Between black and white

A new wave of Pakistani artists collaborate at the Jam Jar. Take a look at one of the emirate's most vibrant art communities.

White noise is the sound of confusion: the fuzz of multiple frequencies battling for supremacy– a random and incoherent medley. You suspect it’s just what Pakistani collective Grey Noise is trying to avoid. By bringing together artists with practices and ideas from across the spectrum and providing a space for them to interact, will the sound of grey, then, be more coherent?

A virtual gallery in the purest sense, Grey Noise showcases the works of a new breed of Pakistani artists, often with a shared minimalist aesthetic. Brought together by gallery director Umar Butt, there’s a sense among these artists that a new movement is brewing in the Pakistan art scene.

‘After Art Dubai there was a major shift of interest in art coming out of Pakistan,’ Butt tells us from Lahore. ‘Spatial art, which often incorporates sound or video, is not usually taken seriously [in the Pakistani art market], because it’s not bought easily. There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening underground here: a number of artists that work in these mediums as well as sound and video, but there’s not been a platform for them.’

Butt set up Grey Noise to provide such a platform and, after launching the online gallery earlier this year, has curated a show from five of the artists on the ranks. Let’s Talk, as the show has been dubbed, will temporarily redesign the space of The Jam Jar to create a mixed-media journey, incorporating sound art, an installation of tiny graves and a text work that goes ‘clink, clink, clink’. Ayesha Jatoi, one of the artists featured, explains that the central concept behind the show is reassessing how communication works and fails. ‘We wanted to create a group show in the real sense of the word, where we were directly collaborating and linking our practices.’

The process of putting together the works began in what Jatoi describes as Chinese whispers, ‘I come up with an idea, I pass that along, and the next artist takes something from it and runs with that. That was the concept. In the end it didn’t work out exactly in that way. But then that’s what happens: people don’t always communicate and link in a choreographed way.’

Jatoi’s own work featured in Let’s Talk is a direct response to the work that opens the show by Lala Rukh. An artist-activist, Rukh has been a direct supporter of the lawyer protests that have swept through Pakistan since late 2007. ‘She was working on a sound piece, and we got to talking about how we couldn’t separate our own lives from what was gong on in the country at that time. There was so much political unrest, with the lawyers’ movement and the president. So Lala started on this sound piece about her hope for the movement,’ says Jatoi.

Stitching together the myriad sounds of daybreak, Rukh creates a patchwork of exuberant slogans and chants that she has collected in lawyer protests, before melding it into an uplifting raag (a classical song from the Subcontinent) sung by Sara Zaman. ‘My work was a response to the optimism that Lala presented,’ says Jatoi. ‘I wanted to show the flipside: the apathetic, elite class in Pakistan. There’s a big divide here between the have-nots and the very, very rich.’

Despite being trained as a painter of miniatures, Jatoi often incorporates text into her work. Here she has created a 28ft corridor, lined with words like ‘clink, clink, puff, puff, tic, tic, boom’ – ‘It’s a woman drinking her drink, walking in high heels, smoking her cigarette. All the while bombs go off in the background.’ At the far end is a deep-red miniature painting (‘the colour of congealed blood or the exact colour of red wine’). As you walk closer, it becomes apparent that it’s made up of all these tiny dots. ‘When you’re making these miniatures, you have to meditate and can’t go over another dot because the gradation gets ruined,’ she tells us. ‘That’s like my own very quiet boom.’

From Jatoi the show leads into a selection of loud works by Mehreen Murtuza that challenge the persistent minimalism of the show. This is followed by Ayaz Jokhio’s unsettling cluster of tiny graves, each packed with books, before the show comes full circle with graphical works by Fahd Burki that reflect on both sound and the physicality of silence.

Butt and Jatoi are contagiously excited about this new wave in Pakistani art. ‘All the major art movements happened as a result of flux or violence or war in a society’ says Jatoi. ‘It’s sad that we have this situation in Pakistan, but I think the arts have really flourished. This is where the situation has really seeped through the pores – to the writers, the artists and the intelligentsia.’

Let’s Talk is at The Jam Jar from October 8-29. www.greynoise.org

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