Getting their hands dirty

The Friday Times: November 28-December 4, 2008

Getting their hands dirty

Artists come together for ‘Prologue Karachi’, part of an anti-litter campaign determined to clean up the city, says Sanam Maher






In their exhaustive history of Karachi in The Dual City: Karachi in the Time of the Raj, Yasmin and Mihail Lari give us a snapshot of life for an English memsahib in the city during the colonial era: following a leisurely siesta, ‘she would be ready for a social chat or a stroll in the pleasant environment of the Frere Garden, where the lawns were immaculately maintained with the help of the water supply provided by the Municipality. Strains of marshal music wafted through the garden…the exclusive company was overlooked by the looming Gothic revival Frere Hall…keeping the reality, the dirt, dust and the disorder far away from this elegant fantasy world’.

This week, however, the ‘dirt, dust and disorder’ was firmly implanted within Frere Hall’s Sadequain Gallery as eight artists rolled up their sleeves and prepared to clean up this city of lights. Prologue Karachi is part of the Don’t Mess with Karachi anti-litter drive. The campaign’s mission? To make Karachi a litter-free city and enforce the Anti-litter Act by 2013, with the help of Karachi’s citizens. Participating artists in the exhibition included Shalalae Jamil, Mikail Soomro, Asim Butt, Ume-Aiman Ahmed, FurSid, Ahmed Shajee Aijazi, Anthony L’Huillier and Mahjabeen Mankani. Proceeds from the sale of works went straight back onto the streets, put towards the installation of dust-bins around the city.

Displayed under the eaves of Sadequain’s sumptuous (and incomplete) swan-song, the exhibition largely featured photographs, with the exception of Anthony L’Huillier’s installation piece ‘FMCG’ and Asim Butt’s ‘View from Bhopal House’.

Curiously, for an artist participating in an ode to Karachi’s mercurial nature, Ume-Aiman stated, ‘I am not a Karachi-ite and I chose never to be.’ She went on to explain, however, ‘I do not mean that I hate the city or its people, I just feel it is a tough city. But I have discovered small things that have made me respect it.’ Ms. Ahmed added, ‘Karachi-ites should open their eyes and appreciate the city that they have created for better or worse.’ This admiration for a city that is a microcosm of Pakistan – a smorgasbord of those from different ethnic, socio-economic and religious backgrounds – found its echo in several other works at the exhibit. Mahjabeen Mankani’s work, for example, focused on the people who eke out a living in the brutal dog-eat-dog world characteristic of a metropolitan melting pot like Karachi – her portrait of a guava-seller is leeched of color, the fresh green of the fruit a stark contrast to the smoldering heat of the day. Meanwhile, in ‘Pensive’, a turbaned man sits at the helm of a boat on the shore-line, the sea a murky forest-green and grey behind him. Ms. Mankani’s work aimed to look at ‘the life of each individual and their struggle for survival’ in this city; her intent comes across clearly in ‘Attacked 2’: a fish, its mouth the perfect O in a final gasp for breath, lies still on the beach. Its eye gapes at the viewer who is at once arrested by the glittering sheen and silver whorls of the fish’s scales.

The artists made sure the many mini-cities nestled under Karachi’s umbrella were represented – FurSid’s work, for example, plunged the viewer into worlds at opposite ends of the spectrum: a band plays at a smoky venue, all shadowed nooks and crevices, while a young boy crouches on the sand at the beach, entirely consumed with separating the fish from shells in the days meager catch. Meanwhile, Ahmed Shajee Aijazi’s photographs lovingly detailed the art-work on buses or zoomed in on graffiti splattered on monuments and walls around the city.

Shalalae Jamil’s work ensconced the viewer within the confines of a moving car – Karachi was a dream-like blur on the other side of the car-window, appealing, yet tantalizingly out of reach. Ms. Jamil explained that her pieces depicted the city ‘as seen while driving through monsoons, on main roads and at night’. The images tell the story of perennial change in the city. Ms. Jamil described her work as a series of ‘loose narratives’ wherein the city is ‘at once burning, obscured, cleansed and revealed.’ Viewing these perspectives of Karachi through the barrier of a car window, you feel the urge to throw open the door and step out onto the city streets. You acknowledge at the same time that the city immediately changes once you emerge from the cocoon that is your vehicle. Confront a city of endless, swerving traffic and walls where political slogans jostle for space with a gang’s scrawled testament to its presence and you might soon be scrambling for your car once more.

While the works were largely a paean to this multi-faceted city, Anthony L’Huillier’s installation did not let the viewer forget the purpose of the exhibit. FMCG aimed to ‘provoke a response to the amount of refuse produced’ in Karachi, made all too clear by a placard detailing biodegradation time-frames for every-day consumer items – a banana peel, for example, has a time frame of 2 to 10 days, while disposable diapers clock in at a shocking 200 to 520 years. Mr. L’Huillier’s work featured an implosion of Fast Moving Consumer Goods, or, FMCG, such as plastic bottles, disposable cups or aerosol cans. He explained that the airborne rubbish was frozen at the moment of explosion, drawing the viewer’s attention to the vast quantities of detritus that lie within a rubbish heap.

Karachi is ‘a limitless city without any boundaries,’ said Mikail Soomro. ‘With a little more concern for our heritage, we will soon show the world exactly what we have to be proud of,’ he added. His images of Karachi depict a city that is pure energy and light – his works included a bird’s eye view of traffic snaking through an intricate web of fly-overs and roads dotted with lights and a snapshot of Mohatta Palace at night, cloaked in amber light.

Leaving the exhibition, I noticed a heap of rubbish by a paan-stained sign saying ‘Sorry for Inconvenience’. I had walked past the garbage, strategically placed at the entrance to the gallery, perhaps giving it no more than a cursory glance simply because it was such a common sight. The rubbish, placed there by the Don’t Mess with Karachi team was a stark reminder that this ‘inconvenience’ continues to exist in our city. And it should not be tolerated.