KARACHI, Pakistan — Upon entering a still, quiet room of Karachi’s NED University of Engineering and Technology, visitors can’t help but be struck by how the dusty afternoon light shines on the vinyl print expanding across the walls like the all-consuming tide of the ocean. And from a spatial distance, that is indeed what the viewer sees: the waves of a calm surface at low tide. But upon closer inspection, a constellation of tiny rectangular images emerges: heaps of trash, people sifting through garbage, charred and burning waste, and the plastic toll of pollution in Pakistan that has poisoned the shores of the nearby Arabian Sea, and significantly compromised local river systems like the Indus, Malir, Ravi, and the Sutlej. 

Rashid Rana, a multidisciplinary artist working across collage, installation, sculpture, and more, has been collecting these images since 2006. Today, the aggregation of pictures and video screenshots form “It Lies Beyond,” an installation in the Karachi Biennale 2022. Pakistan is enmeshed in ecological crisis, most of which goes unnoticed, such as the gradual decline of the Indus River, which lacks enough freshwater to sustain the people and wildlife who live in and near it, spurring mass migration of fisherfolk and endangerment of animals like the palla fish. More recently, torrential monsoon rains led to floods that killed more than 1,700 people and displaced 30 million, a promise of rapidly changing climate patterns in a region that is already overpopulated, impoverished, and beset with weak infrastructure. 

Rana’s installation flashes a mirror to the floods, and the lesser-known pollution of the ocean. Karachi, a coastal city, has only two functional sewage treatment plants, and a significant portion of the 16,500 tons of solid waste excreted by the city ends up in the ocean. The artist’s expansive representation of dark, inscrutable waters, embedded with miniature pictures of trash, provide an ironic, almost metatheatrical commentary on the neglect and vast pollution.

Rashid Rana, “It Lies Beyond” (2022), mixed media on vinyl print (photo Iman Sultan/Hyperallergic)

Downstairs in the same venue, Amin Rehman’s “Water Wars” series uses conceptual art to explore similar topics in a more provocative way, intervening with stylized words, block letters that mix the aesthetic calligraphy of Urdu with aphorisms in English. 

Rehman poses “Has politics changed?” in Urdu, tracing the roots of climate change back to human mismanagement and the government’s lack of investment in conservation and safe trash disposal, and pointing to the role that corrupt institutions, water mafias, and armed forces play in the ecological destruction of the land. 

In Sambara Art Gallery, the artist uses beeswax and resin to fuse a wooden square with “imperial delusions,” asserting the vitality of water as a contested resource for power brokers, and how the descent of South Asian countries into climate crisis is partly a legacy of colonialism. In IBA City Campus, the flaming orange phrase “we have come to die” printed on a black square resigns itself to climate apocalypse; and an adjacent statement, “the slate is wiped clean,” embraces the rage and renewal of natural disaster. 

The Karachi Biennale 2022 curates artwork in spaces that are easily accessible to the public, and augmented reality inflected the exhibitions this year, prompting visitors to download an app through which they can further experience the installations. But how many more reminders about the climate crisis do viewers need before we agitate for change?  

Detail of Rashid Rana, “It Lies Beyond” (2022) (photo Iman Sultan/Hyperallergic)
Amin Rehman, “Water Wars” (2022), print, at NED University of Engineering and Technology (courtesy Karachi Biennale 2022)
Amin Rehman, “Water Wars” (2022), print, at IBA City Campus (courtesy Karachi Biennale 2022)

The Karachi Biennale 2022 continues at nine venues in Karachi through November 13. The exhibition was curated by Faisal Anwar.

Iman Sultan is a writer and journalist on politics and culture. She grew up in Philadelphia and now resides in Karachi, Pakistan. She tweets @karachiiite.