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A reality come true

The long awaited Lahore Biennale 01 has finally arrived, providing an occasion to witness works in places many of which are not known to showcase contemporary or modern art

A reality come true

It began on March 17 and will continue till March 31, 2018. With known artists from here and abroad like Amar Kanwar, Ayesha Sultana, Bani Abidi, Mehreen Murtaza, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Naeem Mohaiemen, Naiza Khan, Shahzia Sikander, Shezad Dawood, Shirin Neshat, Waqas Khan, the event is organised at different sites: Mubarak Haveli, Shahi Hamam, Lahore Fort, Summer Palace, Alhamra Art Centre, Lahore Museum, Canal and Lawrence Garden.

It is an exciting occasion for art lovers to witness works displayed in places many of which are not known to showcase contemporary or modern art. Did I say witness? ‘Witness’ was the theme of Karachi Biennale 2017. Those who also saw Karachi Biennale were forced to draw a comparison between the two. It was done superficially even though both events happened within a span of a few months, and in one country. While Karachi had a theme, Lahore did not.

The lack of theme does not matter because as one steps into the hall of Alhamra, corridors of Summer Palace, rooms of Mubarak Haveli, cubicles in Shahi Hamam and open space of Lawrence Garden, one hardly yearns for an overarching concept. Instead, one focuses on the works of individual artists, some displaying for the first time in Lahore, if not in the country.

Halil Altindre is showing ‘Wonderland’, a video that presents the angst of youth from a Turkish neighbourhood, but the structure of the work includes a blend of segments from youth music videos as well as footage of films about a chase. The unfolding of pictorially engaging content conveys the content of the artist; being on loop has turned the chase unending.


Seema Nusrat’s series of constructions ‘Domestic Elevation’ not only share the venue with Altindre, her concerns also relate with the artist who lives and works in Istanbul. A shift in urban condition has compelled both artists to reflect on the presence of power in their creations (“The band raps about inequality and gentrification while simultaneously being confronted by the police” in Altindre and “A continuous investigation into the changing face of the city — through measures of policing….” in Nusrat’s work). Nusrat incorporates the security items into building technique by making three dimensional layouts of houses fabricated with wires and other materials. Thus the illusion of security becomes real; fear turns into fascination.

Imminent violence is observed in canvases of Imran Qureshi. Housed in Shahi Hamam, these surfaces have stains of (blood-like) red which remind of the time in which we live and survive. Large paintings created with gold and red colour are not placed in a scheme of a gallery; rather they are stacked against each other. The overpowering impact of these large works relates to the present, but can also be a reference to history, the period in which the monument was built (1635 C.E. during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan). Because, the past we now glorify embodies episodes of bloodshed, wars and killing to satiate expanding empires.

It seems the Lahore Biennale 01 was more selective with only 52 participants compared to Karachi’s 160. It also did not have a theme, for which there could be many reasons.

Qureshi approaches heritage differently in another of his projects, ‘Maktab’, in which 24 artists are participating. Reviving the history of Mughal ateliers of painters, Imran Qureshi, the leading teacher of miniature painting at NCA, has recreated that scenario — echoing history in which artists produced works in a workshop.

The project of the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto is a way of connecting the past and present. In her work at the Lahore Museum, Masooma Syed has displayed her constructions in glass boxes in a historic gallery. Syed’s work seems to defy the division of time — and region. A black cat fabricated with human hair or a parrot made of dyed human hair comment upon mankind’s desire to consider nature, species and ‘functional’ objects as ‘museum’ items. In her display, Syed includes casts of body parts but the form, scale, and relevance of these ‘animals’ denote the terror of our time more than the disjointed limbs or body organs.

6) Aisha Khalid's work at the Shahi Hammam-Photography Atif Saeed

Another example of using a space, not as mere setting but for history and connotation, is Ali Kazim’s work ‘Lover’s Temple Ruins’, looking like a historic site with layout of houses on the hill of Lawrence Garden known as ‘lovers’ point’. Kazim composed the reminiscences of a settlement with hearts in place of bricks. Terra cotta hearts are joined like a brick structure, convincingly yet subtly; even if one is not aware of this being an ‘artwork’, one can still enjoys the link between home and the heart.

