Karachi Chronicles | Again | thenews.com.pk
uring Lahore’s beautification process in the 1990s, several intellectuals criticized the agricultural intervention – or invasion: of planting date palms in the middle of Gulberg’s main boulevard. Local trees, they said, should have been preferred, because they were part of our landscape, suited our soil, suited our seasons. Foreign vegetation was not welcome.
Compared to human beings, it is easier to add the label of local on a tree ; because, as Lebanese author Amin Maalouf observes in his family memoirs Origins; “Trees…. need their roots. Men don’t. to foreign countries, settle in unknown places and conquer continents far from their homeland.
Plants, although they have deep roots and a connection with land, also migrate. Today, Indian cuisine is identified by its pungent flavor, the use of chilli and basic ingredients such as tomatoes and potatoes, but chilli “was introduced to India by the Portuguese towards the end from 16e Century”; it was brought from the Americas. Likewise, tomatoes and potatoes were grown in South America and, after its “conquest”, were transported to the subcontinent by the Portuguese.
Therefore, the idea of autochthony associated with vegetation must be revised or abandoned. Seeds and stems – like thought systems – travel from country to country. Bougainvillea, widely grown in Pakistan, especially Karachi, is another South American variety introduced to India in the second half of the 19th century. At present, it is the most popular plant in the port city. In dry, harsh and sweltering conditions, its flowers can be seen blooming inside and outside many Karachi homes. If jasmine is our national flower, bougainvillea is our favourite.
Jovita Alvares, Karachi resident and fine arts graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (2016), looked at this plant “to investigate the underlying themes urban planning, hyper-security and the dictated relationship the city has with its flora.” In her current solo exhibition, Artificial Sensation, at Chawkandi Art, Karachi (July 26 – August 5), one finds the bougainvillea plant represented in different formats, techniques and contexts.
The artist seems to allude to life in a city plagued by layers of security issues. Raised boundaries, perpetually raised brick/stone walls, groups or sections of barbed wire, buffer zones between buildings and streets, road barriers, checkpoint barricades, metal fences, Spikes, bars, grates are attempts to protect themselves from political protesters, agitating citizens, intruding thieves, invading dacoits – and invisible terrorists.
In Alvares’ work, safety gear has a decorative presence (not dissimilar to real life); because all these devices are illusions of invulnerability. Security measures, in material and human form (guards), offer some comfort, consolation and hope – but their physical function ends there. Many times you see security guards, in their dark blue uniforms, with a gun in their hands, but a glance at them reveals that these unfortunate personnel would be the first victims of any act of intrusion or explosion. a private residence or an official building. . On morning walks, I pass these characters – off their night shift but still in their imposing attire – picking up plastic bottles, metal cans, cartons, to earn a few extra bucks selling trash left in front of swanky homes. .
In Alvares’ work, safety gear has a decorative presence (not dissimilar to real life); because all these devices are illusions of invulnerability.
The delusion of security (devices) is no different from these humble guardians, yet everyone believes in it. Security in our circumstances has become a residue of General Zia ul Haq’s policy of censorship and confinement. Now we are comfortable hiding. Physically, architecturally, medically, politically, ethically. hijabs and scarves, face masks, bulletproof vests, reinforced perimeter walls, are efforts to create a safe distance between us and the other: the enemy or the friend who must be kept at a distance.
Jovita Alvares, in her impressive and meticulously produced work, reminds us of these shields of exclusion. In the series, titled Sail (graphite and cut paper) she coats a hedge, a creeper, a plantation set up to preserve the privacy of the inhabitants. What you see from the street are flowers, leaves, stems, branches, instead of people, things, interiors. Alvares translates these outer – or primary – layers into patterns. She states that “Drawing inspiration from the works of William Morris and other creators of the Arts and Crafts movement, this series of works expands to explore the repeated landscape of the city”.
Any visual that we define today as design, is an exercise in modifying elements/entities of nature into a structure, with precision, stylization, repetition. Jovita Alvares draws the bougainvillea in detail, but in some works transforms it into patterns, a passage from nature to culture. In Sail, the cut botanical shapes are as colorless (neutral white) as any selfless person protecting your home. A night watchman, a private guard, a policeman. Taking this practice further, the flowers and leaves of the bougainvillea are transformed into intriguing images (Through the flowers I &II). The stylized bougainvillea petals are joined with the repeated depiction of an ordinary roadblock typically set by law enforcement (Dark I & II).
Bricks, barbed wire, iron grilles, bars, metal gates are human concoctions, but the bougainvillea is a natural screen that covers a house, a building, a construction and, without physically protecting it, saves it from view. of an intruder. This plant, as its statement states, “thrives in the authoritarian climate” of Karachi. In her works, whether painted or openwork, she is a symbol of resistance, resilience, reaffirmation, as well as her aesthetic aspect (those delicate petals of beautiful roses, violets and other colors, blooming under a burning sun) .
In the past, Jovita Alvares has explored this flower with multiple approaches, but the recent artwork – with bougainvillea as the outer layer, hints at a personal narrative. Roots. The people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in popular discourse claim to have their roots in Arabia, Persia, Turkey, Central Asia, Afghanistan; and there may be ancestral ties to Myanmar, North Africa, South India, including other parts of the world. Alvares acknowledges his family’s Goan origins (both his maternal and paternal grandparents were from Goa); therefore, his recurring depiction of bougainvillea could be a way of identifying with displacement, relocation, assimilation.
This body of work by Jovita Alvares revolves around the artist, his family, his city, his situation, but by its poetic diction and its political connotation, it is not about an individual, a metropolis , of an era but encounters the age-old conflict / connection between the insider and the outsider.
The author is an art critic based in Lahore