October 13, 2011

Between the Playground and the Temple

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On October 12, artist Naiza Khan presented her recent artistic work at Uris Auditorium, as part of the Department of Art’s lecture series. She was born in Pakistan and educated at Somerville College, Oxford University at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. She then returned to live in Karachi, Pakistan, where she has been based for the last twenty years.

Khan is a founding member and former coordinator for the Vasl Artists’ Collective (part of the Triangle Network) and has been a member of the fine art faculty at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi. She has exhibited widely around the world, and curated The Rising Tide: New Directions in Art from Pakistan, 1990–2010 at the Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi. The Rising Tide was the first such survey of contemporary Pakistani art to be held in Pakistan.

Khan’s interest in interventions into public and urban space have led her into a long-term investigation of Manora Island, just off the coast of Karachi. Karachi, one of the world’s largest cities, serves as Pakistan’s major commercial centre and port. It has a population of about 15,000. Karachi’s  various historical and religious sites, including a medieval Hindu temple, a Sufi shrine and a church, point to a multi-religious social fabric. Unsurprisingly, Karachi is both a site for religious pilgrimages and leisure. Like many other cities in the region, Karachi  evokes the same play of history, urban decay and transformation.

Over the last few years, most residents have left the island due to the “Golden Handshake Scheme.” Developers want to turn the island into a mini-Dubai with expensive apartments that current residents will likely not be able to afford. For the 3,000 remaining civilian residents, life is suspended between a vanishing past and an uncertain future. Everyday, these residents face crumbling playgrounds and soon-to-be demolished homes.

Khan has been visiting Manora for the last several years, documenting its buildings and its people through a range of media, such as photographs, drawings, and video works. She has also confronted ethical issues, as Manora residents often perceive her as a journalist or a legal activist and expect her to be their advocate. The artist has been captured by some especially striking developments: Rusting ships and trawlers in the water and the ruins of modern apartment blocks on the island—both sites are reminiscent of a graveyard. Equally haunting is the site of a school building, where children died when a wall collapsed on top of them a few years ago. Abandoned furniture has been piled up in the school courtyard. Neither fully inhabited, not completely ruined, Manora is a place in suspension. Manora reflects the transformations that many places are undergoing worldwide.

Khan’s projects on Manora include drawings, paintings and photographs of Manora landscapes. She also created a video titled Homage, which focuses on a pile of broken and discarded school furniture in the middle of a desolate, rubble-strewn site. Khan paints the furniture in a sky-blue color, the exact color of painted gravestones nearby where the children are buried. As local residents assisted her, onlookers described  their everyday concerns. The presentation and lively Question-and-Answer question starkly revealed the complexities Khan confronts as she engages with Karachi, a city in transition.

Original Author: Rehan Dadi