A City’s Collaboration with Art: The Lahore Biennale 01

Text | Dua Abbas Rizvi

Photography | As mentioned

Issue 41

The biennial exhibition model, or biennale, has become increasingly popular across the globe in recent years as cities rush to take it up to achieve any number of ends: stimulate creative exchange between local and international institutions, integrate the various pasts and zones of a city into a meaningful whole, boost touristic activity and foreign interest in homegrown projects and initiatives, and raise or attempt to address political concerns (the second Johannesburg Biennale, for instance, curated by Okwui Enwezor in 1997, adopted the theme of ‘Trade Routes’ to examine the broader themes of post-colonialism and multiculturalism). As West-centric modes of artistic production begin to be challenged and subverted, many countries in South Asia find their artists and visual traditions attracting international attention. The past couple of decades have seen South Asian practitioners (such as Imran Qureshi, Shahzia Sikander, Rashid Rana, and Shilpa Gupta) joining the echelons of the global art-elite. It was only a matter of time before the region they hail from joined the biennale-race. 

Two of Pakistan’s biggest cities hosted their inaugural biennales between October, 2017 and April, 2018. The Karachi Biennale, which ran from 22nd October to 5th November, 2017, was curated within the thematic framework of ‘Witness’ and encompassed twelve venues. The more recent Lahore Biennale took place from 18th to 31st March, 2018, at seven different venues and loosely subscribed to the theme of ‘Shehr o Funn’ (or ‘The City and Art’). For an age-old city like Lahore, densely marked by various architectural styles that testify to the ornateness of its history, the appeal of a city-wide exhibition must have been tremendous. The Lahore Biennale Foundation did its best to incorporate a number of chapters of the city’s history into its programme. The biennale’s seven venues included examples of Mughal architecture (the Lahore Fort, the Shahi Hammam, and the Mubarak Begum Haveli), colonial architecture (the Lahore Museum and Lawrence Gardens), and modern, urban structures (the Alhamra Arts Centre and a crossing on the Canal Road). 

Lahore’s contiguous pasts were thus invoked – their physical remnants becoming temporary hubs of artistic activity. In addition, almost all of the chosen sites were public places, frequented by people of all age and income groups the year round. The Lahore Fort – simultaneously the most aristocratic and democratic of the sites – hosted an exhibition of contemporary artworks by fourteen artists. The cool, tenebrous chambers of the fort’s 17th-century Summer Palace rang with the soundtracks of videos being played and the incessant scuffle of visitors pouring in and out of them. One cavernous hall was suffused with a violet glow. Strands of neon blue and pink rolled and curled over its floor, seemingly issuing from a bright convergence of stars. This site-specific installation by Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi, titled ‘Roz o Shab (Day and Night)’, spoke of labyrinths, twilights, flowing streams, and complex pasts. A playful and distinctly new-age visual vocabulary was employed by the artists to reference Mughal architectural elements (like the maze of water-channels reportedly running through the Summer Palace), in an effort both to acknowledge the enduring influence of the past on the present and convey a sense of objectivity and remove (the past need not be forever viewed through rose-coloured glasses). 

Another artwork that intelligently addressed the historical context of its site was Fazal Rizvi’s fierce, poignant ‘The Dead Tigers of British India’ – a presentation comprising archival material from the annals of the Raj; seven eerily fluorescent tiger paws (modelled after, and lamenting, the eight, plundered paws of Tipu Sultan’s famed tiger-throne); and the artist’s own verbal protests against the ravages of an Empire. The tiger is used by Rizvi as a symbol of all that the colonisers crushed and consumed, and the tiger hunt becomes allegorical of the conquest of a people – almost in a grotesque reversal of the medieval unicorn hunt, which is read as (in addition to being allegorical of the Passion) allegorical of the conquest of love. Exhibits in the Lahore Museum, like Waqas Khan’s at-once miniscule and cosmic drawings and Bani Abidi’s nostalgic yet urgent installation, effectively juxtaposed Pakistani contemporary art with the legacies that inform it. A large diptych by Khan, displayed like a fateful, open book of arcana, stood in one gallery surrounded by modern masterpieces of Pakistani painting. His smaller drawings were aligned like manuscripts in another. Abidi’s ‘Memorial to Lost Words’, meanwhile, through its audio recording and impressions of twenty-five tombstones, sought belated justice for the forsaken Indian recruits of World War I. Arranged in a ring around a statue of Queen Victoria, the ‘memorial’ seemed to mock and interrogate the self-titled ‘Empress of India’. 

