“Who Gets to Talk about Whom?” presents work by Pakistani artists exploring the creation of knowledge and artistic production through collaboration.

Curator Hajra Haider Karrar and her team look into collaborative practices, bringing into focus discourse as a medium of knowledge and artistic creation.

The Tentative Collective, A 'Pakhtun Memory', 2011, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

The Tentative Collective, ‘A Pakhtun Memory’, 2011, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

With the emergence of the Postmodern era, a multiplicity of voices have also surfaced, and with them the debates on who has the right to talk about something or to represent someone. This directly links with the notion of knowledge creation, and how knowledge historically has been implicit in the subjugation of certain groups. If the basic right to talk and represent your own self with regards to your own issues is not being given to one, then one is being denied their reality.

Curator Hajra Haider takes on these concerns in her new project “Who gets to talk about Whom?”. The entire focus of this curatorial exercise hinges on the creation of knowledge through collaborative means encompassing discussion and debate. These themselves are then available to the viewer to listen to and better understand the process of how the collaboration took place. The notion of ‘collaboration’ as a theme is further taken ahead by Haider herself in composing a curatorial team – a practice not so frequent in Pakistan on this scale today. Talking to Art Radar abouther Curatorial practice, Hajra mentions how

Having been trained as a visual artist, I perceive of my curatorial practice as an expansion of my artistic practice. It enables me to address and question the South Asian landscape (so far) and the current constructions and understandings of the contemporary art of Pakistan, and in response devise new forms of interpretation and presentation. I am invested in initiating occasions for critical discourses via exhibitions, writings, discussions, symposiums, and workshops. The aim of creating these occasions is to conduct a comparative and counter-analysis by often recontextualization of existing works to challenge existing notions and understandings. Furthermore, the attempt is to expand on the multiple cross-disciplinary strands and overlaps that emerge and have the potential to emerge from contemporary art practices especially in the case of research-based practices.

Abeera Kamran & Sumaya Kassim, 'Catalouguing as a Process of Forgetfulness', 2018, notes on newsprint. Image courtesy the artists.

Abeera Kamran & Sumaya Kassim, ‘Catalouguing as a Process of Forgetfulness’, 2018, notes on newsprint. Image courtesy the artists.

The scope of the project is expanded still more by a ‘Discursive Programme’, taking place every week, comprising a ‘Reading Session’ and then a discussion, which takes on various themes and aids in the creation of knowledge. This all then comes together into a digital archive. Haider has deliberately taken to the digital, forgoing the traditional print catalogue/publication for a medium that continues to grow in relation to the debates that are generated by this exhibition. Discussing her current project, Hajra tells Art Radar:

It is an extensive investigation of the emergence of collaborative models of artistic practice over the last decade in Pakistan. This project is based on the politics of collaboration, it’s ethics, formats and critique in the decolonial turn. This inquiry forms the foundation of the project from where it leads to the discursive session for active engagement and critical discourse on these core questions. The discursive allows the space to be inclusive of different disciplines which tackle similar questions. The intention is to break the insularity within and between disciplines and create a space for sharing knowledge, strategies and limitations of production and the responsibilities tied to knowledge production.

All of this embeds the works with a sense that the self of the artist or the curator even has taken a backseat, while the issues are front and centre. This creates a greater understanding of the issues at hand, provided through a lens which has been developed after much negotiation and dialogue, and is not the domain of one person’s thought process. The nine-collaborative works in the show range in issues from access to a site, power play, to representation and authorship.

Rabbya Naseer & Hurmat-ul-Ain, 'Casual Leave', 2008, series of 6 photographs. Image courtesy the artists.

Rabbya Naseer & Hurmat-ul-Ain, ‘Casual Leave’, 2008, series of 6 photographs. Image courtesy the artists.

Rabbya Naseer & Hurmat-ul-Ain’s work entitled Casual Leave is a series of photographs depicting the two posing in front of holiday scenes in a photographer studio in Lahore. These images, a testament to an era of Studio Photography, played a key role in the preservation of memories, but they also represent a desire for social mobility and ambition. The two artists stand in front of mountains, rivers and on long winding paths leading to forests and beyond, putting forth the deeper meanings behind these choices for a background.

