We grew up collecting things in Karachi. From shells on the beach to our grandmother’s broken jewellery pieces, we stuffed drawers with materials that we used to create imaginary play worlds. As adults, we moved to Canada, but continued collecting things from the new environment around us: interesting rocks, corks, pieces of moss. When we made art with our found materials, each material infused its own story into a unified sculpture. The final artwork lived in a world beyond the sum of its parts.
While “play” had less of a part in our day to day lives in our adult years, we nevertheless laid out our ‘treasures’ occasionally to create miniature worlds. Creating sculptures from stories we read as children, such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, led us to wonder what stories from our own culture we could recreate. Finding few stories online, we asked our friends and family about the stories and folklores they knew. In these conversations, we talked about figures from folklore such as jinns and churails, and famous love stories such as Sohni and Mahiwal and Anarkali and Jahangir. Everyone we spoke to carried their own interpretations of these stories.
Interested in the ability of folklore to flow and change over time, we decided to create Reth Aur Reghistan, a project that would integrate sculpture and story. Through our project, we wanted to give young Pakistanis in the country and abroad the context that could help bridge the knowledge gap between us and our ancestry.
For our multidisciplinary project, we travelled to Pakistan and researched stories in the city of Karachi and the province of Sindh. Alongside our conversations with storytellers and artists, we collected shells, broken pottery, and cloth scraps. Back in Canada, we spread out materials collected over the years, and began creating what would end up being approximately thirty sculptures of characters, scenes, and themes of various stories.
To share an insight into our creative process and how we went from story to sculpture, we are inviting you into our "studio."
Getting from story to sculpture involved a survey of what we collected and a lot of back-and-forth conversations about what resonated the most for us from each story. Take, for example, the story of Mai Kolachi, the namesake of Karachi.
In the 1700s when Karachi was a fishing village on the coast of the Arabian Sea, women took charge of the village affairs while the men went out to sea to catch food. The men faced many challenges during the days they spent out at sea. There were rumours of a sea creature swallowing up boats that got too close. The only way the village women knew the men would not return was when boat remnants washed up on the shore. One of the women from the village was strong-willed Mai Kolachi. When her husband did not return for weeks, she took matters into her own hands. She built a boat and sailed out to sea to find her husband. While no one knows whether Mai Kolachi found her husband or not, when she returned, she became the matron of the village. Her legacy lived on and inspired a resiliency in Karachi to weather any storms.
A couple of centuries later, her story inspired two sisters to imagine and create the spirit of Mai using materials found along the coast where she lived and fought.
With the story fuelling our excitement, we spread our materials across a bright blue tarp in our living room. Nimra asked, “What could best embody the spirit of Mai Kolachi?” We talked about sand and sea, the two defining geographic features of Karachi. Nimra held up a large conch shell, recalling the awe at finding the largest shells she had ever seen on Arabian Sea coast. Turning shells over in her hands, Manahil remembered the shell dolls she created as a child from a craft book that her grandmother handed to her. Her hands moved instinctively: a cowrie for the head, conch for the torso, and two clam shells glued in an A-frame for a skirt.
Nimra sifted through a fabric bag — a garage sale find — and pulled out a pale blue ribbed cloth. Manahil laid the cloth out on our photography area, crumpling the fabric into illusions of the sea. We placed the shell figures along the coast, overlooking Mai Kolachi as she rowed out into the dangerous waters atop a clam shell boat. The courage of Mai Kolachi could fit in the palm of our hands in our living room halfway across the world from where the story began.
We composed another piece inspired by Mai Kolachi. Manahil carefully flicked through an old book of Pakistani maps that we found in our grandmothers’ bookshelf. Nimra pointed out the scribbled writing on some of the maps in black pen and noticed our aunt’s name inscribed in the corner of the last page. We laughed, thinking about what geography class might have looked like three decades ago. "What if we cut these maps to create the fabric of Mai Kolachi's kameez?" Nimra said.