Perhaps as charged, though more obliquely so, were the works displayed at the Mubarak Begum Haveli. The historic estate, which is an Imambargah as well as a school for traditional arts, hosted a succinctly curated show of modern and contemporary drawings, annotations, and explorations in mark-making by twelve South Asian artists. The exhibition, curated by Mariah Lookman, revealed not only a collective engagement with meaning and materiality through a pruned, minimalistic language but also an acute consciousness, on the artists’ parts, of the need for activism and timely intervention in the face of political oppression or ideological hegemony. Marking a shift towards the newer dimensions of Lahore but belonging, nonetheless, to the city’s remoter past, Lawrence Gardens were the locale for five open-air, sculptural and aural installations. Of these, Ali Kazim’s was a visionary one through which the artist orchestrated a fine coalition of atmosphere and technique, specificity and open-endedness. A meandering climb up an overgrown hill led to a clearing on a small plateau. On this grassy plateau – tucked out of sight and sound – stretched rows of small, clay hearts in a sort of quasi architectural plan. Neatly stacked on top of each other and lumped together a little naively, a little defiantly, with globs of mud, these hearts became the unlikely building bricks for a structure that was neither wholly absent nor wholly present – a ruin, a conception, a limen between the two. Kazim’s ‘Lover’s Temple Ruins’ peddled an unexpected but enduring side of the history of Lawrence Gardens: the gardens’ popularity as a lovers’ haunt. It is a tribute to the clandestine courtships that are carried out in many public parks in Pakistan, in spite of – and because of – the fear of disapprobation and, at times, violence that pursues the simple and universal act of loving.

The thick, hypnotic air of the garden contrasted sharply with the whirring, flickering exhibits at the Alhamra Arts Centre and their gritty, fragmented, urban imageries. A road divided colonial from modern-day Lahore and, here, the concerns of the hour were migration and dislocation, rapid urbanisation, and the effects of globalisation on different cultures. The centre was also the venue for performances, and symposiums organised as part of the biennale’s ‘Academic Forum’ and ‘ArtSPEAK’ programmes, which saw artists, scholars, and curators flying in from all over the world to discuss and critique artwork and present research. 

For a project that was a long time in the works, and underwent managerial upheavals during the final phase of its development, the premier Lahore Biennale did deliver what it had promised: a city bustling with creative energy and art accessible to all. But was this art only physically accessible, having been placed on public ground (thus precluding any question of restricted viewership)? A commendable attempt was made to make it more than just that – introductory texts to the displays were given in Urdu as well as English. Local schools were invited and encouraged to visit the exhibits. And the exhibits were run regularly for the duration of the event – something that in itself deserves praise, the political climate of the country being so prone to bouts of unrest and instability. That being acknowledged, the expressions and ideas involved in some cases were too thinly worked to engage meaningfully with their surroundings, appearing for all intents and purposes to be last-minute, hotchpotch arrangements being passed off as important works of art. In some other cases, the visual ruminations were too obscure to allow the laity to engage with them. Pictorial arts were largely missing, when we have a rich tradition of the picture. But that tradition has, as we know, all but disappeared at the altar of gimmicks and magic-tricks that have begun to flourish locally to meet the international demand for gimmicks and magic-tricks. For a country like Pakistan, where the divide between the contemporary arts circuit and the weary masses is humungous, a pertinent artistic language needs to be demotic, terrestrial, unambiguous. As it is, people were struck by the lights and sounds but few were sticking around long enough to see what was unfolding, and what – if anything – was being said. One hopes that the next biennale will be more inclusive and feature visual artists from an even broader spectrum of artistic backgrounds and specialities. One also hopes that through the biennales, the city is not only festooned and beautified for a while but is gradually, slowly, saved from neglect and ruination.

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