Contested beauty: Maps for the boundless

Zehra Hamdani Mirza


I’m always lost. One of the visiting artists tells me.

He is speaking geographically of course, having trouble with Karachi’s gallis and mohallas, but the sentiment is true on other levels. However possessive of their city, Karachi residents wonder how to pinpoint it neatly. In its expanse along the natural harbour of the Arabian Sea, it is both marvellous and monstrous [1], its restless heart jostling with beauty and decay, possibilities and constraint. A hydra-like creature enjoying a symbiotic relationship with its inhabitants [2].

Throughout the residency, artists Faheem Abbas, Mubashar Iqbal, Niamat Nigar, and Yaseen Khan engaged with maps, whether to track their Careem drivers’ progress, keep appointments or navigate markets. These right-angled depictions on phone screens offered no indication of the abrupt and surprising encounters that awaited. Similar to how Saddar’s mix of edifices, merchandise and faces are elbowing and rich, but its map projection—serpentine paths and squares—is passive and empty of discovery. These satellite-constructed portraits offer a keyhole view, concealing the city’s peculiar physique. Realities like–a state-of-the-art facility ensconced in a precarious building with the sky peeking through, or amid sand and emptiness, as if Karachi had ended, a vast university would catch you off guard.

The limitations of maps echo the essence of Karachi, whose contours elicit emotional experiences that can be felt and seen but evade other forms of articulation. How do you encapsulate the throngs in the temples, Imambargahs, churches, gurdwaras and mosques, the teeming mass of humanity forming the city like layers of the earth? ‘The denizens of the dark and the worshippers of the sun’, as Aquila Ismail poetically illustrates. Mubashar Iqbal notes that Karachi’s residents have an order of a kind; rituals of interaction, and forms of arbitration [3]. Niamat Nigar praises the city’s “bara dil” (big heart), its history of welcoming immigrants, refugees and seekers of livelihoods since 1947. Anyone can find a home here; whatever home might mean to them.

In his memoirs, the poet and scholar Anwar Ahsan Siddiqui described the city as ‘azad mehnat ka shehr’ (the city of free hard work), where bonded labour was unknown of (unlike in interior Sindh). A city that belonged to the ‘workers and the middle classes’ where even women could have their first opportunity to breathe freely [4]. Trained as a truck mechanic, artist Yaseen Khan has an innate respect for the maker’s contribution and for “apnay haath ka kaam”, (your own handiwork) forming a natural bond with the city.

Growing up in different cities around members of the construction industry, his affinity with material is palpable and seamless, energising and informing his work. In his cement ‘paintings’, you see the mysterious malleability of construction material. Yaseen layers concrete, crushed limestone, cement, and sariya: grey pebbly powders and ribbons of iron magically morph into solid tablets with the certainty and firmness of a building. He fuses this vocabulary of construction with etching and aquatint, creating delicate images of trees and facades around the city. It is a poetic nod to Karachi’s daily ingenuity, its dualities of beauty and fear, creation and rubble, and the price we pay for development.

Like Yaseen, Niamat Nigar brings an understanding of material from outside the realm of art making. In his case, it was the enlightening and disturbing experience of working in coal mines as an eleven-year-old. Niamat acts intuitively and relentlessly, sketching even in speeding rickshaws and leaping into work as soon as the residency began. Combining various found materials, he uses stitching and layering to create complex surfaces. Struck by the horizon’s soothing openness in the face of what he describes as “Karachi’s verticality”, Niamat’s works reference the sea and sky and the mosaic of colours produced by the sun’s movements. Using metal for the first time, he made fabric converse with the steel sheets he sourced from Karachi’s markets. Working on the roof, he conducted experiments with material degradation, letting chance and the elements be his co-painters: each morning, he would be surprised by the marks and shades Karachi’s air had offered. Excavating (his analogy which points to his coal mining past) his gestural images from these laden surfaces, there is a humbleness and childlike wonder present in his process. 

Niamat’s ‘collaboration’ reflects Karachi’s magnanimity: its ability to welcome and hold divergent communities and cultures combined with its constraints, towers and gnawing uncertainty. Employing fabrics gesturing to different income groups—jute, linen and gold leaf, Niamat incorporated the turquoises and golds of Karachi’s sunsets and waves, and rust for fear and tension.

