After a night flight from Lahore – including an overweight baggage hassle at the airport – I arrived in Karachi at midnight, met by artist Naveed Sadiq who gamely helped me get all my luggage (including 2 meter ski bag!) into the car. It was great to finally be in Karachi and heading to the Bilgrami’s where I was staying. I was looking forward to catching up with Sana – even though it was the middle of the night! We were both staying at her parents Noorjehan and Akeel’s wonderful house – I was in Noorjehan’s former workshop/studio (next door to Naveed’s flat) a lovely room on a courtyard of trees (complete with two over attentive cats). I couldn’t wait to unpack, settle in and begin to think about the exhibition.
The next day I finally got to see Koel Gallery a beautifully designed exhibition space over two floors. Situated in a courtyard of whitewashed buildings full of greenery and tilework the Koel Gallery is next to a cafe with excellent food and Koel designer shop – where Noorjehan Bilgrami creates beautiful eco-friendly clothing from hand woven and hand block printed fabrics – the tranquil atmosphere, cappucino and retail therapy was the perfect place to chill whilst installing the show!
During the next week Sana, Farrukh and I and the Koel Gallery team, Director Noorjehan Bilgrami, Gallery Manager Azmeena Alladin, Gallery Assistants Ahad Iqbal, and Ahsan Riaz Masih, and Graphic Designer Ayza Nadeem worked diligently to prepare and install the show. It was wonderful to work with such a professional team and the keen curatorial focus of Sana, Noorjehan and Azmeena was critical. For although Farrukh and I had collaborated virtually for 9 months our work for the show had been created separately, thousands of miles apart and our styles of work are also very different. The form of the final exhibition wouldn’t be clear until everything was in the gallery and the final process of curation could begin. Over the following week Sana did an amazing job realising a vision for Ecologies of Displacement which balanced the synergies between Farrukh and my work but also preserved the particular qualities of our individual practices.
The opening of Ecologies of Displacement on January 18th was a fantastic day. Because of Covid, guests came in staggered groups throughout the day but the plus side was that the gallery was busy from the 3pm start until after 9pm. It was so exciting to meet and talk with so many artists and friends old and new. The positive response to the Ecologies of Displacement project and exhibition was overwhelming, the culmination of almost a year’s work by Sana, Farrukh and me.
See review of Ecologies of Displacement by Peerzada Salman in the Dawn newspaper, Karachi
After the exhibition opening Farrukh stayed on in Karachi and together we ran workshops at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture for the final year students. Farrukh led a full day practical workshop in canvas preparation whilst I did a talk on ideas generation and self directed research. It was great to be at Indus Valley and meet with the staff and the wonderfully engaged students and we were indebted to Sana Bilgrami and Head of the Fine Art Department Seher Naveed for making it possible.
For the last few days Farrukh was in Karachi we hit the Karachi art galleries. Highlights included the historic landmark Frere Hall and the venerable Chawkandi Art where we went with Sana to see work by Aisha Khalid as part of her recent retrospective (1994-the present). Farrukh and I also saw Hazaar Dastan, Sabina Gillani’s wonderful and thought provoking exhibition at Canvas Gallery, curated by Salima Hashmi ( Noorjehan Bilgrami and I later attended a gallery talk with Sabina at Canvas). Farrukh and I also stopped in to Gandara art for another installation by Aisha Khalid – part of the city wide retrospective of her work.
On another afternoon artist, educator (and my neighbour) Naveed Sadiq took me to the Mohatta Palace Museum to see an exhibition of traditional textiles and embroidery from across Pakistan. The colours, textures and craftsmanship of the clothing on display was absolutely stunning and so inspiring to see. Later in the week Naveed and I also visited renowned artist and curator Amin Guljee at his gallery and amazing house including the spectacular sculptural roof terrace. It was fantastic to see Amin’s work in his gallery and hear about and see his works in progress, including a peripatetic performance piece called ‘Q Rickshaw’ , which involved 9 artist/performers travelling to different locations in Karachi, to perform in each location. I was incredibly excited to get a ride around the nearby roundabouts in the custom designed Q Rickshaw!
I spent another brilliant afternoon and evening with Naveed visiting the beautiful studio of artist Ayessha Quraishi. Her fantastic flat on the top floor of a very cool 1960’s high rise overlooking Karachi was just to die for. The conversation started in Ayessha’s flat where she showed us the studio where she creates her beautiful contemplative work – including a 96 foot scroll which she carefully unrolled so that we could see it in its entirety (but not all at once). The conversation carried on in the garden surrounding her building (and with her wonderful neighbours) and then on into the late evening when we finally grabbed a biryani takeaway on the way home eating it in Ayessha’s car on china plates with metal cutlery. Naveed, Ayessha and I covered so much ground in our conversation, from childhood inspiration to philosophy, to process and back to childhood. There was very little theory in our chat just a full blown discussion of what the art life is and how to live it. It was utterly inspiring. We finished off late in the evening visiting Naveed’s studio where he grinds his own pigments and makes paints for his exquisitely painted miniatures. In addition to being a lecturer at Indus Valley School Naveed was also recently involved in creating the Pakistan Pavilion at the World Expo in Dubai, curated by Noorjehan Bilgrami where he spent months painting a timeline from Mehrgahr 7000BC to the creation of Pakistan in 1947.
It was great also to meet Naveed’s friend Abrar Qazi, entrepreneur and projection specialist (his company ABR Techworld realised the incredible projections at the Pakistan Pavillion) who was full of great ideas about the intersection of art and technology. We had coffee with Abrar’s wonderful friend Samia who had travelled extensively through the American Midwest as a child in the 70’s and knew all the rustbelt cities from Pennsylvania to Illinois – as a Midwesterner I was impressed! Also incredibly kind were artists and married couple Sadaf and Jamali Zeeshan who took me to the beautiful Bagh Ibne Qasim park and the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine (along with Naveed) at dawn one morning. Jamali also kindly went out of his way to pick up silver leaf for me at the local fruit market so I could try it out in a collage I was making.
Karachi was thrilling, massive, noisy, a bit scary (stories of car jacking anyone?) with crazy traffic, but also a free form creativity and aesthetic (unless the developers get their way) that reminded me of New York back before it became a global high street. I was continually amazed at the generosity of everyone I met in Karachi, people freely gave me their time, shared their ideas and bought me coffee!
Throughout my time in Pakistan I was privileged to be introduced to its art and culture by people who were themselves an inspiration. But I also had a lot of fun. The trip to French Beach with Sana, her kids and best pal Farrah (who was an absolute hoot) was a particular highlight – just magic with the sun setting over the Arabian sea and the full moon rising…
And of course the amazing hospitality of Sana, Noorjehan and Akeel Bilgrami made everything possible – the lovely room, the amazing FOOD, the generous sharing of transportation and information about the art and culture of Pakistan and everywhere introductions to fantastic work and fantastic artists, I simply cannot thank them enough.
The impact of Pakistan’s rich universe of creative ideas and the friendship offered to me whilst I was there, will stay with me for a long time.