Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ by Althea Thauberger is an art exhibition going on at SAAG from September 29, 2018 to November 24, 2018. This exhibition explores the political, social and institutional power dynamics in Karachi, Pakistan. The exhibition presents a series of works such as the film ‘Mad Mad Mad Mad Filmy World’, and a performance titled ‘Marat Sade Bohnice’. The gallery also features some previous works which include a photographic mural extended across the wall of the ‘alcove’ titled ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’. “Her recent film projects have involved communities of articulation and awareness around social and political issues disclosed by collective research”. This exhibition creates an experience that encourages the audience to think and reflect on social, political and institutional power relations that surrounds us.
Thauberger is known for her collaborative use of video, performance and audio to produce collaborative possibilities of social and ideological histories that represent individual and communities presented in documentary form. Her works present real life situations documented in imaginative ways such that the community or individuals portrayed are participants or subjects of the work.
The exhibition includes a film titled ‘Mad Mad Mad Mad Filmy World’ which was produced in Saddar a neighborhood within Karachi which is known as the ‘City of Lights’ for its spirited night life in the 60s and 70s. She was interested in this particular area because it had been extremely transformed by political and religious changes over the years. The film features and captures the modernist architecture of the cinema and it security modifications, along with a cast of about 200 extras. The cast of the film was drawn from the staff and patrons of the cinema as well as residents of the community directly surrounding the site. The scenes of the film is a theatrical narration that tells the history of the site, its social role in the city, its survival and the portrayal of personal and historical relationships of staff and patrons to the site of the cinema.
Thauberger got her inspiration from seeing the Capri cinema and meeting the staff. She was immediately drawn by the beauty of the place and how much history it embodies about Karcahi especially in the 1960’s. The importance of the cinema lies in its history and what it represents to the people and the culture of Karachi. She was impressed by the work that has gone into keeping the cinema despite many attempts to ruin it. The Capri is the only remaining single screen cinema available to audiences in Karachi, others have been destroyed. This building is significant because despite many attacks such as the Mob fire attack in 2012, this cinema remains fully functioning. She was impressed with the effort made by the owner, director and manager of the cinema in rebuilding and reopening the building within three months from when it was destroyed.
The placement of the works in the gallery space were important in shaping our experience of the exhibition. Entering into the gallery, the very first thing that my attention was immediately drawn to was the massive billboard placed in the middle of the gallery. This billboard was hand-painted by an indigene of Karachi. The billboard being hand-painted was important to Thauberger because she wanted to preserve this tradition of ‘folk’ art practice which was slowly becoming a disappearing tradition in Karachi. Glancing right from the movie billboard was a large scale photomural that caught my attention, the mural sprawls from wall to wall bursting with colors. The piece is titled ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ This is a quotation from one of Shakespeare’s play. This piece presents re-enacted scenes of a public performance from a Hindi translation of Shakespeare’s King Lear by a Bhand Pather, a theatre group in Kashmiri village of Akingmam. The purpose of using large scale billboards was achieved as it successfully invited viewers into the scene. The images in the painting were nearly life sized which created the illusion of being in the scene as the viewer moved along. The piece is presented in such a way that it is impossible to view the entire scene at once. It creates a sense of journey where the viewer is moving through scene by scene and engaging with each scene individually, until the whole piece reveals itself overtime. This makes is more engaging and personal as different reactions and emotions are being evoked. Thauberger’s aim with this was to try to create a connection between timing and photography in enhancing the viewer’s experience.
The painting presented the viewers with many cultural negotiations and a complex play of gestures that cannot be easily unraveled, and since the painting was not accompanied by any readings in particular the audience is left to create their own interpretations about the painting. Thauberger’s decision to use of large scale paintings and billboard was very important and contributed to shaping our experience of the exhibition. I moved into a darker space where the film ‘Mad Mad Mad Mad Filmy World’ would be projected. The space is set like a cinema with chairs arranged in rows for audiences to seat.
This work is of significant importance to Thauberger because it is her first artistic venture into non-western culture. This was a bit of a challenge for her because she had to be very sensitive and conscious in order to prevent misunderstanding and mistranslations that might occur while she worked in a context that was different from hers. This project was sensitive and was taken with precaution because of the many cultural differences that included interpersonal interactions, religious issues, different cultural histories and politics, all which must be handled careful and cautiously to avoid complexities.