Academic Laurent Gayer cites an ‘ordered chaos’ in the city, where disruption and establishment of order co-exist. Artist Faheem Abbas is drawn to other dichotomies of Karachi, like construction and decay. His “100 horses” are simultaneously a comment on mass production and handiwork, gesturing to the lost craft toys, guggoo ghoras, calligraphic and relic-like in their form. The work also speaks to conquest and covetousness in Karachi’s present moment. In his medium-rich works, Abbas effaces details, leaving doors ajar to admit curious audiences. He uses myth and symbols to allow viewers to enter and build their own meanings. Works like “He was touched by the sea” and “It was contained at last” create profoundly individual experiences. Abbas is drawn to the limitations of language and the flexibility of symbols, where paradoxically, nuance and suggestion leave room for interpretation and discovery, and one’s position and view obstruct and inflect responses. Alluding to the mythology surrounding 4 Karachi Saints—personalities who are fixed in the firmament yet are at once revered, forgotten, and inapplicable depending on where you are standing in the city—Abbas invites viewers to build their own story.

Mubashar Iqbal was drawn to the myriad hands that power Karachi’s existence, a city less of natives and more of different tribes participating, bargaining and finding a space. Fascinated by the soft, dusty colours of Lyari’s concrete buildings, he crafts a palette that is, in his words, a “halftone.” Playing with the contours of images, he creates delicate offerings for the city. On a series of wooden boxes he fashions lace-like forms of flowers and petals out of metal. Their soft outlines and shadows both sprout and imprint on the boxes. The result of research on the city’s flower markets, Iqbal examines the relationship between flower types and income groups: with the prevalence of softer colours in richer vicinities and fragrant, deeper-coloured flowers, like the local laal gulab in lower-income communities. Acting as gifts or offerings to individuals who navigate Karachi’s every day, the work is both celebratory and poignant, a form of condolence or comfort. Iqbal also uses photographs of the city as a point of departure; in a series of wall mounted forms in ambiguous shapes. He renders the city in abstract terms, using contours and negative and positive shapes, forming bulging forms resembling floating continents. The pieces are soft and poetic and seem to levitate in their gentle palette.

‘Look at me and be still’

How can this city be folded into small portions, neatly tucked away in our screens, our bags and our pockets? You only have to look up to see the roads aren’t listening. They are wrapped around you. The city has you now. But what does it mean to be found? In our engagements with the city, places like Kharadar screamed for attention, but the visit to the peninsula of Manora was a pause. Lying southwest of Karachi, it is both a fishing village and a naval installation host. On our arrival by boat, the blue horizon seemed to say, ‘look at me and be still’. Sitting on the rocks together, we all felt a moment of calm and wonder that is hard to describe. It is a credit to the Vasl team member Razin Rubin, who waited till the sun had crossed to a gentler position so we could appreciate the rock pools. Feet scratched by barnacles, we sat on the mossy ground, amazed and silent. No other moment during the residency had every participant united in astonishment, sketching, thinking, painting, and wondering. Struggling to capture the ‘pluck and knock of the tide’ [5]. Like Karachi invited and welcomed, letting individuals share their truths and clamour for a place, art-making should echo the spirit of collaboration.

Perhaps this city was lost once. But those before us clung onto it and made it their own, marking its soil and air. In all its chaos and beauty, they stood still, claiming it. On the invitation of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, writer and critic Attiya Faizi and artist Faizi Rahamin made Karachi their home; their saloon at Aiwan-e-Riffat held open houses for artists, musicians and intellectuals [6]. It planted the seeds for nurturing independent thinkers.

It reminds one of the ruangrupa collective— curators of documenta fifteen. They based their direction on the Indonesian term “lumbung” (rice barn): a communal pot or accumulation system where crops are stored as a future shared common resource and distributed according to jointly determined criteria. How can we envision a pool of plenitude that shares its essence and lights the way for others? Suppose we believe that art constructs communities-forging, connections between images and voices and relations between past and present [7]. It’s our turn to bravely walk through the gallis and mohallas, maps cast aside and eyes wide open, the city might have found us, but we are still lost.


[1] Ismail, A. (2018). The Streets That We Live In. In KB17 Karachi Biennale Catalogue (p. 12). Markings

[2] Ismail, A. (2018). The Streets That We Live In. In KB17 Karachi Biennale Catalogue (p. 12). Markings

[3] Gayer, L. (2014). Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City. Oxford University Press, USA.

[4] Gayer, L. (2014). Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City. Oxford University Press, USA.

[5] Auden, W. (n.d.). Look, Stranger by W H Auden. Famous Poems, Famous Poets. – All Poetry.,-Stranger

[6] Farrukh, N. (2008, November). Walking with the ghost of Macaulay. DAWN

[7] Torres, J. (2016). 12th Bienal De La Habana.