Althea Thauberger - On Art, Film-making and Karachi

  • 18 Nov - 24 Nov, 2017
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Interview

"Karachi is a big, crazy city,” says Althea Thauberger, whose life revovles around art. She gushes about the energetic City of Lights that recently hosted several local and international art curators and artists visiting its many art hubs through the first ever Karachi Biennale. “It is a city with a lot of diversity – of background and ideas. I would describe it as a city that has a lot of youthful energy but at the same time, it is much steeped in history that is palpable and feels like breath. It’s a very complicated city and a very exciting, energetic one,” she says, adding, “there’s madness all around.”

Well, indeed, there is madness, in this not-so-typical urban centre of Pakistan, which encompasses the fragrance of the past in many of its characters. One such character attracted Althea, who took on the job to showcase Karachi in a way no one has ever attempted before. She participated in the large-scale art showcase to exhibit her collaborative work – an art film, Mad Mad Mad Film World (MMMFW), also Pagal Pagal Pagal Pagal Filmy Dunya – based on the Capri cinema in Karachi that came in the line of fire back in 2012, the time when most cinemas situated on Karachi’s M.A. Jinnah Road were burnt to ashes to condemn a blasphemous YouTube video. Was that the reason Althea chose Capri Cinema as the subject of her experimental film? “Not entirely,” she quips, “it was one part of it. I drew inspiration by just seeing the place and meeting the staff. To see how beautiful this place is, how much it really represents and epitomises that moment in Karachi’s history which is the 1960s, when it was built and how much care has been taken to maintain the city’s spirit to the present,” she tells me and adds, “of course, what happened after the fire is part of that care, it is part of that spirit in the sense that there was an incredible effort made by the owner, director and manager of the cinema, to rebuild and reopen it and they did all of that in just three months.” Althea’s energised demeanour tells it all, when she talks about her fascination with the structure.

But who is Althea, I ask the 46-year-old spectacled lady. “I am an artist, film-maker and a teacher,” she responds. “My art depicts a forum that I would call experimental documentary and that is in all of my work, not just in my films and videos, which means that my work is often looking at a real situation and wanting to document something about the real world in an imaginative way; often in a collaborative way, so the community and individuals shown in the work are participants of making the work.”

Based in Vancouver, Canada, Althea has been associated with making and showing art through performative and collaborative processes for the past 16 years, but the youthful glow she carries wouldn’t let one believe the load of experience she has in terms of her exceptional profile. What brought her into the realm of art was a question I couldn’t miss asking. “I don’t know, to tell you the truth,” she says looking absolutely clueless, but after a rather long pause, Althea happened to respond. “In terms of film, one of the things that really attracted me was how one can bring so many different media and interests to it. As a young woman, I was an aspiring musician and music is something that is incorporated in film. Similarly, I was always into photography and that too is incorporated in film. Therefore, with performance and film-making, you have to bring in a lot of different interests and media together,” she shares about her encounter with art, adding, “I have always been interested in and concerned about issues like social and spatial justice as a kid. And that’s how my work has gravitated over the course of my art career.”

Althea’s work has been exhibited and screened at several eminent spaces including the Audain Gallery, Vancouver; The Power Plant, Toronto and Kadist Foundation, San Fransico to name a few. With a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from Concordia University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Victoria, she sure knows what she has been up to all these years.

Althea’s first-ever work was created during her student life. “It (the work) had a lot of exposure. It was shot on 16mm film and a project that showed a number of aspiring female songwriters, presenting one of their original songs. The work touched on the issues and difficulties young women face as artists in terms of stereotyping and expression,” she talks about her project that later received a lot of projection.

When talking about stereotyping and discrimination of women in the field of arts, Althea spoke about the bias saying, “It’s certainly more difficult for women even in the west. For example, my male peers are more successful than my female peers. I see that art schools in Canada, like here in Pakistan, have a majority of female students (but) when you go to the big museums and big galleries in Canada, the vast majority of the shows are put up by male artists. There’s a huge discrepancy there,” she says and continues to lament about the gender gap, “it is not because women are not as good artists as men but because there are inherent biases and advantages for men in my society as well. I can’t compare that to the situation with Pakistan because patriarchy here is very different. I think that women certainly face a lot of discrimination here. But I have been really encouraged and inspired by the women that I have worked with here to see how they face that and how they meet that with grace and intelligence and toughness, which is very inspiring,” she compares the situation in the west with that of our own country and draws inspiration from it.

What is the most challenging project she has done so far? “This one,” she jibes with a hearty laugh, referring to the MMMFW, “because when working in a context which is so different from my own, it is so important to be careful and conscious of the inevitability of misunderstandings and mistranslations, and also how important it is to be sensitive and conscious to the many cultural differences, that would include interpersonal interactions, religious issues, different cultural histories and politics. The reality in Pakistan is very complex. Therefore, it is my responsibility to be as informed and careful as I can about the complexities.”

I could see through the craziness that hid behind this spectacled art buff, which is when I enquired Althea how crazy one needs to be to become an artist. “I think artists are just like everyone else; some of us are really crazy and some of us aren’t so crazy. This isn’t so much about being an artist, I think as humans we’re all artists in many ways. As humans we make meaning in what we do and so we do that in many ways. In terms of creativity, if you’re going to choose art to be your livelihood you do have to be a little bit crazy because it’s so hard. You have to be really committed, it’s such a struggle,” Althea discloses, followed by a loud laughter that echoed inside her favourite cinema hall.

What would she take away after this enriching visit to the City of Lights? “I take away many wonderful relationships that I’d cherish; people have shared so much about their lives with me. Also, I take away sadness with me because I’m really going to miss everyone so much,” Althea shares as she looks forward to coming back to Karachi and experience its madness yet again. •