God Help us

"Karma Khazi has become a connoisseur of a particular feature of the spectacle: the toilet door."Karma Khazi, is another level of anonymity for an artist who has striven to efface the skill and self-conscious knowing that they developed through formal art education. In their practice as a painter they have tried to forget what they were taught and to unlearn their innate abilities in order to make work that is spontaneous, energetic and intuitive, and, in some vital way, true to the world as they perceive it. In their relations to the world, they want to be immersed in the crowd, to merge their identity with a notion of the ‘everyman’. They want to be a participant, invisible observer and interpreter of everyday life. For them, these concepts, the everyman and everyday life, are associated with, and romanticized within, the microcosm of the pub. Drawn to the pub, as a kind of stage over which much of human life may be seen in passing, Karma Khazi has become a connoisseur of a particular feature of the spectacle: the toilet door. Specifically, the toilet door as a tabula rasa onto which the thoughts of modern man (…and woman?) are scrawled, scratched or, occasionally, set down in elaborate calligraphy – sometimes filtered, and sometimes apparently not. Behind the locked door of the pub khazi, the inspired punter may give free vent to every random thought, opinion, complaint, rage or desire. Sometimes this is done with eloquence and wit, sometimes with inarticulate and formless passion. Sometimes they evolve as conversations, sequences. Sometimes they simply become accretions, with one mark overlaying another in chaotic profusion. Whatever form they take, Karma Khazi sees these marks as authentic free expression, offering insight into modern experience, unmediated by questions of taste or cultivated judgement, or even measured consideration.

Having observed and photographed this phenomena over many years, Karma Khazi has now developed their interest to another level with this new project. They have embarked on a kind of pilgrimage, a walking odyssey that has so far taken them to over 250 public houses across London. It should be noted that Karma Khazi has foresworn alcohol, so this passage through the dimly lit world of daytime drinkers and evening revellers must have presented certain challenges and temptations. But their ascetic discipline may have sharpened their attentiveness to the picaresque, the transgressive and rebellious expression that they sought. Some visits would yield scant return, with pristine toilet doors and walls, perhaps some well-mannered graffiti, but others have provided rich seams (streams) of golden material. This journey is being documented, through photography, film and journals, and transcribed as prints, paintings and objects. The material is being marshalled and will become an exhibition, film and book.

The images gathered so far are varied, but share a general air of decrepitude as well as a gestural vitality. Karma Khazi is clearly not interested in an aestheticized form of ‘street art’ or carefully articulated philosophising. This is base material. The doors and walls, are generally scuffed, scratched, pock marked, scabbed with peeling paint, old staples and the tattered remnants of scraped-off stickers. Onto this lowly ground, in biro, marker pen, or simply scratched directly into the surface, the people have spoken – mostly using inelegant, demotic and enigmatic language. The language, medium and situation, the senselessness of their content, all combine to perfectly embody the very disorderliness, the messiness of everyday life. Karma Khazi speculatively describes them ‘the final frontier of free speech’. They may be too niche to live up to this description, but they certainly belong to a bastion of resistance to a certain strain of urban tidiness. They positively defy the gentrification that has gradually spread uniformity and orderliness across the city over recent decades.

There is humour and there is mystery, and there is aggression. Sometimes there is an invitation to converse. Over a faded tag someone has written “Dad?” and beneath this, in different hand, the simple response, “yes, Son?” It feels as though this exchange could be extended endlessly. Another example of a kind of call and response dialogue begins with a relatively neatly written statement on a doorframe, “Hayden Kays is an artist”. In a less tidy hand someone has scribbled over the word, ‘artist’, and scrawled “TWAT”. An impolite substitution, but a lucid and undeniably funny puncturing of any pretensions that Hayden Kays may have harboured.

On a grainy toilet door someone has scrawled, “Yer ma drives a smart car around Leyton”. All at once the message seems to be vague, disconnected, and a highly specific observation - naming subject, object and location. Is the tone insulting; matter of fact? Who is being addressed? Did the author come prepared and with intention to write? Why is it written here – on a pub toilet door? These questions hover over all of the images that Karma Khazi has made. The exact meaning of the statement is probably lost on most of us, but it invites speculation. It is the beginning of a story.

For the artist Karma Khazi, these enigmatic scrawls are a starting point for a narrative; a line of enquiry and a vital signifier of contemporary culture. This is a project in development. It is gathering momentum, accumulating material – watch this space.

God Help us

Documentary by double BAFTA winning Director Lee Phillips

KARMA KHAZI: SH!T SHOW (2024)
by double BAFTA winning Director Lee Phillips