Private View: 6th of June, 18:30 - 21:00
“Serving with White Gloves”
Abstract patterns shift under the gaze like a kaleidoscope on canvas. These are maps of refugee settlements and reclaimed areas in Karachi and other cities in Pakistan, transformed into artworks by Muhammad Zeeshan. Exploring urban development and questions of land ownership, the Pakistani artist illuminates not just a localised issue, but also the universal and continual suffering of millions of people. The number of people escaping from ongoing conflicts, prosecution or war has never been higher, almost doubling in the last 10 years. With his solo exhibition ‘Serving with White Gloves’ at Kristin Hjellegjerde Berlin, Zeeshan presents a new body of work set against the backdrop of this worldwide current topic where refugees are confronted over years and decades, with an ongoing inability to find humane living conditions.
Originally trained in the art of miniature painting, Zeeshan’s practice often uses found imagery as a starting point for his creation, in this case taking inspiration from the structure of urban landscapes. ‘The patterns of the maps reminded me of geometric abstraction art from the 1960s and 70s,’ says the artist. ‘Those artists followed geometric patterns to create their works, and there’s something similar in the way these residential areas were created organically over time by people building homes.’ However, whilst artistic creation is aligned with freedom of expression, these areas in Karachi are often regarded as illegal settlements, as the buildings have been constructed without urban planning authorisation. ‘What’s ironic is that the areas were initially barren land and were considered unimportant, but over time they have become very important, lively neighbourhoods, which is why the government starts paying attention, even though the residents have been settled there for the past thirty or forty years,’ adds Zeeshan. In one painting, vein-like paths cut through bright red-orange shapes, reminiscent of the organs of the body. Whilst these are the natural patterns of the residential areas, the bodily recognition is striking and poignant in the context of the bureaucratic conflict. The question arises: who has the right to claim land and who is the land being claimed from?
The artist references the Pakistani ‘Land Mafia’ who notoriously take possession of land for financial gain often by force, whilst destroying the natural ecosystems. ‘When we create a high rise building, we don’t often think about the wildlife that we destroy in order to build. You might not be killing the wildlife directly, but you are killing indirectly by destroying their natural habitats,’ says Zeeshan. One of the most muted paintings in the series appears to convey an underlying sense of violence in its grid of silvery, knife-like strips. Whilst another depicts offers up the juxtaposition of nature and the urban with a plant depicted alongside the residential map. The plant functions as a kind of memento mori; reflecting on the green spaces that are pushed back in order to develop the urban city and create man-made parks, which means the wild is destroyed in place of a more domesticated, manageable form of nature.
The question of reclamation is one that Zeeshan finds amusing as well as disturbing. He mocks the legal label of ‘reclaimed’ which is used to legitimise urban planning and by extension, the destruction of nature, just as he acknowledges the sinister underlying hierarchies that are at play. The exhibition’s title ‘Serving with White Gloves’ articulates this tension by referring to the now outdated practise of a waiter serving food wearing gloves so as to not dirty the crockery. Whilst we might laugh at the formality of the practise, there remains a similar sentiment which promotes superiority and imposed order.
Whilst the artist’s own practise might be considered an act of ‘reclaiming’ cartography, the original patterning of the maps remains intact so as to simultaneously elude the viewer and reveal the organic growth of these communities. In this way, we are invited to view the works on multiple levels as artworks and as expressions of human habitation. And yet, we remain distanced from the living reality of these settlements, perhaps encouraging us to consider the dangers of reducing societies and people to visual symbols.