Sense of Entrapment.
In November 2013 the Karachi art community was privileged to engage with the traveling exhibition Homelands' curated by Indian-based Latika Gupta. After traveling to Delhi Mumbai Kolkata and Lahore the exhibit consisting of works from the British Council Collection opened in November 2013. The exhibit the concept of which was selected from an online competition showcased a new world order and a new reality for a post-imperial Britain was particularly relevant for a post-colonial Pakistani audience that continuously navigates its problematic relationship of belonging to and sharing a history with the United Kingdom.
Latika's curatorial question i.e. the navigation of our identity of our place of origin and our sense of home is particularly relevant in a globalized world where she herself states that Today many of us move with ease across inter/national boundaries. We are born in one country we make another our home.' However it is an even more important question for those of us of Muslim heritage situated in a post 9/11 post recessionary world where we continuously and anxiously navigate our hyphenated British-Pakistan/British-Asian heritage and where the reality of a European Fortress' is ever more present. While London continues to be a coveted destination for rich South Asians and Arabs to buy second properties and a magnet for higher education seekers it is at the same time a nation where immigration becomes restricted and bound by new rules and privileges and where one encounters higher barriers for cultural exchange and dialogue.
As a recently returned university graduate from the United States where similar anxieties are shaping national policy these contexts and questions made this exhibit particularly relevant to me.
Nathan Coley a past nominee for the prestigious Turner Prize was represented in the exhibit with Camouflage Bayrakli Mosque commissioned for the exhibition Breaking Step shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade Serbia in 2007. The contested history of this mosque itself is important to contextualize this powerful work. Built as a mosque during the Ottoman era it was later converted to a church and then reverted to a mosque again. Post Yugoslavia Civil War it remained the only mosque that was left standing and available as a place of worship for residents of Belgrade. In the opening lines to the catalogue of Homelands' the British Council states that Latika explores the meaning of belonging and alienation of the real and imagined home'.
Hence the placement of this work in the exhibit is a profound starting point for our own explorations of contested space and our transnational identities especially when viewed within the context of our own Islamic republic where spaces of worship for the Other' have also been destroyed and re-purposed.
Jimmy Durham's work titled Our House is also relevant in the light of contemporary issues surrounding immigration and hardening national barriers. In the work the viewer engages with stark divisions etched in black and white. Three-fourths of the work: the left is titled The Neighbours and is depicted by chaos looting plunder and smoke. The right titled Our House on the other hand connotes safety minimalism relaxation and most of all comfort. Both these images are shown to be separated by a high fence'. This work created in a child-like primitive style depicts the reality of today and the anxieties surrounding a post-imperial Britain mired in economic recession and surrounded by seemingly unfriendly immigrant states'. Over the last half century immigration from the global south to the north has increased and been regulated and with recent fears and issues this anxiety is even more paramount.
The recent expansion of the EU and fears of the Poles/Romanians/Bulgarians taking over a prosperous England are particularly relevant in the context of this exhibition but so are our own narratives and our own concerns. Here one must also applaud the curator who selected this work highly critical of British foreign policy and included it in an exhibition that is then promoted by the British Council.
Another important work in the exhibition Untitled is by Suki Dhanda from the series Shopna. A female individual stares out of a window alone and desolate in this large photographic print. The image is contrasted heavily in black and white with the inner space posited as claustrophobic as a form of entrapment. The protagonist is covered by a lace curtain a classic symbol of the feminine. The viewer itself has limited access over the body of the female her gaze is away from us and her face only available to us through the lace further layering and complicating the work. Dhanda explains to Latika of her own origins her parents emigrated from the Punjab and the kitchen played a big role in my life as I was growing up because I had to do a lot of work there. While a lot of my friends socialized I had to spend my time cleaning cooking or cutting onions. Interestingly Shopna too spends a lot of time in the kitchen helping her mother.
It is a well utilized space especially for women of Asian families'. While the background provided by Dhandha is useful in characterizing the image her work is powerful and can elicit a visceral reaction without this background.
The sense of entrapment of dealing with hybridized-hyphenated identities is something all of us can relate to in this globalized world where we continuously navigate our own selves and consistently deal with tradition and modernity either in the Diaspora or our original homes'.