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1mile² Karachi

1mile² Karachi was facilitated by NuktaArt, Pakistan. Shahana Rajani reports:

To the passersby, the chosen one mile square of Mai Kolachi is a barren wasteland. It is an area one is bound to cross on the expressway yet never stop to look at. The youth feels no empathy for its drab state, whilst the older generations, who have witnessed the exploitation and devastation of this once mangrove marsh, have become resigned, or perhaps even forgotten its past state of ecological diversity and abundance.

NuktaArt selected Mai Kolachi for The One Mile Square Project and brought it into focus for the artists and the city. The initial artists and art critic in the project were – Arif Mahmood, Shazia Zuberi, Adeel-uz-Zafar, Fraz Abdul Mateen, Nameera Ahmed and Shahana Rajani. Unaware of the many complexities regarding the urban and ecological degradation that plagues Mai Kolachi, their first step was research. To inform and educate the participants’ weekly meetings with different environmental organisations were crucial in familiarising the artists with the ecological and urban context of Mai Kolachi.

 

TRIP TO THE INDUS DELTA – 2 December 2009

The One Mile Square Project started with a fieldtrip to the Indus Delta Mangroves arranged by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The excursion was led by Mr. Tahir Qureshi, a coastal ecosystem expert. The five artists, art critic and two representatives from NuktaArt toured the Korangi Creek to see both the polluted, dying mangroves and the new plantations being carried out by IUCN. Although outside the parameters of the chosen one mile square, the idea behind the trip was to familiarise the participants with the mangrove habitat and help them understand the ecological suffering in Mai Kolachi, where the mangroves have been entirely depleted as governments have continued to fund land reclamation projects.

Mr. Qureshi began by informing that Pakistan’s coastline is home to the largest arid land mangrove forest in the world. These trees are a vital ecological feature for stabilising the coastline as they act as physical barriers, protecting inland areas from cyclones and tsunamis. They prevent soil erosion in coastal areas, safeguarding navigational channels from sedimentation. Mangroves also serve as a nursery for many commercially valuable marine species, securing the livelihood of local fisherman. An analogy which deeply resounded with the artists was that the mangroves are like the lungs of the city.

The group explored a mud land on foot where the artists got the chance of observing up-close the visual and tactile qualities of the mangrove habitat. Living in an urban city, always surrounded by concrete, they got the rare chance of immersing themselves in nature. One could not help draw a comparison between this living, breathing mangrove marsh, and the deadened traces left behind in Mai Kolachi.

After exploring the mud land, Mr. Qureshi took the group to witness the emptying of untreated sewage, effluents and heavy metals into the creek waters, demonstrating how industrial activity is increasingly jeopardising the mangrove ecosystem. He impressed on the participants the urgent need to create awareness about the importance, protection and sustainable use of mangrove forest, for their destruction will mean a long-term loss far exceeding any immediate gain. 

This trip was a critical launch to the One Mile Square project, since it acquainted the artists with the gravity of Karachi’s environmental crisis. It provided important context within which the artist’s began their personal explorations of Mai Kolachi.  

 

NAJMA SADEQUE’S TALK, SHIRKAT GAH – 5 December 2009

Najma Sadeque¸ Director of Greens Initiatives Project at Shirkat Gah, introduced the artists to the basic principles of ecology. She showed a documentary titled ‘The Unsung Peasant’. It portrayed the violence against rural farmers; how peasants have become victim to bad agricultural practices propagated by multinationals; and how urbanization tends to be dominating, acquisitive and destructive. It reinforced her statement that ‘humans are parasites and predators of the natural world’, a comment which deeply resonated with the artists.

She showed another documentary on the state of fishermen in Karachi – originally a fishing village. Urbanisation has all but displaced these fishing communities and destroyed their livelihood. How the islands around Karachi are being sold away to private investors who are building luxury homes which will deprived the local fishermen from vital passages into open waters and from rich fishing grounds in the area. Destruction of mangroves along the islands and industrial pollution has reduced marine population to such an extent, that fishermen can barely recover their fuel costs.