Fazal Rizvi & Dostain Baloch, 'Down the River, I met a boy', 2014, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

Fazal Rizvi & Dostain Baloch, ‘Down the River, I met a boy’, 2014, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

Down the River, I Met a Boy is a collaboration between Fazal Rizvi & Dostain Baloch. Although their practice has not been collaborative in nature, they have come together for this work. A projected image of an invisible border in the form of the Lyari River imposes itself on questions and answers printed on A-4 paper between the two artists and covering the entire area of the projection as a grid. The projection – or the border – superimposes itself on this interaction between a resident and non-resident of Lyari. Engagement with the work is impossible until coming up close, something that in reality might have been difficult considering the notorious reputation of Lyari amongst the residents of Karachi. The questions posed by the artists are some of the more general questions that seem to come forth from a place of curiosity about the unknown, yet something that seems to have a severe hold on the residents of this cosmopolitan location.

Nida Kirmani & Dostain Baloch, 'Don Akhbar', 2017, documentary film. Image courtesy the artists.

Nida Kirmani & Dostain Baloch, ‘Don Akhbar’, 2017, documentary film. Image courtesy the artists.

Lyari also becomes the concern of Nida Kirmani & Dostain Baloch in their work entitled Don Akhbar, in which they showcase the effect of newspaper headlines as tools for assertion of power and for production of narratives. They walk the viewer through the impact of such headlines, with their slurs and lack of censorship, on the psyche of the residents of Lyari as well as in building up the image of gang members and their turf war. With the most absurd language and graphically violent images, the effects on children, women and the overall repute of Lyari is controlled by these newspaper, although the subject of this documentary is one ‘Janbaaz’. The title of the work itself is a twist on the word and National newspaper Dawn, where ‘Janbaaz’ takes on the same significance for the people of Lyari.

Shahana Rajani & Zahra Malkani, 'Rakshas Railways', 2018, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

Shahana Rajani & Zahra Malkani, ‘Rakshas Railways’, 2018, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

Shahana Rajani and Zehra Malkani’s collaborative work has taken on issues of development and counter-geographies. In this work too, entitled Rakshas Railways, they take upon colonial development and infrastructure as tenants of the State’s subjugation for profit maximisation and their own gains, while disregarding the original fabric. Talking to Art Radar about their work, they explain:

The Rakshas Railway and Unruly Lines engages with the violent colonial history as well as the transformations, degradation, ruptures and restorations of the railway infrastructure in Pakistan. Our research was prompted by the colonial resurgence of railway infrastructure as a result of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – a process that has been marked by resource extraction, environmental destruction, death and disappearance. We read these imperial formations, as well as the resistance and refusal of it, through the materiality and ecology of sites of degraded, decaying, encroached and re-purposed railway infrastructure. By tracing the materialities of this imperial debris, we wanted to explore what people and places are left with, looking to the remains and remnants, to its social and material afterlives. We also explore the acts of railway sabotage carried out by separatists in Sindh and Balochistan – drawing on a long tradition of nationalist resistance to colonial infrastructure – to better understand railway landscapes as sites of struggle and transformation.

Tea Collaborative, 'Tea Party: Episode 4', 2016, vinyl print. Image courtesy the artist.

Tea Collaborative, ‘Tea Party: Episode 4’, 2016, vinyl print. Image courtesy the artist.

The Tea Collaborative have long worked in the domain of public space, and tackled questions of access to it. There are always certain elements in their work that remain the same, but their application to a new site is key in raising concerns about the nature of any particular space. Their work on display, Tea Party: Episode 4, questions the ‘publicness’ of the new Islamabad Airport – an infrastructure project that has over the years become quite controversial in its own right. With the constant ready-made excuse by the State of ‘security concerns’ to cover a wide array of refusals and atrocities, the collaborators were denied access and thus chose an alternate site nearby. The theatrics of the work are juxtaposed with the hardline questions that the piece raises, where tea drinking – though a colonial import – converts the rejection of such a simple everyday activity in a public space into a bigger issue.

The Tentative Collective, A 'Pakhtun Memory', 2011, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

The Tentative Collective, ‘A Pakhtun Memory’, 2011, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

The question of claim to public spaces continues in the work of Tentative Collective, entitled A Pakhtun Memory. Taking off from a music video that Rasheed Khan has received reminding him of his village and modes of celebration there, the collaboration tries to bring forth the same festivity to a vacant roundabout in a predominantly Pakhtun migrant’s neighbourhood. The scenes that result from these celebrations are recorded discreetly and capture the mood of the people. The collaboration is a result of a dialogue between the artists Yaminay Chaudhri, Mohammed Saddique Khan and Rasheed Khan, and tries to bring forth what the latter two have lost due to migration for work. It is the capturing of a moment that would have been an everyday scene in their villages and towns. The rights to the space comes into question when they are told that they cannot continue on with the music.

