The gallery as a meeting of ideas.
This is a time that curatorial initiatives can play a crucial role in shaping the art discourse relevant to the context of a dynamic artistic milieu in Pakistan. A globalized world, where the anchors of identity and ideology are fractured, diverse and blurred, the nature of curatorial work brings with it complex challenges of addressing multiple layers which confront art-making and its interpretations. A greater challenge lies in curatorial initiatives to be able to investigate, if not command, a path with a vision to dissect cross cultural influences and interdisciplinary practices, and in turn challenge notions embedded in colonial and/or capitalist and appropriated discourses, not just of art-making and art criticism, but also of curating.
Since it has become somewhat of a fashion to be referred to as a curator by anyone in the art world managing a show, this need for personal visibility for the 'curator' becomes a strong contender in the process of disseminating new knowledge. Aspirations that have to do with becoming 'relevant' are mere marketing tools for entering the 'club'; unhealthy symptoms of the practice. However, curatorial initiatives do also have an immense capacity to emerge as channels of introspection and debate , if they are anchored in a creative and critical thrust with the vision to allow and reconnect with history/ies; so that their discourses are not tailored for prestigious 'Prizes' ,'wanna-be' consumption, or just 'getting there'.
The baggage of language is the burden of contemporary art writing, its related fields such as curatorial and artists' statements, catalogue essays, etc. Art jargon is also a discourse of exclusivity, where words are appropriated and have come to be understood within an insiders' frame, whose parameters are well insulated from peripheral ideas in creative fields in the larger society. Similarly, certain words have become significant to the survival and support of art networks/agendas. Furthermore, 'curatorial practice (which frames the way art can be read) is (also) a methodology of control and propaganda'*. (*Void as Exhibition, http://axisweb.org/usforum.aspx)
The plethora of jargon, often a chaotic assimilation of conflicting histories, allows for words to be twisted, minced and/or exploited due to the lack of enquiry into the ideological implications of words and ideas; without allowing for interpretations of different cultural/political/ historical contexts and layers. On a negative side, these are the frameworks that curatorial work can emulate and support, and perhaps to aspire. However, the question is: can they see beyond this frame?
At a recent show held at Karachi's VM Gallery, many issues emerge which address the nature of curatorial practice in relationship to art-making in Pakistan: 'Rapture/Rupture,' curated by Sumbul Khan, encompasses the relationship of a larger frame of words, to their application and meaning in both the personal and the political. It initiates discussion of cross disciplinary directions between film, literature, music and painting; between the visual to the literary and musical, which enjoy far integration to the larger society. There are points of possible rupture (and rapture), and of entry, into the processes and linkages of each medium. The framework provides more room for understanding, if it is not 'viewed' as a 'regular' exhibition, but as a possible model for investigation into 'reading' art with a non-linear, non-hierarchal approach, where the creativity of curatorial choices form an important layer.
This approach allows for a wider lens of engagement within visual art and the art gallery as an extension of that direction. The text of Late Noon Meem Rashid's poem, titled 'Zindagi se darte ho?' is mounted on the gallery wall, adjacent to a film projected by new media artist Nameera Ahmad. The interaction between what is spoken in the 'silent' text next to the moving image and sound work opens into the curatorial investigation of rapture/rupture, within each expression, as well as in relation to the other. The implications of these two words are broad, but the choice of placing an experimental film of a young living artist is in itself a point of rupture into the iconic verse of Rashid, a major exponent of Urdu free verse.
If Rashid helps us to contextualize violence and fear in the present day, being evoked in Nameera's shots of slaughtering chicken, then there is sufficient room for rapture. ('On the wall of the city, the shadow of the ghost/afraid of the unsaid moment that has not yet arrived/afraid of the awareness of the coming of that moment /afraid already')*. Similarly, Nameera's work echoes the commentary of Rashid, which encompasses the universal post-depression suffering. *(The Fear of being/ Ali Madeeh Hashmi/Viewpoint, August, 2012, online issue # 113)
It would be misleading to assume that these works can only be viewed as mere points of rapture or rupture, therefore with a premise like this not only does the curatorial thrust demand scrutiny, but also how it is critiqued. One can guess that the curator is also addressing the context of medium as possible rupture. Linking two distinct expressions anchored in different historical times and medium, her intention could also be to rupture established hierarchies with an unexpected conversation between these two voices of resistance, protest and inspiration.
Rashid was a controversial figure of his time. In many ways, Nameera's work challenges the audience due to its depiction of implied violence and ethos of suffering. The sight and sound of butchering, and oozing blood are an unsettling entry into the gallery; while this is a daily act at the butchers, it is symbolic of a much more morbid social reality of Pakistan.