The continuous local migration of the farmers from the Punjab and Sindh to Karachi has lead to the pressures on resources and land. The kutchi abadis ( temporary settlements) around Mai Kolachi like 50% of the city  are occupied by those affected by this environmental crisis of the farmlands.

 

ARIF HASAN’S TALK, URBAN RESOURCE CENTER – 10 December 2009

Arif Hasan,  renowned urban planner and development activist, also the recipient of several awards, including the Magsaysay Prize and Urban Hero Award, Prince Claus Fund, Netherlands, explained the various stages of transformation that Mai Kolachi has undergone in the past decades.

He shared his research on the ill planning of the drainage system that converges at Mai Kolachi and cannot empty itself efficiently especially during rainy seasons, causing heavy flooding in the city. The overflowing drains also contaminate the fresh water lines causing waterborne epidemics.

The artists were informed that the outlets for three major city drains, the Soldier Bazar, City Station and Pitcher Road drains, are located in Mai Kolachi. Natural nalas (drains)   and storm drains serve as disposal channels for 90% of the sewage generated in Karachi, whilst the underground sewage systems which connect to the sewage treatment plants remain clogged and unused. When the Mai Kolachi Bypass was built to relieve traffic from the over-congested city roads, a mere seven foot channel was left for sewage drainage. In addition, the entire creek along the expressway was reclaimed for commercial and residential purposes.

As weather patterns change and Karachi is hit by heavier rains, the encroachments over natural drains need to be removed. He suggested improving the present sewage situation by converting the natural drains into box trunks and placing treatment plants at outlets where they meet the sea, preventing pollution and water contamination. Some of these solutions were incorporated at the Arts Council exhibition in the form of visuals.

He ended his lecture, by concluding that this area is a lost cause ecologically speaking; man has caused too much irreversible damage. As always, the government and the people choose to remain oblivious to these dangers and continue forward. According to his prediction, our one mile square, as we know it today, will be transformed within the next decade into a massive, multi-storey development project. This statement increased the sense of responsibility on the artists, for although the ecological degradation in the chosen one mile square is irreversible, the awareness created through this project could possibly save other areas where the damage is not yet so vast.

 

ROLAND D’SOUZA’S TALK FROM SHEHRI – 12 December 2009

Roland provided the group with an understanding of some underlying environmental issues. He explained how exploding populations and rising standards of lifestyles are a form of ecological suicide, as they are increasing the rate of over consumption of the planet’s resources. He spoke of the folly of using up the very resources that sustain the population and the need for urgent action, not from idealism, but from ‘the cold-blooded perception of our self interest’. The talk impressed on the group the dire need for all citizens to become activists.

Roland also spoke in detail about the reasons for degradation of the environment. Land is being abused as a result of population pressures and mushrooming urban-rural migration. Construction of illegal buildings and the unlawful allotment of land are also causing severe deterioration. Reclaiming the wetlands in Mai Kolachi has been as easy as getting garbage trucks to dump their garbage in the area, while government officials were more than eager to look the other way as long as their pockets were filled.

 

ARTISTS’ DEVELOPMENT

Talks with the above environmental experts gave the artists a broader understanding of ecological and urban problems in Mai Kolachi. Alongside this, personal explorations of the one mile square were essential for the development of the project, since they allowed the artists to make connections to the underlying issues discussed and experience firsthand the urgency for intervention.

The participants met on a regular basis at the Workshop studio to share each other’s findings. They discussed the various tensions they each found to exist in Mai Kolachi; between the neglect and poverty of its inhabitants, to the greed of industries, the rising population pressures, urbanisation and the decaying environment. Much time was spent on how to effectively create awareness and initiate a dialogue with the community without being didactic. Because the project was to culminate in an exhibition at the Arts Council, artists were struggling to resolve the question of how to make their art effectively intervene with the urban and ecological degradation in Mai Kolachi. For a successful intervention should art have an accessible language, or should the artist be unconcerned with simplifying their works for the sake of the audience? The conclusion reached during discussions was that like the audience, the art work will also be multi-tiered so it can appeal to different people in different ways.

