The year that was for Karachi

Issue 46
Text | Shanzay Subzwari
Visuals | Artists and Galleries

2018 has been a dynamic year for art exhibitions in Karachi.

Koel Gallery showcased a number of exciting exhibitions. Curator Aziz Sohail was invited to curate Drawn to Form II by artist Abdullah M.I Syed, which was a follow up to Part I of the same title held in Sydney, Australia in 2015. Bringing together the vastly different mediums of ceramics and drawing, the exhibition showcased reputed artists such as Abdullah M. I. Syed, Sadia Salim, Ali Kazim, Naima Dadabhoy and Noor Ali Chagani. Ceramics have a long history in both the wider Indian subcontinent and Pakistan, with Mehrgarh in Balochistan and Mohenjo Daro in Sindh as examples of ancient civilisations that practiced this craft widely. Drawing, too, has emerged as a strong medium in modern and contemporary art in Pakistan, but dates back to prehistoric times in the context of world history. Examples are the the Lascaux cave paintings in France, and recent cave painting discoveries in Indonesia that date up to 40000 years ago.

Abdullah M.I. Syed’s Rose Petal Self Portrait Silhouette series made delicately with hand-cut rose-petals presented a marvel to the audience. The soft veins of the petals coupled with the intricacy and sensitivity with which they were cut to create the artist’s silhouette awakened the senses, and was an effort to create a ‘balanced identity’. Ali Kazim’s work stemmed from an ancient site he visited near Lahore, which carried remnants of a previous civilisation and is now a burial ground. Kazim’s pieces such as Fallen Object, a rock-like object with its delicate veins that almost gave it the quality of being alive, were an ‘interpretation of what could have been and might be’. Naima Dadhabhoy’s adorable ceramic animals such as Clay Rabbit brought together her family’s historical business of manufacturing ceramic products together with her own memorabilia of her childhood. Noor Ali Chagani’s terracotta miniature bricks and line drawings commented on the notion of transition in the process of building and construction, and how his interest in this area reflects the human being’s own desire for evolution. Sadia Salim’s delicate casts of found objects in her Untitled series commented on her desire to retain and remember her surroundings, and in a way documented and examined the territories she has traversed.

Rabeya Jalil’s solo show at Koel Gallery titled Something Else brought with it a treat for the eyes and a sneak peak into an unusual execution of ideas. Being an educator, Jalil works with school art teachers, higher education teachers, children with special needs and individuals from socially diverse populations to understand their creative expression, which is then used to suggest curricular intervention through the arts. This interest was perhaps best reflected in her work as scribbles, layers of unruly paint and childlike drawings came together to dance on the myriad of canvases adorning the walls of the gallery space.

Jalil’s special quality is that she addresses issues tacitly. While the audience is lost in the playfulness of the imagery and the childlike, uninhibited-looking strokes, it takes a deeper, closer look to realize that she is speaking of things that are far more serious. Combining printmaking with painting, with pieces spanning numerous sizes and with varying imagery, it is a surprise to learn that most of the pieces were carefully planned and worked on extensively, layer by layer. Her screen-printed works such as Chits, Noting The Remains and Yellow Notes were a departure from the usual, and presented a pop-art feel with repetition of clean, flat, brightly coloured imagery. The screen printed tapes on these pieces gave the impression of them being someone’s personal notes put up from yesteryear, that could date from anywhere between 50-100 years old, while the markings gave the impressions of runes and wall markings from a bygone, ancient time.


Jalil’s pieces VIP Movement III, with its overdrawn, repetitive lines and overlapped imagery of scooters or motorcycles drew attention to issues of traffic congestion, pollution, overpopulation and the notorious VIP protocol system existent in Pakistan. The writing found in her pieces such as Green Times and Toiling Kittens was childlike, yet ominous; it reminded one of the writing on walls found in horror films, the careful reproduction of child’s shaky hand by an adult (perhaps for sinister purposes) or a child’s writings of things he observes but doesn’t necessarily understand. The layers found in Jalil’s pieces are complex and highly interesting, and would take many paragraphs to unpack and analyse.

At Canvas Gallery, Adeela Suleman’s solo show What May Lie Ahead reiterated the notion of rampant violence and war through varied imagery. While her earlier shows extracted violent imagery from Mughal miniature paintings and depicted it on ceramics, the artist took this a step further in the series Strike for him when he cannot himself. She chose to depict life-sized woodcarvings of headless figures from war and combat scenes, replete with intricately rendered motifs on their Mughal garbs, swords and shields. Apart from this, there were displayed life-size wooden replicas of army men as well as terrorists with bombs strapped around, which also reminded one of shooting targets. Which was which? It was, perhaps deliberately, open to interpretation, and thus a comment on the thin line between right and wrong, between what is considered freedom-fighting and terrorism, and the complexities of war.

