With Duke and Daisy, his two Labradors, artist Sohail Zuberi walks along a stretch of Sea View every Sunday morning. This is a 2-kilometre stretch where the waves refract, so objects wash up. Sohail, a man who has always collected things from marbles to fossils, fills his bag with treasure or trash.
His eight-year routine has culminated in the show “Archaeologies of Tomorrow” curated by Zarmeene Shah at Koel Gallery. In her essay for the show, Shah describes the artists’ “collaboration with chance” with new surprises each week trough collusions with “time, tide and events.” Beautifully curated, displayed and imagined, the show is a room of wonders and ruins – the surprising regurgitations of the sea. There are the skeletons of boats, skulls of goats, totems and utensils of fisherfolk.
Neatly arranged, with simple demarcations such as “the boat”, “the kitchen” and “the rope” to guide viewers, the display belies the jangle of issues it grapples with. Sohail, a graphic designer, photographer and visual artist, was overwhelmed at how much these walks unearthed. “So you’re like a geologist,” I say. “Artist, archaeologist, geologist, sociologist, historian, bohat kuch (many things)!” he says.
In the essays included with the show, the beach is a changing, contested space, “where each new claim to ownership” according to Laurent Gayer’s essay accompanying the show “threatens to obliterate past voices under a pile of rubble.”
Seemingly unremarkable planks, they are skeletons of boats. There are planks of Teak, Rosewood, Eucalyptus, Almond and sometimes Neem. Ever curious, the artist went to the fishing villages of Ibrahim Hyderi, Rehri Goth and Lal Basti, and slowly learnt that these pieces are debris of a tragedy: washing up only when boats capsize. He presents them to us like sculptures and characters, mounted on walls or stands, sometimes blue, green or dark wood. There’s also a playfulness to it all, a row of brushes are in a glass case and boat paddles arranged height-wise like a family.
He brings the fishermen to life, appreciating their link to the sea, the peril that goes hand in hand with their everyday. The rope is given a reverence, as a link between the sea, the fishermen and life. He uncovered tangles of them and says he “didn’t undo a single knot.” Visiting the fishing villages he studied what each one meant. They are arranged for us like a wonderful canvas, reminiscent of Ruby Chishti’s work.
Kitchen utensils are arranged like moons and relics on the walls. Sinkers – called ‘bhaari’ by Sindh’s fishermen – that weigh down fishing nets are some of the most beautiful installations in the show. Attached to rods, they seem weightless: a giant abacus, casting lovely shadows on the walls with their rounded rough edges. It looks like a musical instrument – a lyrical weightless structure.
Then there is the sacred. The sea is often used as a watery receptacle for Quranic ayats and surahs. But in a strange twist the sea returns them. And Sohail carefully records and tallies in a series of images, the fossil like petals of Holy books, namaz topis, rehels and alams.
There is a freedom that the sea provides, a place which Laurent poetically calls “neither here nor there” where “even the laws of life and death do not apply as strictly.” Different income groups can enjoy the air and seaside snacks and camel rides. Artists like Bani Abidi have explored the income divides of the Sea View beach, her touching video of chairs facing the sea, and recent initiatives like the first Karachi Biennale’s “Reel on Hai” public art project explored the diminishing nature of public spaces.
As the towers of Emaar complex rise menacingly in the sky, you can see the economic interests of Middle Eastern, Chinese and local developers moving closer. This stretch of land has been earmarked by DHA for ‘development’, so it will soon only exist in stories people tell their children of a happier time.
The show is a room of wonders and ruins – the surprising regurgitations of the sea. There are the skeletons of boats, skulls of goats, totems and utensils of fisherfolk
Shah calls Sohail a “modern archaeologist”, “acting at once as surveyor, researcher, documenter and emancipated subject.” The show manages to take a solitary, reflective, quiet exercise and translate it into a comment on the passage of time and nature, and the fight for survival and resisting urban developers’ avarice. At the heart of the show is the story of Karachi, and our country, and perhaps the world. This is a story of land lost or usurped, of greed and helplessness. Our leaders argue in courtrooms over land ownerships, and further away 8-month-old Layla Ghandour’s mother cries over her corpse in Gaza, dead at a protest for their land.
Like the little boy walking his sheep and discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls, in Sohail’s chance encounters, perhaps the loveliest relic was a block he picked, impressed by its symmetry. Washing it with the waves, he saw it was carved with Arabic. As he lined it with ink and printed it on paper, he saw it was Surah Kafirun. A message of tolerance and coexistence, from 1,400 years ago: “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”