 

Arif Mehmood:

After being briefed by the three NGOs and visiting Mai Kolachi, Arif became aware of the clash between human survival and ecological survival. The people living in Mai Kolachi are not the least bit distraught about the ecological degradation; instead they are pleased with the construction of the Expressway as it allows for an easier commute to work. Their primary concern is sustenance. A gypsy man, for example, refused to be photographed because he feared being thrown out of Mai Kolachi since his family were illegal encroachers. Living in a contested area, his main concern is survival for himself and his family, not of   the fish and trees around him.

Initially, inspired by the Indus Delta trip, Arif made texture studies in black and white of the square mile area. However, after interacting with the local community, he felt that the texture studies were too aesthetic, and failed to engage with any real issues. Speaking to the local inhabitants made him realise that Najma Sadeque’s allegation that ‘man is predator’ was very one-sided. Throughout the course of the project, environmentalists used phrases like how people are ‘raping the environment’ or ‘causing ecological suicide’; however they did not take into account the circumstances of the people. How can inhabitants of Mai Kolachi are expected to care about the environment, for example, by not using mangrove wood for fuel, when they are barely earning enough to feed their families.

Arif therefore wants to convey the polarity between the struggle for survival of the people and the struggle for conservation of the environment through his photographs. He is hoping to give voice to the locals, adding another dimension to the project. He wants to make the viewer aware of the human struggle through his black and white photographs.

 

Adeel-uz-Zafar:

The project made Adeel realise how pollution within the one mile square links it to the people outside. Everything is interconnected and things cannot be seen in isolation. As individuals we are each responsible for the environmental degradation in Mai Kolachi, and should at the very least own up to it. It is only after taking responsibility that one can start mending ways.

He also became very conscious of the two different perspectives of urbanisation and nature. In order to incorporate both the sides in his work, he started experimenting with tessellations where the imagery is in a continual state of flux, morphing and transforming.

He re-used his ten year old thesis work, which was made from nearly a thousand small square tiles onto which he had painted different expressions of his own eye. He found this work relevant to this project because it revolved around eyes, the square and the earth. In this way, his process has become about recycling, reusing and reconstructing, consciously paralleling with the environmental activism he is hoping to engage the audience with. He was also aware of his work being a critique on displacement: of plant and birds, as well as humans who have been living here ‘illegally  since the 40s, and the inevitability of their displacement in the future.

 

Shazia Zuberi:

Shazia concentrated on the environmental as opposed to the human face of Mai Kolachi. A strong visual image for her was the aerial roots of the mangroves, which provided a starting point for her sketches. According to her these sketches have a Dadaistic element because of the mix of text and visual imagery.

The trip to the Indus Delta was an important source of inspiration as it exposed her to a wide range of textures. She was very taken by the distinctive smell of the area, and started thinking of recreating it in a water tank of sorts, so that people can go up to it and experience the sense of smell – a very important aspect for her.

Having worked with NGOs in the past, Shazia thought of appropriating their process of mapping rapid appraisals, to make a map of Mai Kolachi on clay tablets. The visitors would be able to walk around it, or even through it; and her drawings could be hung over the map. Unfortunately Shazia could not complete the project.

 

Fraz Abdul Mateen:

For Fraz, the trip to the Indus Delta was a starting point for many  ideas. He was very intrigued by the mudskippers in the marsh. Like humans, these fish also act as encroachers, always looking to expand their own territory. Fraz thought of possibly integrating their system of territory markings with human architectural drawings. However, after some sketches, he decided not to pursue this idea further because he felt the mudskipper was not a popular enough form for everyone to be able to relate to.

The experience of planting the new seedlings in the Indus Delta brought to his mind the idea of hair transplants. He paralleled mangroves with human hair – both a source of protection – equating the recession of hair to ecological degradation. He thought of playing around with images from hair transplantation advertisements which have become so commonplace in the media.

