As the Light Turns
Weeds, plants, woods, and gardens at the heart of this body of work act as insurgents in and through their refusal to be categorised, resisting unitary readings of gender, desire, longing and sexuality. The work develops out of a night-time walk in a forest, in the mountains, where three individuals have a queer encounter; it then cuts to a garden in Karachi brimming with primordial sexuality; and further zooms into the interaction of two trees, communicating an embodied form of desire. Here, turning of the light is significant not only for Cestrum nocturnum (lady of the night, night-scented jasmine) to conjure its scent, but for queerness to surface in, around and with trees.
The artist began this project in the foothills of Lesser Himalayas, in the Pir Panjal Range, in a resort town called Murree. It was set up by the British in the mid-1800s, providing them with respite from the heat of the lower regions of the Indian Subcontinent. They ravaged through the landscape, treating the forest as a source of timber, as opposed to a source of water, to build railways to open up the region for control, and to further their extractive systems, pillaging indigenous populations and ecologies in the process. Those who initially built the town and carried out whims of the colonisers were denied access. Such strategies of exclusion still reverberate through the landscape today: visible in how migrant populations, which move there during the summer from other parts of Pakistan to provide labour for domestic tourists, are treated. Murree is a testament to relentless extraction, environmental devastation, violation of labour laws and the expendable bodies and ecologies on which narratives of colonial and neocolonial order and fantasy, nation-building, and development are repeatedly mapped and played out.
In Murree, however, nature also has its own way of navigating and re-authoring such violences, presenting unique ways of co-opting, re-authoring hegemonic, heteronormative structures of power. In the rolling hills, amidst so much environmental degradation, lie many dissenting life forms, both human and more-than-human. Native weeds climb up on trees that were planted during colonial rule, countering erasure of local ecologies; in some patches, Bichoo Booti (stinging nettle) prevents people from venturing out, reorienting the ways in which they engage with and activate space, place, and time. More often than not, fog obscures panoptic vision, opening up possibilities to articulate desire differently.
The project continued to evolve in Karachi where pretensions of the world-class-city are articulated by invisible and abject labour practices, which ultimately strengthen many death worlds. Lands that were once agricultural are now barren due to decades of illegal sand mining; and the coastline is malleable, being perpetually pushed out and developed. Thinking about overarching concerns through residential gardens, which can act as microcosms to the state, and the ways in which labour of the gardeners is queered by unwanted plants or weeds, some of these pieces make visible the possibility of enacting control and desire in divergent, different ways. This kind of labour has the potential to centre not only human but more-than-human life forms, resulting in attunement that is multiple and able to locate agency elsewhere, in species previously considered docile.
When forgetting is mandated and erasure the rule, turning to those not aligned with the centre, on the peripheries, and to the botanical world, can open up polyphonic temporal rhythms of remembering, stretching open the possibility of bearing witness.
Omer Wasim (1988, Karachi) is an intermedial artist whose practice queers space, subverting the frames of development and progress that shape human relationships to the city and nature. His work bears witness to the relentless erasure, violence and destruction of our times by staying with queer bodies as they hold space and enact desire. Wasim’s practice and the ways in which he works are often in flux, moving across media, including installation, sculpture, drawing, video, photography and audio. Informed by lived experiences, botanical life forms, and queer kinship, he traces and remembers, gathers and writes, converses and collaborates to generate works that are topical and rooted, yet pervading through them is an echo of silence, which allows them to be grouped and read in multiple ways – and each time they are shown, they morph with space, time and context. His research turns to human and more-than-human witnesses to extend the possibility of bearing witness at a time when the state is intent on erasing and annihilating life forms that are not aligned with its narrative of progress and development. In so doing, he brings to the foreground and makes visible ideas and narratives, which albeit silent on the surface, speak of the world we inhabit in complex ways. He was trained in Interdisciplinary Sculpture and Critical Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art; and is currently based in Karachi and teaching at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.