Karachi is a familiar place, more so to those who have lived here for several years. It is not difficult for them to detect that the city’s many layers and façades reflect the histories of its buildings, the mysteries of its alleys and the depths of its sea. Seasoned artist Naiza Khan’s recent solo exhibition hints at all these aspects. She also finds novelty in the city’s various stages of ruin.
Naiza has had a strong grounding in drawing, printmaking and painting, having learnt these skills at the Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art in England. When she returned to Karachi after graduation, she began exploring unconventional mediums to exercise these skills. This led to the representation in her work of the human body in more ways than one. In one of her early artworks, for instance, she used henna pigment on wall as a medium to create a discourse around the female body in a public setting.
As her work became known, she developed several ideas of engagement with architecture and spaces within and around Karachi that subsequently became an integral part of her art practice. Consequently, one of her main art projects has been about Manora — a small island just off the coast. She has spent a lot of time and energy in investigating and probing the mysteries of Manora — from its deteriorating temple to its seashell houses, from its abandoned living quarters to its nautical maps. Her work has unearthed a part of Karachi that always beckoned rediscovery.
Even though her new work is linked to her earlier oeuvre, the focus here is on looking at Karachi as a port and probing its association with the sea. This shift has helped her explore even newer mediums such as texts, maps and photographs. By using masking fluid to block out areas, as strips of paint move across the surface of her work, she has constructed images almost in an architectural fashion. The shapes and patterns she has created look similar to aerial views of the city, dissected almost like a body.
Over the years, Karachi has spread itself thin. As new settlements and neighbourhoods emerge at the periphery of the city, its older parts appear to have been left to rot. The decay prevalent in the downtown and southern neighbourhoods of Karachi suggests that the administrative machinery has been lethargic, if not entirely unable, to put in place additional infrastructure needed to cope with population increase. Naiza extensively explores these themes in artworks such as Cast of a City I & II and Breakage. Her other artworks – such as Dwelling I & II and Land Hunger – appear to be looking at the notions of displacement and resettlement, as well as those of ownership and occupation of land. These are all important subjects, given the city’s fragile sociopolitical environment.
Naiza also conveys urban decay by showing biological rot — as reflected in artworks titled Whale under Construction and The Streets are Rising. These large-scale paintings are heavily layered and soiled with painted images of buildings, machines and oil spills seeping into texts and receding into the skyline. They depict the ruin and destruction that are an inevitable part of any urban sprawl in a developing country. By showing the body of a dead whale amid other scattered objects, the artist, however, has made her work specific to Karachi where dead whales often wash up on shore. Through the images of polluted beaches, she also highlights the environmental degradation the city’s coastline is suffering from. Other works on display manifest Naiza’s larger concerns about identity and nationalism that have specially come to the fore in the wake of Britain’s exit from the European Union. Given that she now lives in London makes these issues even more relevant to her work.
Some of the artefacts at the exhibition portray a disturbingly familiar gloom yet, paradoxically, they also evoke a sense of hope — that the erosion and erasure they showcase will one day generate debates about Karachi’s past, present and future. These debates are crucial for the sustainable expansion of a city that seems to be perpetually under construction.
This article was published in the Herald's February 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.