As part of an art installation in 2011, a rooster was tethered in the centre of a gallery floor and some feed was scattered around it. As the bird consumed the feed over time, it formed a circle around itself. The circumference of the circle was determined by the length of the cord it was tied with.
The installation, conceived by artist Ehsan ul Haque, suggested how we become accustomed to boundaries imposed on us and how we keep moving and working within them as a matter of routine.
The same notion of limitations, or limits, was explored in Boundaries…Boundless — an exhibition curated by Tehmina Ahmed. It featured six artists who have all explored boundaries, in various forms and manifestations, through photography.
Two of them have looked at boundaries manifested in topography. Amean J’s captivating series of photographs, titled Seascapes, Karachi, for instance, captures both the fluidity of the sea and the coarseness of the shore. With their subtle monochromatic hues, at first glance every image appears as finely rendered drawings, visualising the ever-changing boundary between the land and the ocean. The grey tone of the photographs removes any distractions that the infusion of colour could have created and allows the audience to focus solely on how one massive body blends into another.
Through a beautiful combination of shade and texture, the photographer captures the gradient where the stillness of sand shifts into the movement of sea. The images also capture the seamless merger between the sky and the ocean — offering a contrast to the rugged margin between land and water. The horizon, determined by the limits of our eyesight, also alludes to the boundaries of our perception — a border beyond which human senses do not work.
Momin Zafar, an Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture alum, has focused on the northern parts of Pakistan, particularly the Gilgit-Baltistan region. His large photographs highlight how vehicular travel is an almost unavoidable way to explore those parts of the country. It was during his long voyages through isolated valleys and mountains that he was able to grasp the visuals around him in their depth and nuance. The artist’s journey also serves as a metaphor for the transience of human life accentuated by the gigantic and immovable scenery.
Zafar made his travels during the monsoon season when droplets of rain often covered the glass windows of his vehicle. He has skilfully used these aqueous patterns as foregrounds for blurry images of the mountainous landscape.
His work not only shows a visual blur between the sky and the hills, it also underscores how the two mix and merge to create a whole — much like the ocean and the shore in Amean J’s photographs. The huge size of the images force the viewer to shift their perspective – stepping back in order to take in the whole visual with all its colourful imagery, then getting up close to appreciate the delicacy of patterns formed by raindrops – and thereby gauge the limits and possibilities of their own vision.
Artists Madiha Aijaz and Mehreen Khalid have approached the theme of the show from a feminine perspective. The work of the former, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, includes a series of photographs titled In Two Languages. It is named so after a poem, A Death Sentence in Two Languages, by Karachi-based Urdu poet Afzal Ahmed Syed. Like the poem, Madiha’s images explore the presence and persistence of feminine desire for privacy and pleasure in a society that continually tries to deny it.
With seemingly mundane imagery, the artist manages to capture what it is like to be a female. One image, captured from the privacy of a distant hut, shows men walking across the shore. In another image, she looks at male passengers through a train’s glass door. A third photograph shows a boy casually playing billiards while burqa clad figures pass by in the foreground. Society, the artist seems to say, creates invisible limitations for women — gender segregation and purdah being just two of the many ways in which these limitations are enforced.
Unlike Madiha who operates from behind the camera (but still manages to make her own presence felt in her work), Mehreen has put herself in front of the lens. Her work is a documentation of her own life as a camera follows her and her family from one place to the next.
She has staged her visuals in such a way that they capture both stillness and movement. The imagery changes in each photograph — the artist and a scarf being the only constants in them. The work suggests boundaries human beings subject themselves to, both signifying Mehreen’s individual limitations and opportunities and those of women on the whole.
Umar Riaz and Irfan Naqi, two other artists featured in the show, have employed innovative ideas in not just creating but also displaying their works. Riaz’s work, presented in a room with black walls, allowed the audience to be surrounded by nothing but his photographs. This ambience helped him highlight the fluid movements of the legendary kathak dancer Nahid Siddiqui who is the subject of his work.
Each of his photographs merges into the next and a viewer can see a whole series of interconnected dance moves by standing in the centre of the room and moving full circle. The photographer has dexterously used variations of his camera’s exposure to capture the dancer in the full glory of her physical appearance. Combined with the manner of display, this has allowed him to show both her soul and body as she performs.
Irfan Naqi has invested his work, titled Algorithm Of Boundless, with an understanding of depth and spatiality that can be credited to his training as an architect. His wall-sized display consists of 500 fragmented photographs that together form eight vertical panels. Each photo has a close-up image of a man’s face but the artist cleverly placed them to create the illusion of depth. Certain pieces appear on a higher plane than others even when in reality the whole arrangement was only two-dimensional. The work seems to explore the illusive possibilities of photography itself and suggests how it can shatter the boundaries of human perception and how those boundaries can be altered and shifted.
Tehmina Ahmed, the curator, has been scrupulous in the selection of the works on display in order to shed light on the subject of boundaries from several angles. The show encompasses works that look at bounds and limitations not just from a physical perspective but also from social, personal and artistic standpoints. By keeping the exhibition limited to photography, she has also highlighted how this relatively new artistic medium is faring in Pakistan.
This article was published in the Herald's December 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.