Art has always been a reliable means of archiving change. Consciously or inadvertently, artists document sociocultural changes, not only through the work itself, but also by absorbing into their artistic vocabularies the new visual materials that accompany any major shift from one way of living to another. This is mainly because the process of artistic creation is invariably organic. It is affected by the environment, the sights, the smells and the sounds that surround an artist.
Even if an artist’s work is deeply embedded in fantasies and dreamscapes, fragments from their contemporaneous, real life will find their way into their work, just as they will into their fantasies and dreams. I am reminded of the image of the portentous train in so many of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings. Moving slowly and emitting a single, robust plume of smoke, his black train serves as an eerie backdrop for empty arcades and other disparate objects that seem to come together in his work largely through dream logic. No matter how far the artist strays into a surreal world of statues and late-afternoon shadows, an engine and a few compartments pursue him as a reminder of the real world marked by technology.
The works of Lahore-based artist R M Naeem have a similar air about them: ubiquitous road and traffic signs in many of his paintings seem to convey how the ordinariness of the physical world governs the lives and decisions of his sleepwalking characters.
A changing reality, thus, cannot be wished away or fought off. Even when it is not visible in the artwork itself, it impacts it in discreet ways. Take the case of the Industrial Revolution, for instance. It changed the human and artistic experience and understanding of space and movement once and for all. In his seminal book, The Shock of the New, Australian-born writer Robert Hughes explained the change: “The view from the train was not the view from the horse. It compressed more motifs into the same time. Conversely, it left less time in which to dwell on any one thing.”
Urbanisation reinvents our relationship with space and landscape in a similar way. Cities, especially in Pakistan, have evolved in a manner that does not encourage walking, radically changing how we interact with the physical environment around us. Our interactions with the cities we inhabit are now mediated by the bodies of our automobiles or the screens of our phones, laptops and televisions. A certain sense of tactile, physical familiarity with our surroundings has been lost in the process.
American writer Rebecca Solnit has written about this phenomenon in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. “Walking is about being outside, in public space, and public space is also being abandoned and eroded in older cities, eclipsed by technologies and services that don’t require leaving home, and shadowed by fear in many places (and strange places are always more frightening than known ones, so the less one wanders the city the more alarming it seems, while the fewer the wanderers the more lonely and dangerous it really becomes),” she wrote. In many cities, she noted, public spaces are no longer a part of urban plans. “What was once public space is designed to accommodate the privacy of automobiles; malls replace main streets; streets have no sidewalks; buildings are entered through their garages; city halls have no plazas; and everything has walls, bars, gates.”
Distance has come to exist between a modern city and its inhabitants.
An association of concerned citizens, fittingly called Nigraan-e-Lahore (Guardians of Lahore), has made it its mission to minimise this distance. The group promotes public dialogue on the changing look and dynamic of the city and encourages people to imagine how these changes inform their individual and collective roles as citizens. It seeks to promote, through exhibitions, competitions and workshops, a more interactive relationship between the city and its residents. One of its initiatives, Shehr Saazi Aur Soch Vichaar, invited school and college students in 2015 to examine through poetry, prose and visual art how a changing Lahore was shaping and transforming their aspirations.
The international art world has been witnessing a surge of interest in politically, socially and environmentally aware art and design for quite some time. It is moving away from autobiographical, personal and aesthetic concerns and their expressions. Since our domestic art scene reflects global trends, themes related to urbanisation and modern city life have begun to dominate art production in Pakistan as well, just as they have in the rest of the world.
The display and discourse of art, too, is no longer restricted to galleries, as was the case in the past. Communal and socially informed approaches to art-making and alternative methods and spaces for display – installations, site-specific interventions, collective rather than individual projects and research carried out over long periods of time instead of stand-alone works with easily quantifiable values – have become common.
An increasing number of visual art residencies and curatorial ventures worldwide also stimulates artistic enquiries into urbanisation, attempting to document its impacts on individuals, communities and societies. These enquiries are all the more relevant in countries like ours that are still at a lower stage of development and urbanisation, and where some of the worst impacts of concrete-based urban sprawl may still be averted or at least minimised by timely interventions.
The change in the composition and structure of our cities and our consequently altered experience of them have already led to the exploration of new forms of artistic expression and the introduction of new metaphors in artwork. These developments have resulted in the creation of a new kind of art that resists cultural degeneration followed by rapid development and commercialisation of urban spaces. Works like Untitled Lahore Series by Risham Syed and Farida Batool’s Kahani Eik Shehr Ki represent some of these new trends.
Syed’s work is a repertoire of images of tiered, cellular, almost identical houses and commercial buildings that speckle Lahore’s voraciously expanding housing schemes. The postcard-sized images mostly display back walls either left unpainted or coated with tar. Composed in painterly tradition even while incorporating strains of other media, these works are made with acrylic on board-mounted canvases. Their quaint smallness and the sensitivity with which they are painted are usually associated with work that represents bucolic beauty, but the glimpses they offer – the only ones they can, the artist seems to be saying – are, in fact, of a new, grey urban landscape.
