Overhaul: Art’s Journey in the Pandemic

Text & Visuals | Aymen Ansari

Issue 56

We are no strangers to the fact that this has been a summer of unforeseen historical challenges, with widespread death and destruction in an on-going global pandemic, state sanctioned violence and blazing protests against racism and inequality. It goes without saying; the stakes are different this year.

People around the world have spent much of their time surrounded by all kinds of chaos, even within the confines of their homes. The world continues to adjust to the new age, as we begin to adopt new models of living. The art industry is no different when it comes to accepting this sudden shift. Perhaps the only thing that remains unchanged is the phenomenon of art as a constantly evolving and restorative experience, a paradoxical notion in its own self, one that isn’t necessarily revolutionary, but is often taken for granted.

Undeniably, art has played a key role in pandemics throughout history, with its power to cleanse, entertain and inspire. It evokes unique insights, hope, and comfort, therein becoming an essential practice when the foundations of our very existence begin to crumble. In such circumstances, many artists have undertaken the responsibility to understand and move forward, to see and reimagine the world from a new lens – and in doing so,  hope to find solace in a period of paralyzing anxiety. Over the past few months, artists such as Arif Hussain Khokhar and Seema Nusrat have worked tirelessly during the covid-19 lockdown, producing works that are indicative of the ephemeral nature of the world. Both artists seek to explore the many faces of change.

The solo exhibit by Arif Hussain Khokhar titled Remnants was displayed in late October this year at the Koel Gallery, comprising mostly of large scale monochromatic works that explored the dichotomy between creation and destruction. The featured artworks were emblematic of the present day predicament that shrouds the world in malaise and melancholy. As a result, each painting perfectly captured the artist’s own philosophical thought about the notions of presence and absence, such that delineate and define absence as a form of presence in itself.

In many ways, Khokhar’s work also focused on the transient and constantly evolving forces of nature and the inherent beauty that lies within processes of destruction and defacement. Set against the backdrop of our current reality, the artist makes a resounding comment on change and acceptance. More so, allowing audiences to add to the conversation without detaching themselves from their material truth.

At its core, the exhibit intends to question and negotiate with the formalities of creation through negation, working with oil pigments, charcoal and emulsion on two-dimensional surfaces. Wherein every scratch, smudge and stain adds a layer that otherwise may be seen as a destructive act of erasure, inevitably produces a new image of its accord. In a short conversation, Khokhar revealed the experimental nature of his artistic process where many of the paintings were exposed to extreme conditions in the relentless Karachi summers, from the soaring heat to the pouring rains, et al. Additionally, Khokhar also employs familiar objects to capture impressions, textures and prints, deliberately showcasing the remnants of a landscape – endlessly disintegrating and morphing into something new.

In his own words, he states: “My work is recycled, having applied the numerous processes of mark-making. rebuilding, in terms of defacing, I process the formation of deformation. In it lies the pleasure of its own destructive appearance and the acknowledgement that the resulting ruined face is the actual face.”

Remnants become a reminder of constant change, and evidently the state of the world.

Whereas Seema Nusrat’s, Brave New World, displayed at the Canvas Gallery hopes to examine and deconstruct the architecture of security, whilst using the city as a site of exploration. For Nusrat, the city becomes a symbol of change, a point of intersection between culture, community and space.

Nusrat draws from Foucauldian concepts of power politics, surveillance and control, to comment on the growing omnipresence of the safety apparatus – watchtowers as silent ominous observers and barriers of exclusivity that appear to be dominant features in urban settings, much like Karachi. With Brave New World, Nusrat attempts to observe the observed, employing a rich visual vocabulary to showcase her study of architectural forms such as caution signage, road blocks and anthropomorphic watchtowers. She establishes these objects as symbols of security that have slowly permeated into the folds of common understanding. The sheer overwhelming presence of this notion is emphasized by her sculptures, collages, and drawings using patterns of black and yellow to visually define an ailing culture of security, and its permanence within the metropolis. 

It implores the question: “When did we become wary of public spaces as less inclusive and more suspicious? It is perhaps impossible to find out when we traded walking for the safety of vehicles, raised our walls and put barbed wire over our gates. When did security guards become an essential part of the staff in every residential colony and at every institution?”

In the past Nusrat has been addressing the new age of heightened security and foreshadowing a future where the need for protection at large is exponentially enforced by a desire for control. Her expression of the city through the lens of the security apparatus allows audiences to reflect on the status of security and protection during a global health crisis. Perhaps in the coming days of our real life dystopic nightmare, face masks, shields and PPE suits will also be incorporated into the vernacular of safety within human societies.  

It is worth mentioning that both Koel and Canvas galleries are strictly observing all Covid-19 SOP’s.  Further, opening hours have also been extended to avoid gatherings of large crowds. While we stand on the brink of a new milieu, and most recreational spaces can be seen struggling to safely keep their doors open to the public, it becomes essential to encourage the growth of the collective human spirit using art as a means to accept the unknown. Galleries and curators must go beyond and embrace online spaces; to ensure greater accessibility and provide younger audiences, those that primarily occupy the digital world, with a critical outlet for thoughtful self reflection.

“Remnants” was exhibited at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from September 30 to October 30, 2020
And
“Brave New World” is currently on display at the Canvas Gallery from November 17 to November 26,
2020.

Aymen Ansari is a Communication Studies and Design graduate from Habib University, currently working on various projects situated amidst academia and art.

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