His most developed idea revolved around a shaving razor. He found the form of a split air conditioner (AC) similar to the shape of a razor blade. A symbol of luxury and decadence, our consumption of machines like the AC, quite literally leads to the shaving away of the environment. Playing around with this concept, Fraz planned on creating a larger-than-life razor, with the air conditioner forming its head.

While Fraz was working on this idea, a bomb blast occurred near his home on 29 December 2009. He had grown up in the destroyed area of Bolton Market, and used to go there regularly to buy materials and drink tea. He rushed to the hospital to donate blood for the victims and witnessed the corpses being brought in, a sight which deeply traumatised him. He realised how the politics of the city and the recurring violence always managed to trump issues of environment. When people are dying in bloodshed daily and citizens are in continual fear for their own lives, environmental degradation becomes a secondary issue; the problem of dying mangroves seemed hardly as urgent.  

When Fraz went down to the bombed site the very next day, he was awed to see that the locals had already begun reconstruction work. Most traces of soot were already erased as walls were being whitewashed. Busy in fixing their shops and their surrounding community, these people were unbelievably resilient. They showed no signs of despondency, instead a strong will to move on and start afresh.  

For Fraz the city had become like the Minesweeper game, where people had become so resilient, that every time there was any destruction, they simply restarted the game. This prompted him to launch on another interactive artwork based on this digital game.

 

Nameera Ahmed:

Nameera found the Indus Delta trip to be an eye opener, spurring her interest in ecology. The meeting with Roland at Shehri was a turning point for her as it introduced her to the human perspective, where she learnt about the adverse effects of development affecting the inhabitants of the One Mile Square.

Najma Sadeque’s emphasis on everything being part of a whole inspired Nameera to explore  interconnectivity through her artistic practice. She was most vehement about the need to do something actively as citizens of Karachi.

She is working around the themes of desolation, destruction and activism, showing through her video how each stage follows the other.

 

FINAL ART WORKS

Arif Mehmood:

Arif constructed a three-sided cubicle (7×14 feet) using wooden planks. He enlarged three of his black and white photographs on panaflex skins and put it up on the inside walls. As the viewers enter the space they are confronted by the image of withering and cut-down mangrove roots immersed in sludge and sewage. On the two adjacent walls are images of birds flying in the sky. Standing inside this installation, the viewer is transported to the environment of Mai Kolachi. The soaring birds in the sky are intentionally contrasted with the destroyed mangroves to make the viewer aware of the many conflicts which infest the area.

On the outside of these walls, Arif displayed twenty-eight black and white photographs. He called these a collective photo-essay on survival. For him the visuals show emptiness and convey the underlying fight for survival by the land and humans alike. For him the lands on the two sides of the Mai Kolachi Bypass convey two different environments and two different struggles. On the right is barren and desolate reclaimed land infested with garbage and sewage. On the left is the katchi abadi (shanty town housing) of Hijrat Colony. While on one side nature is struggling to survive, on the other side people are struggling, and both seem to be losing the battle. The former side is portrayed through images like a desolate tree standing amidst electricity pylons, while the latter is portrayed through tired and weary faces of the inhabitants.

Arif very carefully paired his images, playing off the contrasting struggles, so that the viewer remains conflicted between the two sides.

 

Adeel-uz-Zafar:

Adeel reused three hundred and twenty four square tiles (each tile measuring 6×6 inches) from his previously painted work, rearranging them to form a map of Mai Kolachi. Each of the squares shows different expressions of the eye. When viewers looked at his work, they were collectively confronted by hundreds of eyes staring straight at them. Adeel transforms the image of a detached aerial map into a living, breathing work with birds and insects morphing into geometric shapes that reflect buildings, the work engages and almost binds the viewer.

For Adeel the process of constructing this work was very important because it provided a comment on the dynamics of displacement in katchi abadis. Living on illegally encroached land, its inhabitants lived in constant fear of eviction. Development plans made by the city governments never take into account these settlements, always displacing its inhabitants to peripheral areas.

