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By Nimra Khan | 1/21/2018 12:00:00 AM
Despite the love-hate relationships that the city inspires in its citizens, Karachi remains a topic of interest for a large number of artists.

Naiza Khan is one such artist, taking her practice through a dramatic shift from exploring the female experience through studies of the body to traversing the urban expanse of Karachi, particularly its outlying areas. Her work investigates the intersection of the geographics, histories, ecology and politics connected to the area, interpreting it through a subjective context presented by a multiplicity of visual language.

Khan`s latest show at the Koel Gallery brings together some older works presented in conjunction with new works to highlight certain key aspects of her practice. The internationally acclaimed artist divides her time between London and Karachi, which has only broadened her concerns to a more global perspective while remaining deeply rooted in the complexities of Karachi and its relationship with the ocean. Khan`s work explores an interest in the nature of objects and how these objects are transformed through the ocean in their movement through time and space.

This is translated by the artist by looking at the Dutch East India Company and the history of its trade in the region, using the image of the Kraak porcelain as a metaphor.

These series of screen prints use the image of the Dutch Delft pottery along with renderings of shipwrecks, the whale form, seashells and other sea-based visual motifs to comment on its movement from China to other parts of the world, in turn acquiring a certain cultural identity. It makes one think about the strategic importance of the seas in the context of world economy and politics and our own place within it.

The artist looks at the city through a historical lens, conversing with old Company paintings of factories in Calcutta during the British Raj. Works such as `The Map is Elsewhere I & II`, `Breakage, Re-aligned` and the `Cast of a City` series seem to contemplate the demarcation of land, and how the maps laid out by the British for cities like Karachi still remain buried beneath layers of newer maps that are superimposed over the years.

`I`m playing with this idea of looking at certain kinds of historical mappings, thinking about contemporary experience of the city, says the artist. This layering is reflected in her process as well, as she creates forms by pasting and removing stencil tape in between layers of paint. These are not literal readings or reactions to those paintings, but contemplative and abstracted ones, speaking of the erosion of past experiences and their unrelenting influence on the present.

One of the most striking pieces in the show is `The Streets are Rising` which is a cacophony of various images extracted from the city, coming together to fabricate a bleak landscape. While the work contains many recognisable elements that define our experiences of the city, it is most fascinating when ingested as a whole, in a way representing the spirit of the city itself; a chaotic jumble of instances and events littering the foreground, with a cosmopolitan skyline seen in the distance.

`Whale Under Construction` is another intriguing piece that brings to mind many instances where whales have suffered at the hands of the toxic ecosystem of Karachi`s sea. The painting is something in between abstraction and representation, depicting what seems to be a decomposing corpse of a whale, gesturally rendered and aestheticised with soft hues, and overlaid with abstracted maps, suggesting causalities.

While the artist`s shift away from the body and towards the city is a point of interest for many critics, Khan feels the body is still present in a more indirect way in her works. `It`s documenting the city through the gesture of the body, through the woman`s experience in a particular space, so there are ways of entering the work through an entry point that is not always theoretical or clinical; its visceral and very much felt through certain kinds of emotions and imperatives,` she adds. Her own presence is felt in these works beyond the frame, experiencing the world around her and responding to it through her praxis.

`Set in a Moment Yet Still Moving` was on display at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from December 28, 2017 till January 10, 2018