Manora Island is only a short ferry ride from Karachi, however, its dislodged temporality marks an invisible boundary between itself and the city. As part of the city’s harbor, the island has been at the intersection of Pakistan’s maritime trade and military routes for decades. Its divergent urban landscape, dotted with pre-partition heritage sites is testimony to this historical convergence of cultures and ethnicities. Here, mosques, churches and temples co-exist, along with an 18th century military fort, a lighthouse built in 1889, and a dilapidated weather observatory. Manora Island remains a tourist attraction, a destination for non-elite leisure, for the “lower to middle class. Rich people don’t usually go to Manora.” Naiza Khan reveals speaking on her Manora Field Notes, a work conceived for the 58th Venice Biennale, and curated by Zahra Khan. A 1939 weather report compiled by the Manora Observatory takes center stage in Manora Field Notes. Since Naiza chanced upon it, the report has consistently informed her research, focusing it firmly on the history of the island. However factually accurate the report’s documentation of the atmospheric conditions in 1939 was, what we learn upon visiting the Pakistan Pavilion belies a much deeper erudition in the colonial and postcolonial hegemonies of the region. Departing from their position at the intersection of time, space and geography, the field notes and memories that emerge from Manora tell – through the work of the artist’s hands – stories of power struggles and shifting economies, stories of those who inhabit Manora today and those who have conquered and relinquished it in the past. A profound sense of humanity is not only uncovered through the works, but also the artist’s critical analysis of hegemonic control and cultural subjectivity.
TEXT: Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist & Pakistan Pavilion
Naiza started visiting Manora in 2007, motivated by the need to escape Karachi’s overwhelming density and frenzy. In her repeated trips to the island, the observatory caught her eye and she routinely returned, captivated by its ghostly appearance. It was during one of her visits that Naiza encountered the 1939 India Weather Report, a book issued by the meteorological department of the Indian government to record weather changes. Naiza examines the report in the present with inquiring eyes: “The report is not only about the weather, but it is more of a cultural text, containing ideas of politics, social space, geography, and the overlying structure of information, which was the classification of weather history.” Indeed, history, or specifically the intersection of histories, is the focus of the artist’s research, along with its consequential colonial, cultural and economic ramifications that are ingrained in the physiognomy of Pakistan and the wider region.
It is within this framework that the weather report has enabled the artist-ethnographer to reclaim the very history, meteorological or otherwise, recorded by the British Empire. However, because this document is about the weather, beyond hegemonic control, it offers alternative approaches to colonialism, displacement and cultural subjectivity. Accordingly, Manora becomes a powerful prompt for not only the artist’s investigation of the collective past but also in relation to her own experience and memory, introducing questions that “would stand independent of that space”. As an inspiration and “a space of incubation,” Manora directs the artist’s gaze towards the city and away from the island itself to eventually gain not only “the physical distance of looking across the harbor back to Karachi,” but also the ideological distance that habilitates critique and reflection.
Manora Field Notes unfolds in the exhibition space in three sections. Upon entering the first gallery, visitors encounter Hundreds of Birds Killed. This is a soundscape and installation of brass objects, along with the actual weather report. In the adjacent space stands the mixed-media work Doorbeen, while the video work Sticky Rice and Other Stories is installed in the last gallery.
As part of Hundreds of Birds Killed, the weather report discreetly hangs on the wall, presented in a plexiglass frame. While its essence, colonial as well as meteorological, permeates all of Naiza’s works for the pavilion, its actual physicality is modest. We are aware that it is presented as an obscure heirloom but, as the artist seems to suggest, we need not necessarily gaze upon it. Instead, what occupies the gallery space is the report’s content, of cities being ravaged by atmospheric catastrophes and reproduced in brass sculptures. Hanging from the ceiling or placed on geometrical plinths that suggest a dissected map awaiting reconfiguration, the sculptures are accompanied by the sound installation: the recitation of the entire weather report is in a tenuous voice, that of the Pakistani stage actress Nimra Bucha. Her empathic tone is able to tap the potential of the report as a historical and sociological tool that can reveal the co-existence of colonial data with daily reality. Numerical information that corresponds to the report’s damage assessment of storms and depressions resonates quietly in the space, materializing all the while in the brass sculptures.
“Brass is an organic material, malleable and transformative from its dark appearance, soon after casting, to a bright hue.” Naiza has worked with this medium for a long time, assisted by a community of brassworking artisans in Golimar, Karachi, that for this specific project accomplished a commendable task. There are over 300 pieces in the gallery, formed through atmospheric disruption. Each one is carefully crafted in different ways, from flat surfaces to organic shapes or debris, each specified by Naiza. Specifically, the flat surfaces convey the urban plans of 11 cities selected by the artist from the larger number of cities recorded in the pre-partition report, which are now scattered across four countries (Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh). Through sophisticated imaging software, Naiza rescales these city plans and then combines them to form fantastical objects, ranging from “kitchen utensils welded together” and fused birds wings to the amalgamation of various items that natural calamities would have caused, which also gives way to imaginary forms. The result is an unsettling organized chaos, where disruption in both landscape and geography points not only to atmospheric calamities but also the cultural disruption caused by colonial hegemony.
