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Karachi Pop: Vernacular Visualities in 1990s Karachi

David Alesworth, Elizabeth Dadi, Iftikhar Dadi, and Durriya Kazi with Bacchoo, Shaukat Lala, Mairaj Nicklewala and sons, and Yousuf and family, Heart Mahal, 1996-1999

David Alesworth, Elizabeth Dadi, Iftikhar Dadi, and Durriya Kazi with Bacchoo, Shaukat Lala, Mairaj Nicklewala and sons, and Yousuf and family, Heart Mahal, 1996-1999. Beaten stainless steel, painted MDF, and lightbulbs, installed inside shipping container, 8 x 8 x 20 inches. Collection of Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Photo: Courtesy Fukuoka Asian Art Museum

What is it about large cities in hot places with limited art audiences that encourages artists to transform their works into sites of possibility and encounter?
Durriya Kazi and David Alesworth, Arz-E-Mauood, 1997

Durriya Kazi and David Alesworth, Arz-E-Mauood, 1997. Painted MDF, decorative lights, and sewing machine. Site-specifc installation, Karachi. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Durriya Kazi and David Alesworth, Arz-E-Mauood, 1997

Durriya Kazi and David Alesworth, Arz-E-Mauood, 1997. Painted MDF, decorative lights, and sewing machine. Site-specifc installation, Karachi. Photo: Courtesy the artists

I want to introduce two bodies of work produced by a group of four artists—Durriya Kazi, David Alesworth, Iftikhar Dadi, and Elizabeth Dadi—in 1990s Karachi. These works are exemplary of these artists’ explorations of the popular and the everyday. And while these artists’ influence is acknowledged by a cadre of younger artists including Bani Abidi, Huma Mulji, and Rashid Rana, it is not extensively studied, analyzed, or even widely known.

Implicit in this group of works at the time of their making were three broad challenges to Pakistan’s small but then entrenched art world. The first was a questioning of the relationship between high art and popular craft—concepts for which the Urdu language does not even have separate words. This interrogation constituted a restaging of earlier aesthetic debates, with the addition of a political dimension that privileged the urban and eschewed fantasies of an unspoilt rural environment. The second challenge was a rethinking of sites and modes of display that treated art as a mode of inquiry and the city itself as a kind of museum. The third challenge took the form of an oppositional response to the largely moribund but persistent aesthetic of western late modernist painting propagated by the local gallery culture—a form wholly inadequate to reflect the explosive urban realities of Karachi.

Karachi in the ’90s was already a megacity of more than 10 million people (it now houses more than twice that number). It was experiencing exponential growth against the backdrop of a decrepit infrastructure and persistent ethnic fault lines, its culture in the middle of a decade-long collective exhalation after holding its breath during the barren years of General Zia’s military rule. But with new investment policies promising a new influx of foreign capital, this was a time of Dickensian possibilities.

One manifestation of this new creative energy is the group’s Heart Mahal, 1996. This collaborative effort between the artists and teams of urban craftsmen is a 20-foot-long container, the innards of which have been transformed into a shrine-like space that evokes decorated trucks and rickshaws, weddings, religious rituals, and Bollywood film sets. On the container’s far wall, hundreds of colored lights pulse to suggest a pumping heart. Their light reflects off beaten stainless steel side walls lined with embossed interpretations of the artists’ drawings and toy figurines nested in mihrab-like niches.

In its collaborative origin, evocative material composition, and dramatic staging, Heart Mahal straddles the gaps between the overused binary oppositions of traditional/modern and local/foreign. Its production reveals the paradox that in an age when capital, media, and technology all move fluidly around the world, people (at least all but a certain rarefied class) don’t. And it is in these non-circulating people’s usage of freely circulating materials (containers, toys) that Heart Mahal fashions a coherent collective expression.

In Heart Mahal the artists’ collaboration moves beyond the gestural through their decision to work with craftsmen, not just on production, but also on fundamental questions of aesthetics, design, intent, and utility. This is not a celebration of utopian democracy, but rather a knowing arbitrage between the artists’ agency in their work’s circulation and the craftsmen’s facility of use, expressed through their painted panels, the beaten steel and the intricately arranged lights.

Another work, Kazi and Alesworth’s Arz-e-Mauood (The Promised Lands), 1997, takes the form of a partially enclosed space in the main garden of Bagh-e-Jinnah, and was open to the public every evening for a month. Again, this installation referenced wedding halls and sufi shrines, incorporating painted backdrops with cut-out faces for visitors to take photos of themselves in their personal “promised lands”—on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, getting married, or working abroad. Panels on either side of the gate functioned as a kind of physical Facebook for people to share notices, stories, and photographs. These documented a community and revealed that, among other things, “Rs 8 was the price of a human life”—the text accompanying a bullet that was found attached to the board one morning. There was even a tailor on hand to embroider a decorative emblem on clothing brought by visitors.

Within a few days of the project’s opening, self-appointed “helpers” appeared, taking it upon themselves to facilitate audience encounters. Distinguished by the gold project logos embroidered on their clothes, they attended daily, though their origin remained a mystery. “I don’t know who they were and how they fronted the project,” David Alesworth told me later, “but it was all good.”

These projects and their contexts raise numerous questions, but I’d like to close with an observation: While these four were hammering steel, arranging shaadi hall lights, and hiring tailors to embroider gold logos on the clothes of passersby, Bangkok artists such as Rikrit Tiravanija and Surasi Kusolwong were following a parallel path—cooking food, encouraging congenial conversations with strangers, and organizing street markets. In both cases, this was some years before theorists named and tamed this participatory mode of working.

What is it about large cities in hot places with limited art audiences that encourages artists to transform their works into sites of possibility and encounter?

Hammad Nasar is Head of Research and Programmes at the Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong.

How have other artists from around the world been inspired by Pop art to explore the everyday and the popular?

  • MichaelJWilson

    Perhaps one the most fascinating historical examples of Anglo-American Pop art’s international “adaptation” is Sots art (Socialist art), which originated in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, partly in reaction to the oppressively reverential stylings of Socialist Realism. Conceived by former advertising agency employees Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Sots art hinges on the playful subversion of familiar Soviet symbols including iconic portraits of Lenin and Stalin—a strategy echoed by the reworkings of official imagery to be found in much recent Chinese painting.