The personal is also seen as political: Sumbul lists political upheavals such as in Egypt and the 'raptures/ruptures' within events from February, 2011 ('Hosni Mubarak stepping down as rapture')*, to June, 2011 ('1000 injured in protest as charge against Interior Minister of killing protestors-delayed rupture')*. It is through this premise that each of the works here is also to be 'seen', but due to the different histories of each, containment is not sought. Relationships to democracy are left open for each voice, including for the critique that comes as another layer. *(Curatorial notes)
However, Nameera's exploration of the notion of time, movement, and context is obscure and unconventional in approach, the pace being so slow that time seems to be suspended. There are moments of visual and poetic ecstasy that capture that movement of a chicken wing fluttering or a blood stained feather flying in slow motion. These strange moments of 'rapture' are disrupted by a disturbing sound track, negating the poetic harmony of the visual. There is room for several connections to a historical or traditional time and space within it, especially in its resistance to defy time (and modernist notions of change). It is interesting that the rhythm and tenor in Yousuf Kerai's tabla 'gats'(compositions), in an adjacent space, is also about a time that is past, but of a different tempo, both psychologically and historically; a distant but possible meeting point between the two. *(Ali Madeeh Hashmi). These layers give some indication of the subtext of the curatorial premise.
Though Rashid is not considered a traditionalist, Faiz has noted that Rashid, 'aimed towards the middle class intelligentsia, which is why his popularity remained limited to certain sections of society, familiar with Western literature and poetry' (MH). In this space, Nameera's work is the most unapproachable due to its ambiguity and tiers of symbolism, and would not enjoy popular appeal. The notion of art as idea and not as a conventional 'commodity' is to be considered here. The curator's creativity draws on these two distinct trajectories to form equations, putting the art viewer in a place outside his comfort zone; and to rethink the relationship of art to the art gallery space.
There are moments of rapture within Rashid's reference to freedom in 'khaak ho gai aakhir' ('The gown of the night has been torn/ demolished at last' MH). Sumbul talks about the layered references: to Rashid's own will to escape from the shadow of Faiz ('aadmi hum bhi hain, aadmi tum bhi ho'). The text is left open, to be interpreted through the discourses of other arts in a gallery, without the curator's commentary in a conventional frame. The frame is the dynamics of the physical and social space itself.
A different, quite discordant dynamics is established in a space partitioned for a framed semi-abstract canvas by Moeen Faruqi, with the tabla composition recording by Yousuf Kerai in the same space. It is interesting that the fragmented form in Moeen's painted imagery is a point of rupture in his figurative; rapture, due to new possibilities ahead. Yousuf Kerai, who views the relationship between the two mediums and their content, and texture to be very far from one another, notes that the visual most likely relates better to jazz in relationship to the tempo of his painted form.
Perhaps, the presence of Kerai's compostion in its classical 16 beat cycle, 'teen taal,' placed in close proximity to a work that is derived or inspired within a Western modernist sensibility best elicits the dichotomy and rupture within contemporary narratives. To Kerai, the closer visual idiom to his work would be a miniature from the Ragni Series. He speaks about his music going into the trajectories of traditional mythologies, the subtlety of his 'lehja' (accent/tenor) and 'in between frequencies' closer to Chughtai's intricate line. Kerai's rupture is also within the exploration of varying tempos of sound, starting with 'ik chaala' (gait), with a change to a different 'chaala' ('chaal badalna'). He speaks about his compositions being related to ideas, as opposed to accompanying a song; just as 'the themes of Rashid's poetry run from the relationships between words and meanings, between language and awareness'. (MH)
On another note, the placement of Faruqi's painting in an otherwise bare space with white walls, although it allows space for the music to breathe, and for the audience to contemplate, as the curator might have intended, also addresses the ideology of the ' white cube'. Whether or not this kind of an appropriated model of how modern art is to be viewed is an aspiration, it can initiate discussion into the existence and assimilation of Western modernist values (separation of art from mass culture, hierarchies of art/craft) and its dynamics in Pakistan. Especially significant is the context of this initiative is to locate the curatorial thrust on the relationships of democracy to ideologies of capitalism and their relationship to structures that nurture creativity. The ruptures and effacement of social transformation and context are avenues that demand extensive discussion in terms of curatorial work.
In Noon Meem Rashid's words, 'aadmi zuban bhi hai, aadmi biyaan bhi hai' ('Human is also language, Human is (verbal) expression too' (MH). That is perhaps the most important anchor for this initiative from an art critic's point of view, and if discussion and research can be sustained on the complex linkages presented before us, there can be authentic critical engagement with the frameworks that dictate the making and reading of art.