In juxtaposition to the exceptional materiality in the first gallery, the four-channel video installation Sticky Rice and Other Stories occupies the entire second gallery. Shot in Manora, the installation is in two parts, focusing on local traditions and subaltern voices, but also on other stories. The first part centers on artisans’ communities that craft miniature boats for a living, which are then sold as souvenirs at the local market. For Sticky Rice and Other Stories Naiza has commissioned the artisans to produce models of historical vessels, cargo and other ships. These are based on precise scale drawings drafted by the artist, who has given careful consideration to both the respective proportions of the boats and their function in the harbor. “The idea of relativity is important to me; for instance, how larger and larger containers are entering the harbor.” This points not only to the history of the harbor but also to its economy today, where small-scale craftsmanship and large-scale enterprises concurrently feed the global supply chain. In the video, the model makers converse among themselves about the challenges of reproducing the proportions and features of the original boats, as well as the roles these boats have played in the harbor. “It is important to give space to their voice,” adds Naiza, “to acknowledge and to make visible what these craftsmen contribute to the knowledge of this work along with the voices of other scholars.”
The urban research scholar Arif Hasan and art historian Iftikhar Dady partake in a voiceover interview with the artist at separate times. In the video work, their comments on matters about power structures and the global economy are interspersed with images of the rescaled boat models (mentioned above) being displayed on a vendor’s street cart and pushed around from dawn to dusk along the coast of Manora.
The second part of Sticky Rice and Other Stories is set in a laboratory where a local artisan assembles telescopes before bringing them to the Manora beachfront. Once there, the telescopes can be rented for a small fee by curious tourists wishing to explore the beach and the harbor, contributing directly to the island’s local economy. In the video, Naiza engages in a conversation with the craftsman, who is interviewed while preparing for his day’s work on the beachfront, “to create a frame where the local man [is] doing something simple and mundane as cleaning and assembling the parts.” Their exchanges unveil insightful information, ranging from what these telescopes are made of (a large drum and vintage binoculars) to where the parts are sourced from, and so expose the historical undertones of the region’s shadow economy and trade routes. The telescopes’ parts and other assorted items are smuggled across the border and sold on the local market as secondhand goods. The conversation also elaborates on the origins of the telescope, which was originally used for target location during warfare throughout the world, and how this has become much more sophisticated through the use of satellite and navigation systems that do not require the human eye. This progressively dehumanized association with the act of seeing is subtly expounded in the work Doorbeen.
Doorbeen, Urdu for telescope, includes one of the telescopes that we see assembled in Sticky Rice and Other Stories. It’s installed in the pavilion’s courtyard and available for the audience’s interaction. Resembling both an object of science fiction and an artisanal craft, Doorbeen plays the role of a compelling trait d’union in the pavilion. Installed in the open space that separates the two main galleries, it reiterates ideas of atmospheric and hegemonic disruption that are considered by the brass sculptures and video works, in addition to the disturbance of physical and psychological distance inherent in the telescope’s function of not only bringing faraway objects closer but also invading privacy. Through this tension between optical illusion and hegemonic control, Doorbeen invites the audience to see. By looking through its lens, the viewer does, in fact, observe a video of Manora’s beachfront riddled with telescopes, such as the one that the audience is looking through, in order to satisfy the voyeuristic curiosity of tourists.
Unfolding throughout the pavilion in the Venetian Arsenal, itself a historical maritime outpost and naval base, Manora Field Notes is a physical and mental locale “where lots of ideas have germinated”. It is an open-ended archive in which memory is dissected and elaborated, and eventually returned. In this magnified diagram of time, space and geography, I feel that our journey into Manora’s stories has only just begun, while we are shown the way by artist and ethnographer, Naiza Khan.
 Naiza Khan, conversation with the author, June 4, 2019. All quotations henceforth refer to this conversation.
About the artist
Naiza Khan is born in Pakistan in 1968, trained at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford, and the Wimbledon College of Art, London. Her work has been widely exhibited internationally, including at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2016), the Colombo Art Biennale (2016) and the Shanghai Biennale (2012), as well as in exhibitions, such as Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, USA (2009); Art Decoding Violence, XV Biennale Donna, Ferrara, Italy (2012); Desperately Seeking Paradise, Art Dubai, UAE (2008); Manifesta 8, Murcia, Spain (2010); and the Cairo Biennale, Cairo, Egypt (2010).
The artist has been selected for residencies at Gasworks, London, UK, and at the Rybon Art Center, Tehran, Iran. As a founding member and long-time coordinator of the Vasl Artists’ Collective in Karachi, Khan has worked to foster art in the city, and participated in a series of innovative art projects in partnership with other workshops in the region, such as the Khoj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi, India; the Britto Arts Trust, Dhaka, Bangladesh; the Sutra Art Foundation, Kathmandu, Nepal; and the Theertha International Artists Collective, Colombo, Sri Lanka. In addition, she has curated three exhibitions of Pakistani contemporary art, including The Rising Tide: New Directions in Art from Pakistan, 1990–2010 at the Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi.
In 2013, Khan had her first major retrospective at an American institution: Karachi Elegies at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. The same year, she received the Prince Claus Award presented by the Dutch Prince Claus Fund in recognition of her exceptional work and initiatives in the fields of art and culture.
Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani is an independent curator, writer and lecturer of Southeast Asian contemporary art. Complemented by continuous dialogue with artists and art professionals, her research and curatorial practice revolve around critical sociopolitical issues in Southeast Asia, advocating a counter-hegemonic and non-Western-centric discourse. Loredana currently curates Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia (2018) with MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, and edited the accompanying publication, a collection of essays that examine art and society at the periphery. Other recent exhibitions include Heads or Tails? Uncertainties and Tensions in Contemporary Thailand (2017) with Sundaram Tagore Gallery; The Game/Viet Nam by LE Brothers (2016) with Jim Thompson Art Center; and Architectural Landscapes: SEA in the Forefront (2015) with Queens Museum.