Madiha Hyder’s Fortuitious Collision was a collaborative show with art critic Nafisa Rizvi. The former’s pieces were an interpretation of 10 pieces of poetry depicting various characters that the latter had conjured in her verses. The poems were beautifully written. Interestingly, this idea stemmed from the artist’s realisation of her tendency to fabricate images or visual impressions of people and places, especially when reading fiction. She retained these images, which elicited her to think about the significance of how the mind interprets and construes words. The resulting work was a stunning body of portraits in oil, all creatively framed and displayed. A crowd favourite was Khwaja Ghulam Ghiasuddin Sarkar, owing to the subject’s authoritative, self-aggrandizing gaze and the detailed intricacies of the objects in the work.

A couplet from the poem goes like this:

All his worldly power was contained in that facial adornment,

More valuable than the twenty thousand acres of land he owned.

Compared to the seven children he’d sired, the moustache was more important. Any person insulting his precious trim, he would have stoned

Sanat Gallery showcased a grand collaboration between seasoned photographers, writers and artists, titled Refection. Curated by the eminent R.M. Naeem, the 6 artists who displayed were Adeel-uz-Zafar, Muhammad Zeeshan, Ali Kazim, Mudassar Manzoor, Waseem Ahmed and R.M Naeem himself. Each artist was asked to produce 3 pieces; one of their usual work, the second a portrait of themselves, and the third being a departure from the usual kind of work they produce. Each writer engaged with a particular artist for their piece, while each photographer captured one of the artists as the subject of his photographs. According to Sanat Initiative founder Abid Merchant, it was ‘a tug-of-war between expectations and innovations’; indeed, all creatives involved produced exciting and skilful work, and the collaborative element proved to be a successful example of pushing the boundaries.

Muhammad Zeeshan’s solo show Yeh Pyaara Parcham commented upon the flag- an emblem of a nation, institution or community. Stemming from an on-going series since 2007 where Zeeshan recreates flags of various nations either as patters and text, this show incorporated the medium of sandpaper, pastels and UV printing on a large scale. Yet again the artist broke away from his traditional training as a miniature painter in medium, size and imagery, while still keeping in consideration the attention to detail that the genre elicits; for example, Mao’s iconic image was seen plastered with China’s flag along created with the incredibly familiar tagline, ‘Made in China’ in repetition. This alluded to China’s communist history and cheap labour, and the idea of things being mass-produced and repeated, reminding one of China’s towering presence in global trade and its quietly swelling global dominance.

The IVS Gallery showcased a show titled Soft Bodies, curated by Sophia Balagamwala showcasing the work of 13 female artists. The works were varied and exciting, and often used humour to speak of serious and pertinent subjects related to the notion of being female. For the show, the curator discovered and connected with most of the participating artists through social media. According to her, ‘Social media can be a cruel place where it is only too easy to belittle, judge and shame bodies. But it can also be a place where… bodies are able to represent themselves. In such circumstances, the sheer performance of visibility becomes a radical and political act. And it is perhaps within these circumstances that the practitioners in this exhibition negotiate, claim, and reclaim their space’.

At Gandhara Art-Space Karachi, Objects We Behold curated by Amra Ali showcased works by Adeela Suleman, Affan Bhagpati, Marium Agha, Ruby Chishti and Tazeen Qayyum. Walking through the gallery space, each corner transported one into a different realm; large scale metal sculptures glistened and weeped, hot water bottles hung from above, each pouring out its own story, vintage metal surmedanis and furniture merged with new forms in eccentric fashion, large tapestries narrated new and untold, layered stories, and garments of varying sizes made us question who they were for. Perhaps the curator asks the right questions herself: ‘How do we view Affan’s miniature sized takht with Chandni to Adeela Suleman’s chandelier made of found shiny (and sharp) knives and Ruby’s larger than life coat? How far does the imagery in Marium’s tapestry allow us to recede into the landscape and into the historical and cultural? How do we view these small beaded representations of still life by Cezanne and Van Gogh? Where do we stand in our association with their imagery and what is the nature of representation and perception of it? How do we read Affan’s bizarre gold-fish pond and water feature amidst a dated telephone bench?’

These questions, and more, are for the viewer to experience and decode.

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About the Author:

Shanzay Subzwari is an artist and writer with a BFA from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. She has had solo and group exhibtions in Karachi and Lahore. She has been writing art reviews and articles for various publications and galleries since 2014.

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