In the work, a diagonal line of plain squares forms the Mai Kolachi Bypass. On its right, Adeel places tiles showing closed eyes. This area of the map represents the dying mangroves and the closed eyes are a reminder of how people chose to ignore and remain apathetic to ecological destruction. The shape of the eyelid has scatological connotations, which again links to the sewage that is being emptied into the mangroves.

On the left side of the bypass, is barren reclaimed land. Adeel represents this area by filling it with eyes wide open. The value of this land has sky-rocketed with the construction of the Bypass, hence all the eyes of investors are on this valuable land.

Once the arrangement of the tiles was complete, Adeel proceeded to scratching tessellations over the surface. These tessellations of animals showed the interconnectedness of nature, conveying how harm to one part causes harm to the whole.

 

Fraz Abdul Mateen:

His first work is titled ‘Man Grows’, an apt pun on the destruction of mangroves for the sake of urbanisation. It is a sculptural installation in the form of a huge razor, with an actual split air conditioner forming the head. Through the razor, Fraz tries to convey how effortless and swift the whole process of removing nature and replacing it with man-made structures has become.

In his second piece, ‘Start a New Game’, an interactive work inspired by the Minesweeper game. He created a footpath with hidden sensors, so that while walking if the sensor was pressed, an alarm would go off. For the artist, this reflected the alarming condition of the city where the sudden death of citizens, culture, traditions and histories is possible at anytime.   

 

Nameera Ahmed:

Nameera presented a three video installation for the exhibition. The first video titled ‘Sketch 1’ captured the emptying of industrial waste into the Korangi Creek. It began with an up-close image of the foam created by the chemical waste. Seen out of context, the foam seemed pure and harmless. It was only when the camera zoomed out to show the surrounding sewage that the viewer realises having been deceived by the white foam.

The second video titled ‘Sketches continued’ is based on the aesthetics of garbage. Nameera shows different sorts of garbage found in the square mile and these scenes have such limited movement that they seem like still shots. Nameera forces the viewers to confront the garbage which they are so careful to avoid in real life.

The third video is a trilogy revolving around the themes of destruction, desolation and activism. In the first part, she shows the video of mangrove forests, accompanied by repetitive, disturbing motor engine sounds, reminding the viewers that the two parallel worlds of development and destruction move together. In the second part on desolation, Nameera shows parched and barren landscapes accompanied by artificially created soundscapes constructed with water sounds, microwave bells and rustling of plastic bags. The third part on activism is a short documentary with a focus on Karachi’s activists talking about the depletion of mangrove forests and its adverse effect on the environment. Nameera aimed to awaken a sense of social responsibility in the viewer through her trilogy.

EXHIBITION OPENING – 23 January 2010

The artworks produced during the One Mile Square project were displayed in an exhibition at the Karachi Arts Council from 23-29 January 2010. The Arts Council was chosen because it is an accessible public space available for the display of art, enabling a very wide range of people to come see the exhibition.

The One Square Mile of Mai Kolachi is relevant for the entire Karachi public because it represents a microcosm of the city. Although Arif Hasan declared the area as an ecological dead zone, there are thousands more places in Karachi which are plagued by similar issues. Documentation of this One Square Mile in the exhibition becomes an important form of intervention as it informs viewers about the callous destruction of the environment in Mai Kolachi. Creating awareness about the destructive and acquisitive nature of urbanisation can perhaps save future places from becoming similarly ruined. Therefore the exhibition was not simply about showcasing the art works in isolation, but linking them to the broader context of the project, and enabling viewers to understand Karachi’s environmental crisis and the pressing need for environmental activism.

The afternoon started with a panel discussion, which was conducted by Niilofur Farrukh, Editor of NuktaArt. The participants were the artists, art critic and two environmental experts Tahir Qureshi and Roland De’Souza.

Niilofur Farrukh commenced the discussion by informing the audience how Pakistan would be among the most effected countries by climate change if environmental guidelines were not followed. The environmental experts acquainted the audience with environmental problems and the links formed between art and ecology during the project.

