Naiza Khan has constructed her practice layer by thoughtful layer, in contemplative assimilation of histories that have passed; in reflective consideration of futures to come and the present that lingers like a pregnant cloud of doubt. For Khan, the narrative of the island of Manora, about 15 miles from the port of Karachi, has absorbed the past seven years of her life, for she has found there much of the disruptions that plague not just her country of origin but the world in its present state.
She spoke about the island in an interview with art critic Nada Raza in 2011; “I feel Manora is suspended somewhere. It has been forgotten and no attempt has been made to envision its possible future for transformation. But at the same time there is something in the ruins. I see it in the multi-religious structures that still exist on the island, and the way the fishermen talk on the boats about stories caught at sea. These stories are worth recording, even if only in part.”
Naiza Khan formulated a strange and vivid relationship with the island, one that has unraveled in the form of the images that she continues to work on today because they grip her still. She has been friend to the community, detached observer, ethnographer, empirical researcher, photographer, videographer and yet she has had to convince the people of the island that as an artist she could not change their lives and they must comprehend the difference between autonomy and authority in the creative arts. It may have seemed an unkind cut surely but it is art’s strange reality.
One of the paintings by Khan that sums up the experiential ruptures of the once-hybrid community of Manora, now suffering a loss of present and future veracities is ‘Between the Temple and the Playground’. The small island is famous for several historical and religious sites like the shrine of Yusuf Shah Ghazi, the Talpur Fort, St Paul’s Church, a Sikh Gurdwara, the only lighthouse in Pakistan and the Shri Varin Dev Mandir or Temple. Yet the painting sprawls as if it would like to encompass the entire history and geography of the island in one fell swoop, leaving nothing to the vagaries of coming historicists or geographers who have done little in the way of archiving or preserving the rich past of Manora. It also recounts a sad tale of the time in recent years when the shaky wall of a school fell and crushed several schoolchildren killing them instantly. Their graves nearby are painted sky blue which are only indicated, not shown in the video in which Khan is seen painting the detritus heap of school chairs and tables, the same sky blue. In the painting, done in oil on canvas, a medium she used after a hiatus of sixteen years, the skyline of a meager city reaches out distantly. Along the way, the detritus of a broken city lies scattered.
Khan visited the island a number of times over the seven years she spent exploring it. She would find reams of precious almanacs and pages of historical texts, photographs, drawings, and even hand written nautical records from the time of the British empire, all ridden with dust and decay, sometimes whirling around in dilapidated buildings. The dark gloom of her works depicts an overriding despondency, a kind of neglect and gradual degeneration that suits the aura of the island. Khan has used many of the sepia pages she found strewn about, in her production.
Naiza Khan has amassed a huge oeuvre from her engagement with an island that was once a thriving city and is now a ghost town. She has created objects –quirky, shiny gizmos pieced together almost like fragments one would find washed upon a beach — throwaways, like discarded cellphones and sea shells and replicas of beached whales all jumbled together. But Khan gives them permanence by recreating them in shiny bronze. Khan works in several medium to offset the barrage of diverse ideas that spring up in her her head — printmaking, watercolor, oil on canvas, charcoal and conte and acrylic on Fabriano paper, installation and photography as well as video. It’s one of the ways in which she puts coherence to the chaos that she finds herself absorbed in while becoming immersed in the island.
These ‘”layers of meaning [and production] are a way of thinking. Accumulation brings something out of me as the image finds itself and hinges itself somewhere in the work” says Khan.
The many ways in which Naiza Khan depicts the topography and geographies of the island enhances the despondency of the remaining population of the people living there, even when she is not showing a single member of the island. The fine lines of broken buildings washed over with nebulous colors on stark white paper that constitute some of Naiza’s prints and watercolours are emblematic of the tenuous nature of the lives of the inhabitants who are immersed in fear and insecurities. But when one is investigating a people as ancient as the people of Manora, the myths and realities become delectably entangled. There are many legends associated with the place specially the tale of Morriro in Shah jo Rasalo, a series of poems written by the renowned Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (1689-1752). In another bizarre event in 2011, the wreck of a 100-foot steamboat was found in the mud flats of the Indus Delta, far inland and away from the ocean, inspiring awe in the nearby villagers. It was a boat that dated from the 1843 British annexation of Sindh and was named Fatah Mubarak or Blessed Conquest. Naiza Khan makes reference to the boat in her oeuvre as an antique sailing vessel.
Naiza Khan’s paintings and installations are teleological in their purposefulness and they exude a sense of despondency at the plight of the inhabitants of Manora. But it is not only about Manora. The issues are larger for Naiza and she points to the morass in the country and the region as well.