Untitled Lahore Series could encourage discussions on the idea of beauty and ugliness and can also be seen as a lament on the disorderly but swift erosion of an older, greener city. At a purely visual level, however, it is an acceptance of the sights and motifs of the present. It is an honest reflection of the new city that Solnit wrote about — one characterised by an unwelcoming, impassive look of cement and “walls, bars, gates”.
Batool’s Kahani Eik Shehr Ki, on the other hand, exemplifies art made in reaction to the process of urbanisation. Not simply a visual record of the changing appearance of Lahore, it is also an attempt to reclaim the bodily and emotional connection an inhabitant once felt with a city before its leisurely traditional culture was replaced with one premised on profit and speed.
The artist has photographed herself in the foreground of different roadsides in Lahore and then arranged these photographs into a long scroll of lenticular prints. Use of the lenticular printing technique lends an illusion of animation to the images and helps reinforce the chaotic richness of the city. The prints throw up variously textured visual imagery that has overrun Lahore’s traditional views. They show peeling political posters, palimpsests of incendiary graffiti, stately plaques at stately buildings (that prop up the status quo), displayed and stacked merchandise, traffic and the dust left in its wake.
Naiza Khan, in the same vein, explores the connection between urban landscape – that of Karachi, in particular – and memory and psyche. Time and again she has gravitated towards presenting visions of Karachi as a sprawling site of memory, loss and regeneration. In such series as Karachi Elegies (2013), The Weight of Things (2014) and The Concrete Folly (2016), Khan has approached the city as a giant, faintly glimmering ruin, pulsing always with a life and meaning that cannot be entirely grasped.
These works situate her ongoing dialogue with Karachi in the realm of memory, and depict, eulogise and elegise the metropolis (without becoming an exercise in journalism) as it is effaced and resuscitated by time. Her art echoes what German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in a 1911 essay titled The Ruin: “It is as though a segment of existence must collapse before it can become unresistant to all currents and powers coming from all corners of reality. Perhaps this is the reason for our general fascination with decay and decadence.”
Huma Mulji is another eminent artist whose enduring engagement with her urban habitat has resulted in the creation of artwork that is simultaneously wry and earnest in its commentary on the visible and invisible repercussions of urbanisation.
Her series of photographic prints from 2008 uses the motif of displaced bulls to remark on the unchecked rise of construction in and around Pakistani cities. In these works – which have titles like High Rise, Housing Scheme, Harvest, and Pardesi Pride – bulls find themselves perched dangerously atop tenements, shooting out of wheat fields, contemplating kitschy, plaster horses on roundabouts and grassy expanses and viewing the preposterously monumental gateways that have become a salient feature of big housing projects. These intelligent, humorous works document not only the eradication of the natural environment and dislocation of animals, but they also show changes in popular taste brought about by a growing section of an urbanised populace with new money.
As cities become overpopulated, economic disparities among their dwellers become highly visible, something memorably illustrated by British writer J G Ballard in his 1975 novel High-Rise, which narrates the filling up of a 40-storey tower. The author brings to light the latent elitism of its inhabitants and shows their power struggles that grow more and more wild as the veneer of urbanity begins to crumble.
This, indeed, happens in every modern metropolis where demand for housing increases following an influx of people from outside. Real estate prices increase, neighbourhoods are demarcated, slums and gated communities are born — all creating and sometimes reconstituting social hierarchies in their wake. Competition, unsociability, alienation and disillusionment are by-products of these developments. Together, they create an extended context around urbanisation, inspiring even more varied artistic attempts to explore it.
Artists, curators and galleries in Karachi have been making conscious and collective efforts of late to address these issues in ways that are thoughtful, evocative and open-ended. They seek to convey the critical importance of urbanisation without turning their work into mere instruments of archiving and displaying information.
Shows such as 24.8615°N 067.0099°E – a collaborative project by Saira Sheikh and Omer Wasim held at Canvas Gallery last year – endeavour to present the city through an inventory of all that it has ‘rejected’, all that may reveal an alternative urban narrative. The duo investigated and archived the antithetical lifestyles of two sections of Karachi’s populace – the class that has access to places like Dubai Mahal (a local symbol of wealth and power so excessive that it grants invisibility to its proprietors) and the class that has to eke out a living (equally invisibly) on the margins of such places.
This is not to suggest that the act of archiving cannot be beautiful. French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire clearly saw the process of sifting through the refuse of a city and ‘selecting’ from it as something laden with artistic inspiration. “Here is a man entrusted to gather up the remains of a day in the life of the capital. All that the metropolis has rejected, all that it has got rid of, all that it has scorned, all that it has broken, he catalogues, he collects … He makes a selection, an intelligent choice; he gathers, like a miser a treasure, the refuse that, when ground again between the jaws of the goddess Industry, will become objects of utility or of delight,” he wrote in his 1851 essay On Wine and Hashish.
