Despite its enormous growth since 1947, Karachi continues to receive a regular influx of migrants to this day. By accommodating all these immigrants, Karachi has grown and changed enormously, but much like how its inhabitants have moulded the city, the city also has changed them, making them by-products of its geographical and climatic characteristics and urban sprawl. Many a time artists, such as Roohi Ahmed, have taken note of these constant shifts in Karachi’s urban environment, just as they occurred.
Born in 1966, Roohi graduated from the Karachi School of Art in 1992 and went on to receive a masters in fine arts from the College of Fine Art, University of New South Wales, Sydney, in 2013. Working now as a teacher at Karachi’s Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, she has exhibited her artworks widely both in Pakistan and abroad — including at the 11th Asian Art Biennale in Bangladesh.
Her exhibition, The Distance Between Two Points, marks the culmination of her two-year long dialogue with curator Aziz Sohail who has long admired her art. The show features many of her works produced over a period of more than 20 years though it is not meant to be a retrospective exhibition. The curator, instead, refers to it as a mapping of the artist’s body of work — a sort of survey.
The exhibition opens with a selection of works from Roohi’s early years as an artist and reflects her training as both an engineer and a sculptor. Including ceramics, installations and drawings, this section manifests the artist’s early interest in mapping Karachi, the city that has since become an integral part of her oeuvre.
The first artwork presented here is an illustration made of plexiglas and tape that marks Roohi’s daily travels through the city. Titled Mahfooz Rasta – or “Safe Route” – the work questions the state of security in Karachi in the 1990s. Last displayed in 1999, it makes one wonder how daily routines of the city’s residents are frequently disrupted by political and ethnic turmoil.
There is an evident use of red colour in the second section — and those after it. The works displayed in this section use thread and the act of stitching, an introspective and repetitive practice often associated with a feminine sensibility. If Only It Was, I is a series of delicate yet expressive installations, each dotted with sculptural fragments connected by a single thread. It highlights violence, perhaps against a human being, made evident by the overpowering use of a bloody crimson hue.
The artist continues to paint the town red, so to speak, in her Fasla series where threads appear as capillaries forming a detailed map of Karachi. The flow of crimson lines through the background fabric is evocative of cardiovascular diagrams and, therefore, symbolises life coursing through the city. The exhibition makes a transition from thread to needle in the next session. Starting with sculptures titled Black Box, nails begin to appear in the works as a central object. The artist uses them in an array of mediums — as symbols of both creation and pain. She also places them cyclically to suggest notions of distance and travel.
The unease created by sharp protruding nails in Black Box is reiterated in a video, A Moment of Silence, which reminds one of the phrase ‘pin-drop silence’. It shows needles suspended mid-air with no sound except that produced by the moving videotape. Mimicking the pulsating rhythm of the human heart, the work generates a sense of disquieting nervousness among the audience.
Relief works in a series, The Distance Between Two Points Is A Straight Line, employ needles for a similar discomforting effect.
Roohi pushes the boundaries of her practice further in what perhaps are her most iconic video installations: Sew and Sow and Out of Bounds. Both of them show the artist carefully sewing the epidermis of her palm. As she inflicts pain upon herself with a piercing needle, the audience must sit in discomfort and witness her trauma in order to realise that violence often occurs methodically much like her own performance — one prick at a time.
The first video shows a stitched thread outlining her palm’s creases. The second one projects a restricted hand, forced into a mid-fist position by a red thread pulling at each finger. What is bizarre about these works is that they show no blood. Yes, it is represented through the vibrantly coloured thread but one expects an act of perpetual piercing to result in some blood oozing and dripping. The whole act, thus, becomes a symbol of submission and a resigned acceptance of the pain that slowly but surely has crept into our lives.
The final section of the exhibition focuses on the artist’s interest in Pakistan’s cartography. She first used a map of the country in an artwork she made in 2004. Titled Pak Sar Zameen, it shows a perfectly drawn Pakistan as it appears in local textbooks. An Exercise in Persistence, created in 2016, is an obvious reference to a forced imposition of nationalism. The artist uses crisp outlines in overlapping repetitions, though they do not perfectly coincide to show flaws and discrepancies that mar the state’s persistent efforts at building a uniform national identity.
A Straight Line, a new work made specifically for The Distance Between Two Points, depicts Pakistan’s boundaries drawn in a single but broken line. This, too, is a symbol of the flawed concept of nationalism as espoused and enforced by the state.
On the whole, the exhibition allows viewers to improve their understanding of the artist’s sensibility since all her major works are available in one space for an immediate perusal. It, thus, allows them to contextualise her current work in light of her past practice. Even though the use of striking red and appropriation of maps remain constant features of Roohi’s work, there has been a visible evolution in how she has used these elements and for what symbolic and artistic objectives.
The writer is a recent graduate from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.
This article was published in the Herald's October 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.