It’s always strange when they turn off cell phone coverage in Pakistan for the day. The entire country goes through an awkward pause, everyone suddenly staring around with expressions of grim concentration as they try to recall how they used to connect before 2007. Suddenly the landline becomes the object du’ jour and wifi is the next best thing to oxygen.
It’s a small price to pay to avoid a terrorist incident around Christmas, which you just know someone somewhere in the country is trying to pull off. This is the first time I’m experiencing the blackout in Karachi, the only upshot of which is that now I don’t have to take my cell phone out into the city and risk getting robbed. So many people have so often repeated horror stories of traffic jam robberies and daylight bandits that for the last few days I’ve been hiding my device in new and often exotic places (turbans, the lining of scarves, shoes) knowing full well that if someone were to pull a gun on me at a traffic jam I’d likely faint in a medically dramatic way and hope for the best. So far, so good.
[quote]Eau du Karachi is made up of Forgotten Fish, Festive Feces, Rotting Roadrunners and Citrus Sewage[/quote]
The weather has been lovely, apart from the cornucopia of new Karachi aromas that keep wafting my way (the variations of Eau du Karachi include, but aren’t limited to, Forgotten Fish, Spilling Septic Tank, Festive Feces, Rotting Roadrunners and Citrus Sewage). I’m always surprised more people don’t wear facemasks here like they do in China.
The biggest thing on my to-do list was Pakistani art-superhero Rashid Rana’s mid-career retrospective at the Mohatta Palace Museum. One of the only ambitiously curated, long-term, large-scale exhibitions inside Pakistan, the show opened several months ago to great fanfare and joy. The Mohatta Palace, for those who haven’t been there, is a grand old mansion that was converted into one of the only serviceable museums in Pakistan (you can verify this by trying to go to the National Art Gallery only to be told the electricity has “gone”). Mohatta’s consistent excellence is due more to wonderful curators and patrons than government support. And still the show only costs 20 rupees and everyone who can, should see it. Take your kids, take you grandmother, take whoever will go. Just make sure you go. The show runs through February 2014.
Crowds love retrospectives because, as opposed to a single show with a few works, going through an artist’s collected body of work is seeing a manifest visual biography. There are over 75 works on display in the show, which begins with Rana’s early paintings. You follow him through two decades with videos, collages and sculptures, all the time reveling in the sites and scenes that litter the landscape of a single mind.
I’m not a fan of everything in the show. Rana is famous for his enormous, mosaic-like productions, where a single large image is made of out of thousands of smaller images, and the success or shock value of the work often derives from the dissonance between the cumulative, larger image and the many tiny images that constitute it. For example, he has a large red Persian carpet that is actually made up of tiny images of butchered meats. You’ve probably seen this technique in college dorm-room posters of Bob Marley (the late singer’s face is made up fittingly of many small spliffs). There is only so far you can take this technique (though Rana takes it farther than most) and it can get a bit repetitive after the 50th work.
Still, the exhibition is the best I have seen in Pakistan, mainly because it was curated and arranged so extremely well. Every bit of that show, from the lighting to the chronology to the very readable blurbs about each piece, holds up to an international standard of presentation that is both refreshing and seminal for our country.
Riding high on the glory of the show, I decided to call in some favors and see some private collections in Karachi that I had heard about. As in most of Pakistan, it’s the private houses rather than the public buildings that house some of the most famous, arresting, beautiful and important artworks from the region. These guys are serious collectors. The first house I went to was large and richly appointed, and didn’t have a space without a painting, sculpture or projection. There wasn’t an artist working in the last 20 years who wasn’t in that house. Not a single one. The second house was older, grander and had a collection so varied and so extensive that I came across a Damien Hirst lying in a storeroom that the host had briefly forgotten about while looking at a Kalashi sculpture, a pairing so unusual I momentarily teared up (I cry at Art, and I can assure you that it is infinitely more productive than crying at Life).
Barely able to process the thousands of images I was seeing, I began thinking about what a fount of collective knowledge and history is locked up in one house with severely limited access. The houses I visited were two of the hundreds of private collections in Karachi. Still, there isn’t a single local institution that these collectors would trust with their spectacular objects. Not one. In any other country, there would have been some kind of effort to coalesce these various mini-museums into one place where any student would go to study and learn. Unfortunately, Pakistan is still the kind of place you can’t really insure Art, and so no one is willing to take the risk of sending their 50 year old Sadequain to a place that might drop it in transit.
Eventually, these many thousands of beautiful objects that have been collected by passionate people (you may be angry that some people can spend so much, but at least they spend it on art) over the years will leave the country. That much is certain, unless by some miracle we can get our act together. These products of our creativity, a virtue we often forget ourselves capable of, are important. If we don’t take care of them, eventually someone outside the country will. And that will do more to destroy a new crop of Pakistani creative professionals than any amount of banning could ever hope to.
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