Aisha Khalid explores location for its maximum impact with her installation of mirror at the base of the central space in Shahi Hamam. Mirrors not only extend the actual area (as mirrors tend to) but the reflection in some way reconnects with the initial function of the building, royal bath, so the mirrors serve as virtual water reflecting the ceiling.

Another example of utilising space brilliantly is seen in the work of Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi (‘Roz o Shab’ – ‘The succession of day and night is the architect of events’) at the Summer Palace, Lahore Fort. Here the lines of neon lights are placed on the floor, as if the floor is flowing, and streaks of two coloured lights are flooded with this whirlwind of fluorescent lights. The space is filled with these moving lines, which end at or start from a passage in the side corridor.


This collaborative works draws its inspiration from Urdu poet Iqbal’s verse about Cordoba Mosque, a piece of literature in response to an architectural space. The mosque is designed in a way that it envelopes you in an optical illusion, and the grip of reality relaxes. Interestingly, in the work of the duo, this effect is created and caused by flashy lights — by illustrating the second line of the verse “The succession of day and night is a two-tone silken twin”. The sense of movement overpowers the solid structure of a historic Mughal monument; it feels the constant flow of light and colour is transforming the static set of things. An ensemble of artwork, like the arches of Cordoba Mosque, expands the existing space, optically.

8)Bani Abidi at the Lahore Mueum. Photography Atif Saeed

The pictorial perfection is experienced in two other works of Hamra Abbas, displayed at the same location. ‘Black Square, After Malevich’ made with metal, Plexiglas and light, are two luminous constructions in which the artist has created a black square by superimposing layers of other colours in Plexiglas. The immaculately constructed works offer a purity of black but the brilliance of black has its genesis in the artist’s ‘Kaaba Picture as a Misprint’ (2011), in which the shape of the most holy site of Muslims was graphically rendered by superimposing techniques of colour printing. The impact of Abbas’s work with minimal means but sophisticated technology adds to the sense of sublime which rekindles Russian Suprematism in religious iconography and triumph of technology.

Along with these works, many paintings deal with senses in a subtle way. Salman Toor’s paintings confirm the artist’s mastery not only on his medium and technique, but in his construction of imagery as well. The project at Alhamra Art Centre is an attempt to bridge Lahore and New York City, and “…point to notions of adaptation in both cities as well as a fluid sense of self….”. One recognises the same fluidity in his handling of paint, a quality that distinguishes him in his generation. The power of painting, a genre going out of fashion, is visible in Zahoorul Akhlaq’s works from Mubarak Haveli.

IMG-20180320-WA0002Titled ‘Still Still Life’, these paintings are minimal in their approach and illustrate Akhlaq’s concerns about devising a language derived from the region but spoken in our times. His excursions in traditional geometry, when seen after twenty years, denote that the artist was not blinded or bound by tradition; instead he could converse with his contemporaries in the same language. Although his diction was deeply rooted in his pictorial past, it was not locked. So when we look at a work of Akhlaq, the background knowledge suffices it to connect to a culture; otherwise, it could be from any part of the world.

In that sense, Zahoorul Akhlaq was not much different from Lala Rukh who is also displayed at Mubarak Haveli. Now, both are seen as artists who were ahead of their times, who followed their minimal and selective approach.

It seems the Lahore Biennale 01 has been more selective with only 52 participants compared to Karachi Biennale’s 160 artists. It also did not have a theme and there could be many reasons for this. One feels a theme also restricts artists but, if intelligently devised like Okwui Enwezor’s theme ‘All the World’s Futures’ for VeniceBiennale 2015, it does bring a curator’s vision strongly.

At the grand opening ceremony of LB01, there were announcements about the next biennale. One hopes the LB 02 has a theme and a curator, an indivisible pair which shows us how to see art with completely or partially new eyes.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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