When driving to the historic Mall Road on a golden morning, I cannot help but experience an acute anxiety that accompanies the struggle to acquire an alternative route by virtue of the massive Orange Line construction. With Google Maps’ trusty directions by my side, my car weaved through the age-old dusty side lanes of Anarkali dotted with shops displaying their bright and colourful wares by the roadside, the crumbling architecture from a bygone era contrasting sharply with capitalism and consumerism.
My destination, the grand red brick buildings of the Lahore History Museum and National College of Arts, was framed on the road against the severity of Kim’s gun — a very solemn black cast iron affair — and the whimsicality of ‘City Within A City,’ a sculpture of birdhouses stacked high atop a narrow pole like a city of birds in a tree by artist Atif Khan.
I was due at an exhibition, interestingly titled ‘Future Debris,’ that was going on at NCA. It was curated by visual artist and a professor at NCA, Saba Khan, who is also the founder of the Murree Museum Artist’s Residency. Twenty one alumni of this Residency exhibited their works on the occasion, including notable artists such as Salima Hashmi and Afshar Malik, international artists such as Hiroshi Tachibana from Japan and Hyun Ju Kim from South Korea.
The purpose of the show was to address situations that collide, create distress, and negligence; inspired in part by the destruction of natural beauty in Murree and other such northern areas. The beautifully designed handbook for the exhibition notes, “Murree is a small microcosm or a handbook of ‘how-to-destroy,’ creating a nexus between government-bureaucracy-tourists. We address what worries us about our futures.”
Fittingly, the first exhibit by Khan herself was an inaugural plaque replicating municipality board notices often located at street corners. The Future Debris plaque is made from a flimsy card (perhaps a comment on the state of local governance in our country) announcing the inauguration of the exhibition by “Mohtarma Numaish Gar Saba Khan”.
‘Numaish gar’ is an Urdu language term that was especially coined by renowned writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi for a ‘curator’ (and was used for the first time in this instance) as no equivalent word or translation existed in the Urdu dictionary.
The text of the Inaugural Plaque reflected exhortations by municipal authorities to the common man to celebrate new roads often written on such roadside monuments, and means to draw a parallel between the curatorial and bureaucratic role of ‘numaish gars’.
“The work of these artists converged at the fact that there is always an ongoing anxiety in any artistic output, whether it’s about terrorism or what’s going to happen to us — so it creates a kind of sedimentation of dysfunction which we chose to call ‘Future Debris’,” commented Saba Khan.
This future debris was reflected in Afshar Malik’s piece, an abstract depiction of Pakistan’s flag constructed with loops and knots of a thin wire. A contorted crescent moon emerged from the tangle of wires, flanked to the right amidst much darker knots by a small circle of negative space. Immediately, the observer is confronted by the nuanced issues surrounding Pakistani identity, minorities and religious persecution.
Veera Rustomji’s works ‘The Monster I Call Home’ and ‘Pre Monster days’ explored the development of the historically Parsi settlement of Bath Island in Karachi that over the course of many years has been commercialised — the graceful mansions of yore replaced by utilitarian high-rise apartment complexes.
“From the sand emerged towers, from the grass grew cement and the sky was swallowed by a grey cloud. The history of Bath Island is being re-written and its future decided by the ever changing topography and steel hungry contractors,” lamented Rustomji.
‘Landscape with floating objects’ by Suleman Aqeel Khilji confronted a similar issue. The artist who is from Quetta depicted the destruction of his hometown through poorly planned development, multiple terrorist attacks, and improper waste management in his artwork. Plastic trash bags, painted with delicate gold foil, flutter in the wind against a backdrop of barren, monotone sepia hills.
The consequence of weak state security and an increase in incidence of terrorism related crime was unsurprisingly at the forefront of the ‘future debris’ that we all carry around with us as Pakistani and global citizens. Inspired by a conversation she had with a shopkeeper from Zainab Market in Karachi regarding the rapid decrease in tourism due to a lack of security in 2011, Seher Naveed began to collect Crimes and Miscellaneous Maps of Karachi published daily by a newspaper at the time.
Her work ‘Safe Map of Karachi’ is a satirical tour guide comprised of two maps, the first showing all the locations of bomb blasts that occurred in 2011, and second a ‘Safe Map’ which depicts the safe zone as within the Arabian Sea. The irony is not lost upon the observer, yet there is a touch of humour in Naveed’s work — a nod to the necessary coping mechanism we must all nurture to survive these uncertain times.
Perhaps, the most evocative pieces for me were the works by Ayesha Jatoi and Pradeep Thalawatta, inspired by the harrowing Army Public School attack in 2014 on school children in Peshawar that resulted in the cold blooded murders of 149 individuals.
Jatoi’s performance piece involved a mound of white clothes, symbolically representing those who lost their lives in terror attacks at school, parks, markets and hospitals. The artist, clothed in all white herself, folded and refolded articles of clothing, a nod to those mothers who were awaiting the return of their children from school only to be confronted by tragedy.
Thalawatta’s work carried the same theme forward, using an image of a bloodstained school auditorium with books and chairs in disarray, the ill-fated APS auditorium itself. In the foreground, the artist was depicted in a series of images scrubbing his face with thick white soap foam, which acted as a “white civilizing object” in contrast to the bloodied backdrop.
The artist treads the tense relationship between the two subjects, the soap reflecting a desire for cleansing ourselves yet the scene of the massacre questioning the ‘civilising machinery’ and revealing the violence that often accompanies such rigorous cleansing.
The art display was unlike most exhibitions I had attended in popular art galleries across our city with its brazen, unfiltered and multifaceted analyses of the current state of affairs in our country. The heightened emphasis on infrastructural development and growth of consumerism by our government has resulted in issues such as security, protection of minority rights, conservation of local landmarks and indigenous culture being grossly overlooked.
The true power of art is revealed through exhibitions such as this one, by constructing a narrative which talks of our messy reality and the varied effects of it on different segments of society. Art here was created not for the sake of creating something beautiful that would be sold for money, but for finding meaning in all the ugliness and to serve as a wakeup call that it is still not too late to enact change if we all come together.