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Flights to nowhere | Art & Culture

Flights were always frightening, but for the past year and a half, boarding a plane has also entailed the threat of catching coronavirus, along with the fear of perishing in a crash. Covid-19 has affected air travel as much as the 9/11 attacks. Today, the only accessible, comfortable and affordable flight is the flight of fancy.

Art is a flight of fantasy: it transports us to other vistas, without leaving the ground beneath our feet. You can take a flight to any destination, direction, dimension: it provides us views of the past, glimpses of the present and visions of the future. Often all three blend in one; as witnessed in a recent group exhibition, Flight, at the Koel Gallery, Karachi. The show (being held from May 25 to June 16) includes 11 artists of various disciplines, generations and origins.

The display brings together individuals who, intentionally, did not illustrate the concept of flight in a literal sense. Some works were conceived for the show, while others were a continuation of participants’ previous practices. So, inside the gallery space, one can experience many flights during a single hour/day, while dealing with the rusty routine of life. Huma Mulji’s Crystal Palace, the “replica of a model home – such as those found in real estate offices”, built with mirrors and balanced in a tilted angle, signifies the ephemeral nature of something as solid as a house (or sacred as home). The artist quotes ancient account of Queen of Sheba stepping on the floor of Prophet Solomon’s (peace be upon him) palace covered with crystal, confusing it with water. Mulji’s sculpture from 2010, can be compared to an aeroplane too – temporary house in the air – with the same tilt in its take off position or in the course of landing. A carrier constructed in mirror, instead of metal.

If seen from a safe distance, aeroplanes look like mechanical birds moving as other birds in the sky. One wonders how crows, eagles, vultures perceive these alien creatures occupying their air space. David Alesworth and Tim Southall (a mixed media artist from Bristol, UK), have created Magpie, Pica Pica, with interlocked pieces of laser cut cardboard. An installation in variable size, that can be airmailed to many addresses and reassembled according to the artists-duo’s plan. “Made up from international fruit cartons sourced in the markets of Bristol from goods that have already ‘flown’ around the world like migratory birds along well-defined air-routes between producer and consumer”, the work also reminds one of trade between makers and collectors of art, now more international, than ever before. Alesworth and Southall explain their work “based upon the Magpie, a bird of similar standing in British lore and culture to that of the Koel in the sub-continent”. Their art piece is being displayed at Koel Gallery.

Somehow birds, these small and vulnerable creatures, address a crucial conflict of present day politics. They circulate above countries without recognising, hesitating at or being stopped by national borders. Alesworth and Southall’s sculpture, in its orientation relates to the idea of flight – hence freedom. From the bounds of one’s tradition, convention, custom – and earlier art production.

Another participant, Atif Khan, in this show, seems to be moving away, and ahead, of his previous formal solutions. For a number of years, Khan has been concocting visuals comprising of Mughal miniature painting, popular truck art, traces of colonial heritage, occasionally resembling exercises in a cut-and-paste process. In the recent body of his work, it appears that Khan has finally found the right mode of his ‘making’. A collage of diverse sources is now composed in a circular format, giving the impression of a luminous – almost backlit disk. For Khan, these “8 bubbles explore the four elements of nature; air, water, fire and earth and four elements of human existence; soul, body, mind and heart”, but these, too, represent varying elements of our pictorial past. Atif Khan collects multiple ingredients and fabricates a composite imagery with a school of fish swirling in a circle, truck-art birds sailing underneath the heavily laden dark clouds from miniature painting. The same birds are seen against a dense foliage, a Mughal figure rowing against the current composed of Kufiyah motif. The round body of these prints adds to the aspect of low/popular art, because a disk – by its nature, normally is not framed and hung on the wall; in our everyday life roundness is a familiar shape: medal, coin, badge, etc.

And so is the ‘dish’ antenna, a forgotten apparatus used for connecting one to the news and entertainment channels across the globe (before the spread of cable network). These dishes may still be found at some residences, but one of these is placed at the exhibition by Rameez Abul Rahman. A disk stuck with shards of coloured glass, by which he has “depicted oceanic patterns”. A similar fascination with variations and reverberations of sea waves is visible in his other work, Waves. The high plinth made of sandblasted and colour processed base, that gives you a sensation of discovering changing hues, vibrating shades and receding tides. Though the work, like some other selected in the show, emerges as raw and rudimentary, it asserts the recollection of being at a beach – a bed of migratory birds.

At such an exhibition, a spectator anticipates objects on display connected to flying, but artists usually do not respond to circumstances and situations in expected ways. Jamil Baloch once told me about one of his class fellows who accompanied other students to paint the River Ravi, but instead of focusing on water, like everyone else, took out his old pair of shoes from the bag, and rendered those – confirming the artist’s freedom. In the same lieu, Jamil Bloch’s sculpture, Destination, looking like unhewn stones, made in resin and plastic, reaffirms that stones do fly – actually, when hurled.

As kids, we used to play the game of lifting our fingers on each appropriate announcement: like the sparrow flies, the parrot flies, the crow flies, the pigeon flies; but not on the same sounding yet misleading suggestions such as the cow flies, the dog flies, or the door flies. After viewing the exhibition at Koel Gallery, one shall certainly raise a finger on stones, houses and every other levitating object including art, because art in its course of flight, takes us to unknown journeys and utmost pleasures – never to end.

The writer is an art   critic based in Lahore

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