Coast Not Clear

O n the coast of Pakistan, on a beach in the port city of Karachi, an important “negotiation” is taking place, artist Yaminay Chaudhri says. It could be framed in several ways: civilization versus nature, private versus public, the haves versus the have-nots.

Chaudhri, a Connecticut artist who began her career as an architect, has documented those conflicts in her 14-minute video, There was Nothing—Kuch bhi Naheen Tha!, on view now through April 27 at Artspace. Chaudhri, who splits her time between her home in Guilford and her hometown of Karachi, spent three years on and off collecting clips for the piece, which she stitched together in what she describes as a “collage” of both sound and images.

Shot on the Karachi waterfront near Chaudhri’s childhood home, There was Nothing begins with the headlights of passing cars zipping in both directions against a background of dimly lit apartment buildings. The distant voices of children shouting and people talking punctuate the steady drone of traffic. Then, improbably, even comically, a neon shape in purple, green, red and yellow jostles across the scene—a little beach buggy, in no hurry to get anywhere.

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In reality, there’s little comedy in the situation on the beach, the viewer learns, as the mesmerizing buggies, lit by colorful LED lights, float in and out of the frame, far away or so close to the camera that it blurs, crossing paths as if following some mysterious, silent choreography. Rarely, you see the faces of their drivers or passengers; mostly, you see just their otherworldly lights sailing by like harbingers of a strange future.

This beach, known as Seaview, is “one of the last and most important parks or commons left in the city,” Chaudhri says. Decades ago, the area had “a really rich ecosystem,” carved into natural channels and anchored by mangroves. The modest homes in her middle-class neighborhood, Darakhshan, were built in the 1970s when living near the water wasn’t desirable. “When we were growing up, as kids, there used to be hedgehogs and snakes and seaside ipomoea,” a vine that “colonizes dunes and holds the sand down,” she remembers fondly. But not everyone appreciated the natural life on the beach. “People would think about that space as, ‘There’s nothing,’” Chaudhri explains. “If there’s nothing there, we’re just going to ‘civilize’ it somehow.”

Despite those pressures of civilization, somehow the beach and the people who use it—mostly poor and working class Karachians—continue to evolve and claim the space. “You would think that the beach would have disappeared by now,” Chaudhri says, “but there is a way that they kind of insistently keep existing.”

Not that such an existence is easy. In There was Nothing, the ordinary conversation of two unseen men, speaking in Urdu and subtitled in English, fills in pieces of the story. They discuss where in Pakistan one man has lived, how to transfer money, why marriage isn’t worth the trouble, how sales are going, the mechanics of a pyramid scheme. In the background, a telephone recording in Urdu and English repeats the message, “The number you have dialed is not answering.”

“So, how do you spend your day here?” one man asks.

“Sometimes bad, sometimes good,” the other replies. “Not so bad, but there’s always worry.”

In the video’s shots of the beach at night, horns honk and people shout. Men dance and pose for photographs against a huge, shiplike building made of concrete. People buy food from carts. A series of backdrops awaits customers to be photographed in front of them: a giant heart with an arrow through it, a luxury liner surrounded by flying doves, a shiny SUV parked in front of a Swiss chalet. Behind them, workers pull up digital photos on a computer screen.

In all of this, Chaudhri sees people’s aspiration for more money, more space, more power. Everyone—from merchants and beachgoers to middle-class residents of Darakhshan, who are constantly buying up adjacent scraps of land and building up their homes, to wealthy interlopers who are claiming more and more seaside and even underwater real estate for their private enclaves—aspires to prove themselves part of a global city, Chaudhri says. Some of her other work, included in Artspace’s Flatfile collection, includes photo collages of Darakhshan homes, revealing both their close-up textures and their architectural oddities as their owners cobble together ever-newer spaces.

She cites the term “worlding,” coined by international development scholar Ananya Roy. “It’s the idea of trying to show that you are a contemporary to any of the big cities of the world and that you can participate in just the same way,” she explains. That’s one reason why the once-shunned seaside has become a hot commodity.

There, beside the Arabian Sea, the men who today sell buggy rides for 100 rupees (less than a dollar) may have to find another way to make a living tomorrow.

“What do you feel when you look at the water?” one asks the other in the video.

“It puts fear in my heart, what else?”

“Why fear?”

“It scares me—not only because it might engulf me. The world seems like a strange place when you look at the sea,” he says. “Your heart and mind fill with thoughts about the world, that it’s a strange place.”

There was Nothing—Kuch bhi Naheen Tha! by Yaminay Chaudhri
Artspace – 50 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Sat noon-6pm
Artist talk: April 18, 6-7:30pm
(203) 772-2709
www.artspacenewhaven.org/exhibitions/…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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