Eating the Birds

Zehra Hamdani Mirza on an exhibition at Karachi's Koel Gallery where 19 artists depict our troubled relationship with the environment

Our cities are growing fast. And often it’s graceless—streets grow derelict, the ocean is being banished, communities are being driven from their homes.  A new show at the Koel gallery, highlights the importance of “thinking through and engaging with birds” in the hope that we’ll see our selfish dealings with our landscape.

“We ate the birds” borrows its curious title from Margaret Atwood and is curated by Seher Naveed. With urban planning based on the whims of gluttonous land developers and politicians, and permits being issued to hunt endangered birds, the show unpacks the vulnerability of Pakistan’s ecosystems. It is an interesting point of entry into a popular conversation.

The show, featuring 19 artists who explore the complex relationship between humans and birds, also marks the inauguration of the gallery’s new, expanded premises. When you enter, Seema Nusrat’s “When birds collide” confronts you. These quirky creatures are both big-city skyline, and birds in a row. It’s a powerful take on how irrelevant birds seem to us in urban landscapes.

Seema Nusrat - When Birds Collide - Metal sheet, metal mesh and metal rod

Omer Wasim's "Detritus" is a poetic reminder that many of our streets were once under water, and the city is being snatched from the ocean

Shahana Rajanai and Zahra Malkani lay it out for us literally, in an installation spread like an activist or Sherlock Holmes’ desk. Tea, herbs, scribbles and newspaper clippings, harrowing accounts of people being driven from their homes, all so that “development” can take place. Artist Marium Saeedullah visits Chinese/Japanese paintings with her mythical birds.

In a “Study of floating objects”, Suleman Aqeel Khilji delicately depicts flight, playing with weightiness and etherealness. Mohammad Zeeshan’s tongue-in-cheek work has a pink cat pawing at a curtain of blue orbs that seems to ripple in the wind.

Adeela Suleman

Veera Rustomjee’s lovingly rendered paintings ache with a sense of loss for another time. Juicily detailed, you can hear the silence of a sleepy afternoon in an old beautiful home, looking out of tall, tall windows, with patterned floors – devoid of human form but so full of life and family. Connecting the loss of these beautiful old buildings that seem irrelevant to us, and a delicate bird that no longer visits, her warm, cozy spaces have an egret moving through each scene.

Sohail Zuberi had his favourite tree cut by the authorities. Pained, he saved it in chopped sections. In the show they are laid out like plates, with images of trees transferred onto them. On the neighbouring wall, lines of electric wire seem to wait for crows to perch on. Saba Khan’s whimsical embroidered glittery sheet belies its serious message of birds losing their homes.

Huma Muljee

Omer Wasim’s “Detritus” is a poetic reminder that many of our streets were once under water, and the city is being snatched from the ocean. In a crudely arranged installation, TVs and extension cords are clumsily propped among building material and dust. On the screens, footage of the waves plays. It is sand, sea and sky and birds being played on wires, ladders, dirt and plaster. The waves cascade and the birds sing in the soothing footage. Buildings loom in a smoggy distance.The work touches upon our “bought nostalgia” with the TVs made in China. It was reminiscent of his touching piece for the show“The 70’s: Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade” last year, where a makeshift room of cinderblocks housed traumatic memories of the 1971 war.

Moeen Faruqui’s ‘Carpe Diem’ (Seize the Day), is a riot of colours in his signature style, the canvas is divided in scenes of a day with people and animals, a crow pecks at fruit,faces are shadowed in cobalt and green. Noreen Ali plays with bird forms living in turbulent spaces. Muhammad Abdul’s prints on paper are rendered by someone who clearly loves and cares for animals. These works have a gentleness, “Chakor”, and the diptych “Panimei” handle their subject with a softness.

M.Abdul - Pani Mei - 32 x 11.8 inches - woodcut and monoprint on paper

Filmmaker Jamil Dehlavi’s “High Priests of Ahura Mazda” has scenes from one of his old films in a black-and-white grid. He once told an interviewer he always wanted to be a painter, and it is clear in this piece. The work has a beautiful balance and the tension of a painting — it is a murderous, poetic grid. Vultures congregate with their queen, her clothes flutter while their wings flap.

Adeela Suleman’s beautiful steel curtain, which is a mesh of birds casting wonderful shadows on the wall is accompanied by a tiny, harrowing painting of bodies brutally bleeding on rocks. Arslan Farooqi’s quirky translation of Persian miniature into digital animation, always a wonderful play of old and new, is a lovely video of the Conference of the Birds. In “Because we loved them”, Asma Mundrawala has raw chickens hanging like pole dancers; the pieces of meat are victimised sex objects. Rabia Akhtar’s delicately rendered “Passengers” are a metamorphosis of old and young, flesh and feathers. The pieces are very effective, with the detail of jewelry and the creepiness of a Grimm’s fairy tale.

You miss the intimacy and sacred feel of the old Koel gallery space — where you crouch down to enter its shady sanctum, champa hanging overhead. But artist Huma Muljee’s piece displays how beautifully the gallery’s new terrain can be used—there’s another floor. Alighting the stairs, it feels like an open sky. Pink breathless words hover, accompanying you on your climb “Nomads. Aliens. Refugees. Guests. Welcome.” (It sounds like a welcome sign to Karachi). You search for the flamingo in her title, and when you reach the top you are greeted by a Calpol-pink pedestal fan: flamboyant, precariously balanced, photogenic, everything a flamingo is. And yet, there is no flamingo. And you miss her and the egret, and the houbara bustard and the other birds that we have frightened, or hunted, or banished. And you miss the openness, and the ocean sent so far away.

Zehra Hamdani Mirza is a Karachi based artist and writer.