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The Rising Tide in Karachi

New Directions in Art From Pakistan, 1990-2010. Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi. Curated by Naiza Khan.
By Simone Wille | Apr 2011

How does art respond to developments in society, to extremist violence, and to social inequality? What statements are expected from artists who, in the context of postcolonialism and postmodernism, seek to reposition the meaning of their identity, today more than ever in the sense of geopolitical significance? The exhibition The Rising Tide, curated by the artist Naiza Khan, makes the attempt to capture the country’s artistic development in the past two decades.

While the so-called elite and the growing middle class in Pakistan in the 1990s bought up Western consumer goods, the working class kept alive the culture that the dominant classes had drifted away from. In search of a definition of culture, artists launched anthropological and sociological investigations and literally entered the houses of ordinary people to find what they called "lived culture".

Cultural exchange beyond the conventional studio practices and gallery rooms has lastingly influenced Pakistan’s art world. Roohi Ahmed’s installation Mobius Karachi (2010) awaits the exhibition’s visitor in the first room and conveys the ominous feeling of not being able to escape the complexity of the city of Karachi. This construct, tailored and interwoven from maps, had a predecessor in a series of maps (1999) on which Ahmed traced the route people take with the bus daily through the city to their workplaces. The bus route changed almost daily because of local unrest and gang wars in the ethnically disrupted Karachi of the 1990s. The markings along the white lines show the places where murder attacks were carried out.

Film Culture and Popular Culture

The work Very Very Sweet Medina (1999) by Durriya Kazi and David Alesworth rapidly became an icon of the 1990s and is also on display in the exhibition. The work focuses on the dreams and hopes connected with migration and the search for a perfect home. A decade later, nothing much seems to remain of this cozy "home". The glittering façade of Huma Mulji’s mirror sculpture Twisted Logic (2010) conceals a fragile and vulnerable world.

Another classic of recent Pakistani art history is the work Urdu film series (ca. 1990) by Iftikhar Dadi. It is based on photographs of what was then the only state film channel, which showed Urdu films from the 1960s and ’70s. In these works, Dadi sheds light on how the collective formation of a modern urban society was launched with the means of television. The theme of film and popular culture is also found in Ahmad Ali Manganhar’s works. The primary theme of his large-format acrylic pictures is the brutality of contemporary Urdu and Hindi films, whose moral goal is to maintain religion, the state, and the law. The technical methods of commercial poster painters in his home province Sindh serve him as inspiration – not least also to put one over on the painterly final touches!

That Rashid Rana’s oeuvre, too, is unmistakably influenced by domestic film is demonstrated by his early work Motia (Jasmine) from the year 2000. He painted film scenes in the style of color film negatives, which moves the realistic scenes closer to two-dimensionality and robs them of the brutality of their statements. Another reference to the medium of film is found in the works of Mehreen Murtaza. Digitally manipulated photographs like Divine Invasion (2008) present a phantasmagoric construct in which a piled-up world is kept going in a macabre manner by the burden of progress and technology. Here one is reminded of the Italian Futurists and of Giacomo Balla, who in 1912 could still enthuse about cars revving up and universal dynamism.

Urban Reality

Arif Mahmood, Karachi’s best-known photographic chronicler, worked together with the portrait photographer Shaukat Mahmood in 2008. Mahmood captured glimpses of the city Karachi in doubled versions and invited Shaukat Mahmood to overpaint one photo from each pair with watercolors. The result is colored pictures that stand on their own and seem to counter the black-and-white pictures with another reality.

Malcolm Hutcheson’s passion to learn the technique of the old ruh khitch (Punjabi, lit.: "spirit pull") camera has brought him closer to the people of the city. The ruh khitch camera consists of a handmade, portable studio. Time plays an important role for the exposures, which are up to four seconds long. The portrayed young men seem to have this time while taking a break from the unendurable heat of the city of Lahore in its very dirty waste water.

Protagonists of History

National history instruction is accorded great importance in Pakistan. Internationally successful artists like Bani Abidi have already taken state authority and politically construed and instrumentalized historiography as their themes. In the exhibition, Imran Channa approaches the theme more hesitantly when he questions the official version of history in Find the real Jinnah (2009).

In Self portrait (2005), Ayaz Jokhio sets to work with a reference to the mutability of identity by means of simple external interventions. 99 hairless self-portraits on A4-format paper serve as his starting point. Instructed to give the bald heads hair, various people intervened, resulting in a many-faceted portfolio of portraits that suggest different ethnic origins, ages, and religions. And of course the number 99 alludes to the 99 names of God in the Koran, each of which stands for a characteristic of Allah.

The City as Theme

The theme of urban space is the exhibition’s determining factor. For the entire duration of the show, Christophe Polack and Asiya Sadiq Polack offer tours of the "mohalla" (neighborhood/district), in order to extend the space of the museum into the city. Various revitalizing and conserving urban projects of the team are thereby presented.

In her lens array prints Qadam Qadam Azad (2008, Freedom Step by Step) and Ek Shehr Jo Udaas Hai (2010, A City is Sad), Farida Batool gives voice to the scars left in the country by decades of unrest. Security measures like living behind high walls and protective fences testify to the fear of enemies from within and outside one’s own country.

Abdullah Syed’s installations revive myth and legend, but also reflect on war and terror. The Flying Rug IV (2008) is a construct made of folded US dollar bills, while The Flying Rug of Drones (2009) is made of metal blades. These flying carpets and the projection of their shadows seem fragile, even if also threatening in their double meaning. They give rise to the feeling that the West is still grappling with the fascination of the Orient, while the Orient has long since formed its own opinion about the West.

The exhibition presents self-confident positions from 43 artists who don’t soft-pedal their opinions when addressing politically and societally explosive themes.


Simone Wille

Art historian. Author of the book "Modern Art in Pakistan. History, Tradition, Place", published in 2014 by Routledge in New Delhi.

(Translation from German: Mitch Cohen)

The Rising Tide
New Directions in Art From Pakistan, 1990-2010

1 November 2010 -
29 March 2011

Mohatta Palace Museum

7 Hatim Alvi Road,
Clifton, Karachi

Naiza Khan

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