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The Karachi Collective | Between Culture, Politics, and Spirituality

By Nimra Khan

Discussing the art of Aisha Khalid is no simple task; it requires a navigation of dualities and multiplicities, and a reigning in of ideas spread across a conceptual, disciplinary and methodological expanse. Her layered socio-political commentary responds to her experiences and exposures later in life, yet is articulated through a visual vocabulary formulated from personal and cultural histories drawn from a childhood spent in Shikarpur, Sindh, lending it a contextual anchor. However, the strong undercurrent pulling the narrative forward is deeply spiritual and philosophical.

The recent retrospective, curated by Masuma Halai Khwaja and spread across three venues in Karachi, is a monumental exhibit for the artist and the Pakistani art world; and a rarity for the local art scene, both in terms of volume and scale. It brings together selected works from Khalid’s prolific practice spanning almost two decades, not only allowing us to view and understand the various concepts, themes and nuances through the highpoints of her career, but also providing an insight into her beginnings, inspirations, processes and evolution as an artist.

Part of a group of trailblazers from the National College of Arts (NCA), Khalid and her contemporaries are credited with pioneering the Neo-miniature movement which brought global contemporary relevance to an age-old tradition and the regional culture at large. Khalid’s career has since blossomed to encompass a wide range of mediums and disciplines, including painting, new media, textiles, video and installations, while still carrying within it her miniature sensibilities. To then reflect this multiplicity through the selection of works that highlight the many seminal works and pivotal moments of her practice and also bring it to crux with a unifying curatorial premise, while at the same time creating a dialogue with, within and between the spaces, is no mean feat, and is executed competently by the curator.

The first venue, Chawkandi Art Gallery, presents an almost museum-like display that combines earlier works with personal paraphernalia – such as the jungle knife heirloom of her late father, books on Rumi, a pressed rose and old family photos – to paint a picture of the artist and the influences that drive her practice. A display of the miniature table designed by her while still a student, which is now widely used in all leading art schools, combined with newspaper clippings marking her early successes, stand as a testament to the legacy she has created as an iconic figure in the Pakistani art landscape. It is a fitting role for the gallery to play as the platform through which neo-miniature and its young practitioners first found an audience at a time when it was only a radical new approach and not yet an established trend.

Frere Hall is the star venue where the major chunk of the display resides, leading the viewer through the major beats in the work. The interior of the space itself holds the capacity to accommodate some of the artists large-scale paintings and installations, while also allowing for access to a wider audience as a public venue. However, its main strength lies in its ability to converse with and enhance both the socio-political commentary – as a remnant of a colonial past – and the spiritual nuances of the works – mirrored in the magnificent mural painted by Sadequain on its ceiling. The most explicit instance of this is the polyptych I Am and I Am Not (2021), which takes inspiration from the story narrated in Surah-e-Feel in the Quran, and speaks of divine natural might clashing against worldly forces. The series of four panels above depict a flock of the weakest bird, Ababeel, annihilating a cavalry of elephants on the panel below. The serene blues and earthy sepia tones can be seen reflected in the ceiling above, which bears the phrase Arz-o-Samawat, translated to Earth and the Heavens, resonating the spiritual and poetic notes of the work.

This entire series comprises works created between 2018 and 2021, which read as a culmination of sorts of many of the artist’s signature visual and conceptual elements. Presence becomes more palpable through the act of erasure of corporeal form, the body only hinted through weapons of war placed in formations in which they were once held. This concept is driven by Khalid’s personal loss, the death of her father in 2018, weeks prior to which he bequeathed to her a jungle knife— fashioned together by her father, herself and her siblings. Now a treasured memento of fond childhood memories, it compelled the artist to contemplate the temporality of life and its endurance through the material possessions that survive us.