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The Biennale bleep

Who will define what ‘art’ is? Artists or state officials? The Karachi Biennale 2019 sparks an ignited conversation

The Biennale bleep

While enjoying the breezy beaches of Abu Dhabi, I thought troubles at home were far removed, till my social media was flooded with alarming posts, relating to the much-anticipated and respected Karachi Biennale (KB).

Curated by Muhammad Zeeshan, the 2nd edition of KB includes 100 artists, with “90 projects at seven historic and iconic venues across the city”. True to expectations and aspirations, the event has managed to combine works that illustrate diversity in contemporary art, while artists focus on the theme of Flight interrupted: eco-leaks from the invasion desk.

Some astonishing works can be viewed till November 12, 2019, at Pakistan’s largest contemporary art event. Comprising of Beauty lies, the magnificent instillation of Rashid Rana, which won the jury award, The garden within; a signature installation by Imran Qureshi; Ali Kazim’s The conference of the birds, a combination of pigment watercolours on paper and sound; impressive sculptures of Hamra Abbas, Gardens of paradise; Amin Gulgee’s Impossible growth; and Seher Naveed’s Concert, extinct, wasted which not only responded to the theme, but also incorporated the site, Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim.

These, along with other paintings, sculptures, video installations, site-specific works and performances made for a diverse exhibit. A viewer is daunted by the scale, ambition, and vision of artists, who have produced works which not only deal with the theme, but explore the meaning of ecology in its broadest sense.

We have a tendency to separate and segregate. In fact, it is a tactic employed by the state and rulers, who find it easier to ‘handle’ individuals than a multitude. But in our day-to-day life; discussions, debates and practices are often detached from a larger context. Thus making them inadequate in addressing the issues of their time and space, in depth. A similar attitude is found amongst the approach artists, critics and art organisers take towards the term ‘ecology’.

At the KB09, one sees how the curator, Muhammad Zeeshan, largely recognises how ecology is connected to different conditions, situations and problems. Ecology in its entirety is about the world in which we exist. Perhaps for a person, who lives in a small quarter in Korangi, the matter of ecology means evading a stray bullet, so one is not, transformed from a living being to decaying flesh. To an individual residing in a developing country, the equilibrium between indigenous and imported is important, as much as for an artist to keep a balance between aesthetic concerns and painful realities.

Plainclothes men who tried to make the work disappear, made even more people look it up online. In trying to remove it from social memory, they have immortalised it in digital threads, tweets and posts.

Given the many competing interpretations of the term ‘ecology’, Adeela Suleman, like several other participants, has approached it in the context of her expansive surroundings. Responding to extra-judicial killings by the police force, Suleman has constructed 444 plinths, each with a metal flower on top, looking wilted due to their medium and colour. Combined with a video installation, the footage of a victim’s father standing motionless in front of the sea, and a few words about the brief life of his son who was killed on January 13,2018, along with areas where the dead man spent his last hours. His death was reported in the press, accusing a police officer, Rao Anwar, of shooting Naqeebullah Mehsud. The police officer has allegedly killed 444 people in fatal ‘encounters’. The state of Pakistan has brought murder charges against him. These killings are common knowledge in the media and public. In the installation, the 444 small columns — standing like tombstones — refer to the victims.

At the opening of Karachi Biennale 2019, Suleman’s Killing Fields of Karachi was viewed as just another work by an artist who has interpreted ‘ecology’ in the context of social injustice. Many admired its abstract quality and simplicity; especially the utilisation of space in recreating the memories of mass killings. Her work also echoes the monument for Holocaust victims in Berlin, while her work’s title reminds of the killing fields of Cambodia.

However, on the second day, authorities reacted by sealing her video projection space, breaking and throwing the plinths — only to remove them altogether. The works of Rashid Rana and Imran Qureshi at Frere Hall were also locked up and visitors were not allowed to view the displays.

It is not the first display of state power and censorship in Pakistan. During Zia’s military dictatorship paintings were taken down from exhibitions, galleries were ransacked and artists were banned from showing at public spaces. But that was an age we call BSM (Before Social Media). Today, the moment DG Parks, Afaq Mirza, denounced the works and justified its closure, it went viral, generating hostile — but honest reactions from Pakistani artists. The artist community condemned the act, expressed their solidarity with Adeela Suleman and supported Muhammed Zeeshan’s position on the freedom of expression. The fiasco reinforces a basic fact, with the ever-active social and electronic media, the state cannot censor unnoticed. Plainclothes men who tried to make the work disappear, made even more people look it up online. In trying to remove it from social memory, they have immortalised it in digital threads, tweets and posts.

The intervention shows how officials think, treat and tackle dissident voices. They, naively, believe that repressing a work could make it invisible. However, reality is otherwise. Since the action against Killing Fields of Karachi, Suleman’s artwork has become the talk of the town — rather of the entire country! It shows that while a brutal police officer can still kill innocent people, today he cannot wipe the memories, and the blood from such crimes will not be easily washed away. Any attempt to ban a public art project, a piece of writing or a political speech is as stupid as the comments of DG Parks in speaking to the press about Suleman’s installation and ‘art’.

He denounced the representation of victim graves in a park as “vandalism”. Most of all, he had the audacity to define ‘what art is’ and dispense what ‘good, acceptable art’ should be. For him, Pakistani artists should produce happy objects and beautiful pictures; all ‘positive’. One suspects, this chap is not alone in his views on art, that his ideas are shared by others in the corridors of power.

One comprehends — almost anticipates — the authorities’ displeasure with a work like Killing fields of Karachi because it brings to surface what has been hidden. But one is appalled by the way higher-ups attempt in instructing us on what is ‘good’ in art, what must be ‘avoided’ and what is ‘a nice picture’. One could have accepted the state’s determination on diffusing any rebellious expression, but one could not have imagined an official – talking on microphones, exhorting artists on ‘what to create’. Is there a PEMRA for art and artists waiting in the wings?

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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