The artists focused on the role that art can play in creating environmental awareness. Each of the artists expanded on their personal experiences during this six-week project and how it intervened with their artistic practices. Whilst Nameera realised the urgent need for everyone to become activists to save our city from complete disaster, Adeel was more taken with the dynamics of displacement. Arif on the other hand felt compelled to explore the local people’s struggle for survival, while Fraz broadened the context of this project by including the effects of the recent Ashura bomb blast into his art. Shahana contextualized the purpose of the exhibition to the audience at how human society is at a crossroads and continues to ignore the urgent action needed to reverse earth’s climate and destruction of ecosystems. The exhibition urges the public to see, to feel and to emotionally relate to the impacts of ecological degradation due to unplanned urbanisation.

 

GALLERY TALKS

NuktaArt arranged gallery visits from the following art schools and other educational institutions: Karachi School of Art, Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Central Institute of Arts and Crafts and Karachi University.

Secondary school students from Karachi Grammar School, Indus Academy, CAS  School and Government Girls School, Intelligence School, Sultanabad ( Mai Kolachi) also came to visit the exhibition.

The NuktaArt team and the artists were present during the visits so they could personally explain the purpose behind the exhibition and engage the students in critical discourse. Artists highlighted how they had used art as a vehicle to create environmental awareness.

 

WORKSHOP WITH GOVERNMENT GIRL’S SCHOOL – 16 January 2010

The four artists and art critic conducted a creative workshop coordinated by Rumana Husain, Senior Editor of NuktaArt. The objective of the workshop was to create environmental awareness through art. It was attended by sixty students from grade six to nine at the Government Girls School in Sultanabad. While conducting the workshop, the artists engaged the students in discussions about their environment, asking them to name the things they see and noises they hear around them, to get them thinking about pollution and urbanisation. Majority of the students had never even heard of mangroves before, hence some time was spent explaining the benefits of these trees through fun facts.

Students were then provided recyclable materials such as plastic bottles, cardboard and scraps of cloth. They were encouraged by the artists to use these items creatively and make something new. Fraz showed the children how to make collage with newspapers, while Adeel showed his students how to make aeroplanes from plastic bottles. Nameera, being a filmmaker, taught her students how to make an amateur illustration wheel with chart paper. Arif showed his students how to use the camera and even allowed them to snap their own pictures.

The students were also given an illustrated storybook called ‘Kala Bhoot’ (Black Monster) authored by Rumana Husain. This short story discusses the harmful effect of plastic bags on the environment. Shahana asked her students to re-adapt the story and perform it in front of the remaining class. One student became the black monster, representing the plastic bag, and turn by turn went to the remaining children and enticed them into using plastic bags by showing them the benefits. The last child of course, refused to be convinced, and spoke out about the harms. Students really enjoyed this activity as it allowed them to creatively incorporate the prior discussion on pollution and produce a skit hands-on.

They were also given an assignment to collect any natural object from their surrounding, and write a few sentences on it. Their assignments were displayed on a panel in the exhibition, to inform the visitors about the various levels of engagement that had been carried out in this project.

 

WORKSHOP WITH UNIVERSITY STUDENTS – 30 January 2010

The workshop conducted by Amra Ali, Senior Editor, NuktaArt along with the artists and art critic invited 50 students from Karachi University ( Visual Arts Dept.), Karachi School of Art, Indus Valley School, Central Institute of Arts of Crafts, SZABIST and NED University. The idea was to bring together fine arts, architecture, design and media studies students in an engagement with the participants of the project and address the issues and possibilities of artistic intervention with the ecological and urban issues at Mai Kolachi.

The thirty two students who attended the workshop, were divided into six groups and each group was asked to spend thirty minutes going through the exhibition and then speak about one particular art work on display. This allowed the students to develop independent responses to the work. The students came up with some extremely interesting critique which explored issues like who is the targeted audience and the importance of context. The workshop touched upon the relationship between aesthetics and ethics and discussed the social responsibilities of artists and architects and how they could become initiators of positive change for environmental sustainability.