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Being at the Biennale

The KB17 is a larger-than-life experience, a giant leap for the art of Pakistan

Being at the Biennale
Mahbub Jhokio - Photo by Ali Khurshid.

Talking about her first novel, the Booker prize winning author, Arundhati Roy recounted her mother’s reaction, of finding it odd to read names of local places, indigenous trees, and Indian people in an English novel. For her English literature was associated with locations such as the UK, Australia and North America. Roy responded to a disappointed mother: “Mom, we are also worthy of literature!”

With Amin Gulgee’s remarkably conceived project, an individual in Pakistan is forced to think that we too are worthy of a biennale.

Karachi Biennale 2017, inaugurated on October 21, is certainly the best thing to have happened to Pakistan, especially to the art world, in scale, concept, and execution.

Exhibited at 12 display sites, many people commented it did not seem like this was happening in Pakistan. This is a compliment to the hard work put together by the team that made the idea of Karachi Biennale a reality.

In Urdu, ‘witness’ means martyrdom (shahadat) as well. Both meanings — of bearing witness to something painful and forsaking one’s life for a cause — are significant because in the words of chief curator Amin Gulgee “… a bruised city like Karachi” has seen many political killings in its recent history.

It indeed is a giant leap for the art of Pakistan. It affirms that we have moved away from the landlocked notion of ‘national’ exhibitions and are entering the world of global art, as works of international artists (of different origins) such as Yoko Ono, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Shahzia Sikander and ORLAN provide a rare and great opportunity to glimpse the mainstream art at home. Like the breaking of national (or city) boundaries, there are no demarcations or ghettoisation of genres and formats of visual expressions. Thus, you witness and admire the performance of Sheema Kirmani as much as you do a painted canvas by Anwar Saeed.

Witness as its theme, the Karachi Biennale 2017 includes more than 160 artists, from several cities of Pakistan as well as from other parts of the planet. A magnificent exercise, it makes us believe in the capacity, potential and power of art from here. Amin Gulgee, the chief curator, and his team (including Zarmeene Shah, the curator at large) have not only transformed ordinary spaces into art venue but also our beliefs about art and ourselves. One can extend the theme of Witness to unlimited extents, and the artists invited to the KB17 interpreted it in innumerable manners.

Nadia Kaabi-linke

Nadia Kaabi.

Like the selection of spaces and participants, the choice of theme was intelligent too because the term has multiple connotations both in its local context and in its Urdu translation. Every day, in courts of law, people appear as witnesses of crimes. In Urdu, ‘witness’ means martyrdom (shahadat) as well. Both meanings — of bearing witness to something painful and forsaking one’s life for a cause — are significant because in the words of chief curator Amin Gulgee “… a bruised city like Karachi” has seen many political killings in its recent history. A past that is marred by dead bodies in sacks found in cabs and on roadsides.

No wonder a few works had sack as their main motif. Kanwal Tariq’s performance — with human beings stuck inside big plastic bags who were moving during the performance — suggests how a living being can be reduced to the state of a captive animal, or about political suppression that manifests in eradicating opponents in the cruellest way. The sack appears again in the sculptures of Jamil Baloch, a series of bodies wrapped in a coffin-like white cloth, with the impression of a large tire on their trampled bodies. Arranged in a line, these white pieces allude to conditions in Balochistan, particularly when you ponder on the scale and texture of tires (associated with military vehicles) on flattened torsos.

Also at the NJV School, Seema Nusrat piled up sand sacks at the entrance of this high building. The impact and success of this installation lies in the fact that many viewers were not aware of this being an artwork; they thought it to be a ‘normal’ security protocol where buildings are routinely barricaded with sacks.

The imperceptible line between life and art, a notable feature of Nusrat’s work is observed in the art of Mahbub Jokhio (at Claremont House) in which the artist has built graves in different colours, which can be actual or fabricated. Likewise, the installations of Veera Rustomjee, Hira Khan, and Yasser Vayani at the same site suggest how found objects can be modulated and incorporated to communicate complex concept about existence. The pieces of machinery or furniture bound in blue plastic bags refer back to the history of a city that has witnessed genocide on state, political, ethnic and sectarian levels. Adeela Suleman’s metal and fabric ‘medical’ stretchers adorned with images of various kinds (at FOOMA) represent the continuous presence of death in our situation.

Some of these killings are caused by religious outfits which though banned resonate with a substantial section of community (notice the fund collection boxes for these organisations at small shops in our towns!). In fact, it is the power of faith that helps them sustain, grow and spread. Recognising this aspect, Hamra Abbas has displayed a number of prints based upon prayer rugs, and footwear (made in wood) which look as if left outside a holy shrine or mosque. Although Abbas has concentrated on the element of faith in her art, looking at these pairs of sandals and shoes put on top of each other, one wonders if art spaces have also turned into sacred spaces.

Ayaz Jhokio

Ayaz Jhokio.

There are not just sacred spaces, there are sacred speeches too. Words of God, which may turn a normal citizen into a militant or to find his faith in turbulent times. Nadia Kaabi-Linke addresses this link in her video installation in which the holy text is transmitted through two lips and then repeated by people in a church congregation on the other side of the room.

The connection of art and sacredness is witnessed in works dealing with the idea of respect associated with a book, especially the ‘text book’. The system of education in most cases is not about exploring knowledge but following the person who brings you the truth (approved curriculum). Ayaz Jokhio in his work (small sculptures made with minute details) points out this aspect of ‘respect’ or slavery, because as soon as you enter one classroom, all kids stand up as if to honour their teacher. The venue being a school, it adds to the understanding of the work which is about how a conditioned mind is trained to act from an early age in the name of custom, tradition, ethics etc.

Many artists have addressed personal, public, and social concerns in their works, like Ali Kazim’s installation of hair or Moeen Faruqi’s painting of an uncanny interior, Nausheen Saeed’s enclaves with the same woman taking her selfie as well as her life, Aamir Habib’s installation of a donkey and small tv sets on both sides, Ayessha Qureshi’s minimal and lyrical photographs and video projections of buildings, Saba Khan’s sculptures with organic bodies spilling out of ornate chairs, the performance of Hurmat ul Ain and Rabbeya Nasir in which the duo peeled onions but tears coming out of this domestic activity unsettle you.

There is something else that unnerves at the V.M. Art Gallery, where the curated exhibition of Carlos Acero Ruiz deals with the issue of disappearance and political turmoil. After a series of prints with drawings of objects and pictures of people, you come across the video installation of Jason Mena in which a national flag is hit by bullets in a measured speed, making holes in a sequence.

This particular work about the political state of a territory can be a testimony of the present art world in which the idea of nationhood in art is being punctured through opening up new venues, where small differences between local and international, private and public, and permanent and temporary have become insignificant details; because what is communicated is a larger-than-life experience. Just like the KB17.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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