Referencing these lines, art historian Tom McDonough in a 2010 essay commented on the idea of the contemporary artist as an archivist of urban waste. “Perhaps the most radical aspect of this profile of an ‘archivist’ of urban waste was its implicit redefinition of art-making under the transformed conditions of modern urban life and the incipient regime of the commodity, which would now of necessity become a labour of scavenging, of making meaningful what happened to be left at one’s disposal.”
Karachi’s Koel Gallery recently hosted two shows that are strongly connected to the same subject. The first, titled We Ate the Birds, was curated by Seher Naveed and featured works by 19 artists, all of whom expressed what the absence of birds from the city meant to them. The flight of the birds from an increasingly hostile urban environment became a metaphor for the ambivalent relationships these artists had with the city. The exhibition was a fine example of approaching a subject popular among art practitioners in Pakistan – but sometimes treated too eruditely – in a wistful manner that chose to focus on something from the periphery of the great, urban problem: the disappearing flora and fauna.
The second of these exhibitions, Botany of Desire, was curated by Roohi S Ahmed and consisted of contributions by 19 other artists. The idea behind this project was the celebration of (mainly indoor) plant life in a modern city where wilderness, having shrunk, now fits in little pots in little rooms. Like We Ate the Birds, this exhibition tackled urbanisation with a bit of poetry and by taking primary inspiration from plants and flowers, something we all have an affinity to, no matter how gridlocked our lives have become or how dull our dreams may be.
This nostalgic view, however, colours the works of an older generation of visual artists who are tempted to compare what was with what is. For the younger lot, especially those graduating from art schools now, an overbuilt urban landscape is the only reality they know. Therefore, they see artistic possibilities where older artists see only ruin and loss.
To cite two examples, paintings by Kiran Waseem Raza and Ghazi Sikander Mirza, who both graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore earlier this year, poeticise the urban infrastructure and vehicular traffic of Lahore. Kiran manages to find grandeur in the large, swooping bridges and flyovers that have come to dominate the landscape of modern Lahore. Mirza’s inspiration comes from what he sees when he is stuck in slow-moving traffic — the backs of other vehicles, the gloomy caverns and niches on wheels carrying jewel-coloured, daydreaming individuals to and from work and school. From unwieldy structures and seemingly isolated moments, the two artists are successful in creating works of art imbued with both a personal view and a broader meaning.
Qadir Jhatial is another young artist focused on urbanisation though from a different perspective. He hails from rural Sindh and lives and works in Lahore, but this rural-to-urban migration is not just a personal trajectory for him. It offers him a visual resource too. His art practice is informed as much by the experience of his departure from his birthplace as it is by the character of the city he has moved to. He uses enamel paint, which has a strong association to industry, to create lurid cityscapes, showing both his awe and wariness of the urban landscape. He also alludes to the city’s oscillation between a utopic promise and a dystopic factitiousness.
A major problem with some of the art centred on contemporary issues like urbanisation and its wider implications is its distance from the public. It sheds light on issues pertaining to public space without itself being open to the public, or being rendered in a language that can be understood widely. In some cases, the pictorial language employed is lucid and powerful enough to warrant no verbal explanation, but in many other cases the subject becomes too specific and is draped in too scholarly a mode of presentation to generate public interest. The display of these artworks or artistic interventions in galleries situated in the posh localities of bigger cities only serves to underpin some of the disparities that this art seeks to address.
To overcome this problem, urban space itself can become the platform from where concerns pertaining to urbanisation can be raised and responses exchanged. Some artists are already doing this by working on the intersection of art and urban design. Lahore-based designer and illustrator Shehzil Malik, for instance, recently explored urbanisation in Lahore with reference to a disempowered section of society – women – by using the city itself as her canvas. She plastered a characteristically bright and joyful poster of a girl riding a motorbike below a bridge that connects one genteel area to another.
With the rapid development of infrastructure on important routes in Lahore, the contrast between life over the bridge and life under the bridge has become very prominent. An older way of life still flourishes under big bridges, on top of which high-speed vehicles move from one genteel area to the another. An older way of life flourishes under the big bridges that block out the light of day, reminding one of the many small villages that existed on the outskirts of Lahore not too long ago, but have been assimilated into the expanding city. Malik’s towering poster was intended to beautify a dark and forsaken part of the urban landscape in order to encourage wider participation from female inhabitants of the city in the city’s life and affairs. Works like these point to the rich possibilities a city offers for artistic reflection and communion.
The author is an award-winning visual artist and writer based in Lahore whose work focuses on world literature.
This article was published in the Herald's November 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.