View of “Yaminay Chaudhri,” 2018. Foreground: An Imaginary Walk on Seaview, 2015–17. Background: Narrative Interrupted, 2014.

View of “Yaminay Chaudhri,” 2018. Foreground: An Imaginary Walk on Seaview, 2015–17. Background: Narrative Interrupted, 2014.

Yaminay Chaudhri

Drawing its title from a poem by Agha Shahid Ali, Yaminay Chaudhri’s exhibition “Rooms Are Never Finished” presented portraits of Darakhshan Township, the neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan, where the artist grew up. Facing the Arabian Sea, the planned housing development was built in the 1980s and sits adjacent to Seaview, one of the city’s most popular public beaches. Through works in different media that together offer an itinerary throughout the area, the exhibition touched on the following issues: urban change, growth and decay, land reclamation and gentrification, and middle-class aspirations for better homes. The show also focused on the resulting displacement of the working class, for whom the beach is a rare and much-needed space of leisure and, for some, a source of livelihood. The residential community and its beach have become a test case for the increase in real estate development and the contraction of public space taking place across the ever-expanding metropolis, which has given rise to tensions.

Chaudhri’s approach was neither didactic nor polemical. Instead, she communicated the specificities of the site through accumulations of fragmented textures, impressions, and sounds. The exhibition opened with “What is separation’s geography? Everything is just that mystery,” 2014–, a series of prints for which the artist shot close-up photographs of the painted, textured walls of the colony’s houses, and trimmed the photos into detailed silhouettes of the structures. Resembling both a plan and an elevation, these variable forms reveal how drastically the original modernist designs have been modified. In the accompanying audio work Rooms Are Never Finished: Darakhshan Series, 2016, some of the inhabitants narrated stories about how the neighborhood changed through the decades as modernist vision succumbed to poor construction and municipal negligence, and about the ways in which they adapted their individual homes to suit their needs and desires. Residents raised the height of compound walls for added privacy and security, and closed off terraces and porches originally designed allow occupants to enjoy the sea breeze, to create additional living space. As the exhibition’s title suggests, this impulse to expand is never satisfied, and eventually encroaches on the nearby shore.

Chaudhri took us from the neighborhood down to the beach in An Imaginary Walk on Seaview, 2015–17, an installation of evocative text fragments displayed on a series of individual slide viewers sitting atop skeletal tripods. Their variable heights and shifting orientations enhanced the sense of discontinuity, requiring us to continually readjust our bodies to read the texts, which describe sights and moments along the journey. Rich in local detail and peppered with multisensory cues, they succeeded in activating both memory and imagination. Narrative Interrupted, 2014—a large photograph of a ship that washed up on the beach during a cyclone—documented a clandestine public action that involved painting the wreck golden, transforming a ruin into a monument through which alternative presents and futures could be imagined.

There Was Nothing, 2017, a video showing a pump or dredger reflected in the wet silvery sand, hinted at land reclamation. While the beach’s surface remains still, the mirrored image undulates softly as the sputtering machine spews puffs of smoke into the air. Chaudhri ended the journey with another similarly titled video, There Was Nothing—Kuch Bhi Naheen Tha, 2017, shot on the beach at night. Gaudy LED-fringed buggies filled with beach visitors drift in and out of the frame, while at a nearby open-air photography studio, men pose in front of a billboard-size backdrop featuring a cruise ship. We hear snippets of conversations among the vendors who operate these vernacular attractions. They recite couplets, sing Bollywood refrains, gossip, and talk shop, undeterred by the continued real estate development that threatens their livelihood. In each of these works, Chaudhri deployed abstraction and fragmentation to subvert the impulse to represent, narrate, and analyze her subject. Instead, she presented a series of intimate impressions that reveal some of the many ways in which an urban site imprints itself onto the memories and subjectivities of those who inhabit it.

Murtaza Vali