Fatima & Zahra Hussain, 'Infobomb: The Subcontinent Satellite New Mapping System', 2013, website, newspapers and archival documents. Image courtesy of the artists.

Fatima & Zahra Hussain, ‘Infobomb: The Subcontinent Satellite New Mapping System’, 2013, website, newspapers and archival documents. Image courtesy of the artists.

Fatima & Zahra Hussain’s work Infobomb: The Subcontinent Satellite New Mapping System effectively blurs the line between fact and fiction, using this technique to critically analyse borders and the rhetoric that is behind their construction. The inquiry takes off from a document that is only discovered in the year 2013 calling for a new border in the Subcontinent region effective from March 2014, as a testament to the Hindu-Muslim Unity. The fictionality of the work is challenged by the use of devices such as three editions of a newspaper titled The Subcontinent Times, letters and documents, podcasts, and others. This allows for the work to question the role of media as knowledge disseminators and in converting it into a new form of reality.

Abeera Kamran & Sumaya Kassim, 'Catalouguing as a Process of Forgetfulness', 2018, notes on newsprint. Image courtesy the artists.

Abeera Kamran & Sumaya Kassim, ‘Catalouguing as a Process of Forgetfulness’, 2018, notes on newsprint. Image courtesy the artists.

Abeera Kamran & Sumaya Kassim’s ongoing work on the role of museums as places that are continuing the colonial legacy and narrative is brought forward in Cataloguing As A Process Of Forgetfulness. This project has been part of a process undertaken with other curators and researchers within Birmingham Museum in an attempt to decolonise the collection. The attempts have resulted in a realisation that the task is hardly a simple one, and much of the cost is hidden and personal.

Omer Wasim & Saira Sheikh, 'The Optics of Labor', 2016, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

Omer Wasim & Saira Sheikh, ‘The Optics of Labor’, 2016, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

The Optics of Labor by Omer Wasim & Saira Sheikh raises questions in line with the very theme of the show. A group of sweepers repeat the daily duties of their profession at Clifton Beach, hinting towards the futility of their efforts as the wind and the entire socio-economic fabric works against them. It also leads one to question whether the artist has any right to talk about them and their labour. Addressing this, Omer Wasim tells to Art Radar:

A lot of practitioners—not situating ourselves out of this as we are very much a part of the system— are privileged, which is not only limited to capital, but is also social, cultural, and ever expanding, which gives them the power to talk about and employ labour to make and realize their work. (In our country, having access to education is also a privilege, not necessarily a basic right.) Since there is so much privilege and resources available to us to make visible these inequalities, inefficient ways in which labour is used in our neighborhoods, we latch on the visualities that emerge out of them….. The video highlights multiple forms of labour in the city, in the arts, and its exploitation. The question that emerges then is how do we credit this kind of labour/these laborer’s? Are they co-makers of the work? How can we think about ways in which authorship can be complicated?

In doing all of this, we hope that the work complicates authorship, gets people to think about and mull over condition of the labourers in Karachi, and the ways in which it is continuously exploited for the gain of artists and those who are privileged.

However, gauging from our limited interaction with them, I don’t think that they perceive their labour—act of cleaning the streets from dusk to dawn—as futile. They are very much aware of the poor conditions that they have to work in, and the insufficient wages that they make after backbreaking work in Karachi’s weather. It is important to note here that they these cleaners have been systemically disenfranchised, failed by the state to such an extent that having little money is better than not having any—so they will keep cleaning as it might give them some food, but any dissent will cost them their job as there is no job security.

The Tentative Collective, A 'Pakhtun Memory', 2011, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

The Tentative Collective, ‘A Pakhtun Memory’, 2011, video installation. Image courtesy the artists.

The curatorial discourse and methodologies are expanding within Pakistan today, and it is encouraging to see new directions taking shape such as in this exhibition. The approach towards this curatorial theme is constructed in a holistic manner, where engagement with the works, between the artists, and with the public all come together to achieve the aim of the exhibition, one of

creating new strategies of approach, which are not informed by the ones ingrained through colonization and models of western civilization.

Varda Nisar

2311

“Who Gets To Talk About Whom” was on view from 5 July to 4 August 2018 at AAN Gandhara Art Space, F-65/2 Kehkashan, Clifton Block-4, Karachi, Pakistan.

Related Topics: Pakistani, photography, video, installationartists as curators

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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