October 09, 2022
Surrounded by the sea on the south, the city of Karachi stays rejuvenated by a sea breeze that brings in a renewed supply of oxygen with each rising dawn. This it has done unendingly, a feature of its rich topography. Yet this does not remain a guarantee any longer. With the onslaught of urban development, reclamation of land along the sea and the increased population, nature once held mighty and unconquerable is now vulnerable – a resource requiring protection and sanctuary.
Over a period of a decade, Sohail Zuberi a multidisciplinary artist on his morning walks along Sahil beach has collected found objects which he has constructed into a narrative, an ongoing research project of the nexus of a rapidly increasing city and it’s natural endowment, a rich and vibrant coastline and its eco system. In Archaeologies of Tomorrow, he unfolds the clash of the consumerist, capitalist nomenclature with that of nature and a more traditional way of living in harmony with its environs.
The beach is a fascinating place, bringing in items from the sea, items reduced to their minimum through the action of the sun and the tide and of course all things mankind find their way to the beach. To look at the items, is to look at the subculture that comprises the city, an inside look at narratives that define lives and the ecosystem of the sea and it’s shore. Showcased in found wood by the artist are objects washed in by the sea, the sun bleached sea urchins with their fivefold symmetry, a witnessing to the vicarious dark depths of the sea .The tide as it rolls in with shells held in it’s dynamic currents, Cowrie shells once used as currency and still collected and used as décor. Large curved sea shells, with the echoes of the sea still inside them.
And with this harmony of the sea clashes the man-made narrative. Showcased in one the script of ninety-nine names. Scripted in acknowledgement of the sacred, or called out, but this is a Power much larger than a token. It is a Living Presence that guides and shapes lives, that lives in the blaze and glory and quietude of the Natural world. Is it possible to salvage the Sacred from Nature onto a script and bespoil nature itself?
Till recently, less than a decade ago, mangroves grew thick along the Gizri Creek, a short distance from the unfurling road, and their seeds, bright green littered along the coastline, as were their young saplings. But with the land reclamation and cutting of the mangroves, what you find now is what the artist has showcased in one selection bottles or cans of Murree Brewery, as Nature has been pushed further ashore, the anesthetising effect of intoxicants seems more prevalent.
The lure of Dubai, with a found Urdu script of the word on a small metal sign against the image of the sea. A city scape put together out of an expanse of a dry desert, a commercial and economic hub run for that purpose. An economic and development model cannot just be supplanted from one place to another. Ours is an old civilization, ethnically varied, rich in culture and tradition, and a land bountiful in its topography, a delta system, elevations and a vast sea. Any development needs to address the realities on the ground.
The beach being the nexus of life, finds all life on it. In one selection is the skeleton of land animals, mammals, the bones of a cow, dog and of their sea counterparts, a portion of a large fish. While humans find entertainment at the beach, wild dog packs make it their home, hunting or being fed by fishermen left over catch.
On another display are photographs of the beach with found children’s plastic toys. A close up photograph of a skeleton of a large turtle, benign in it’s presence, fossilised in immobility, super imposed with a little toy dinosaur. An apt nod to the gawking unawareness of a population in ignorance of its natural bounties and habitats, of the endangered animals that find sanctuary on our shores. But perhaps understandable with the next display of toy soldiers in readiness with guns, with the backdrop of a public beach. If the focus is on force and coercion, how will awareness and education find a venue.
A display of a series of found wooden fishing reels with photographic transfers unfolds the real horror of urban life, the 12,000 tons of solid waste per day that mostly finds its way to the beach. Images of tubes of skin whiteners, a legacy of identification with light skinned colonizers. Empty tea and milk pack, the necessary caffeine fortifiers against urban anxiety, the empty crisp packs, a need for constant consumption, but at what cost.
But what makes the show palatable in its stark reality is Sohail Zuberi’s detailed documentation of the Gizri fisherman’s lives. A fishing village which by colonial records dates back at least a hundred and fifty years. Fishermen who have fished in the Gizri Creek, a part of the delta system before it opens out to the sea. Documenting the fisherman’s lives, on display are found solid pieces of wood belonging to boats. A sixteen-foot solid piece of wood, Burma teak, it’s sheer weight testifying to the strength and durability with which their boats were once built with. A portion of a boats’ circular steering wheel, it’s fine craftsmanship attesting to the detail and effort put into crafting sea faring vessels. A boat masters wooden chair, painted in blues placed at the helm, where the Captain of the vessel sits facing the sea and the wind, a king in his element, with solid wood under his feet, the sea a welcoming expanse, and the breeze lifting the brilliance of the sun. A being at peace and one with the natural elements.
The fishermen live in awareness with their environment, from the sea currents to the changing fish, to the increased sea pollution, recycling materials into fishing equipment. The series of found equipment, fashioned out of recycled waste, plastic bottles, wood, foam and netting attesting to this. A series of wooden boat railing each with a different design, size and colour display the detail paid to aesthetics of a boat, with blue the main colour lifted by bright primary colours. Found wooden benches, their size, design and weight a reassuring presence of a continuity of the past that held time and space sacred to life. The almost dozen series of canvases made of found boat plywood, colourful attesting to the prevalence of the sheer number of boats over the sea.
With reclamation of land along Gizri Creek, the fishermen no longer have access to fishing in these waters, as their access has been cut off with commercial ventures built on this strip and due to permission being revoked for fishing these waters due to security concerns. The few fishermen that still continue to fish ride all the way on their bicycles to the Sahil beach, with their baskets and nets, casting from land rather than their boats. A way of life curtailed and lost with a one-sided development of land. A way of life that used natural resources for redistribution and living and hence sustainable rather than the current model, an unsustainable Capitalist model with a heavy environmental degradation footprint, ill-suited everywhere but in a developing country like ours where the needs a of populous need to be addressed?
The artist has put together a buildup of a way of life, working over a decade to show case a mounting causality, of an unsustainable way of life, in conflict with nature. As though a wakeup call was required after the catastrophic floods.
Archaeologies of Tomorrow-II was displayed at Koel Gallery from September 24 to October 5, 2022.
Asma Ahmad is a freelance writer. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer.