titles for each exhibit, which appeared cryptic but were actually dimensions of the longitude of the city of Karachi. Defining artworks in this scheme was appropriate in a project that is harmonious to our times.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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