The poignant call of the inaugural Karachi Biennale 2017
Text | Tazeen Hussain
Visual | Courtesy Karachi Biennale
Asst. Professor Tazeen Hussain is permanent faculty at Dept. of Communication Design, IVS and adjunct faculty at Dept. of Visual Studies, University of Karachi and Szabist. She has a B. Des in Communication Design from IndusValley School of Art and Architecture, Pakistan and an MA in New Media and Society from University of Leicester, UK. She has published academic research internationally and contributes to national publications. She also volunteers at Indus Earth Trust, an organisation dedicated to sustainable development.
The interlinking of Art, Culture and Society can be thought of as a suspended fabric, that has its hierarchies of colors, knits and folds but yet it is one. Together all these elements make the fabric functional and productive and yet it also has a life of its own. A life; separate from its functionality. At the whisper of a breeze or movement it becomes animated, moves and attracts attention to itself by its very movement. And yet this aspect of independent life also exists in harmony with its functionality. By moving the fabric it does not become dysfunctional but adds to the functionality by revealing other aspects inherent in it, its elasticity, the way it falls, its ability to filter light and display shadows on its surface, as it moves in the breeze.
We are instinctively aware of these ties between Art, Culture and Society. Imagine society without the mutually dependent and pragmatic influences of the above; a society without pleasures of life and that, which is educationally vital as well. Take away the collective memory from our books and museums; remove the taranas, the mehfils and the qawalis from our schools and communities; lose the empathetic plays and dance from our theatres, detach the festivals, literary works and paintings, and you are left with an orphan society, without a conversation … without an identity.
This idea of interdependency is not new. However, it is one that has often been subjected to a one-sided view. Art and Culture has been posited as the tool through which societies are developed and changed. Little thought has been given to development of culture and art or conceptualizing culture and art as development of a society (Clammer 2015). Art and Culture is thus divested from its important function in a society, the ability to fulfill the human needs of leisure, of self and collective expression and the need for beauty. Thus development of people and society is also the development of their needs for expression, creativity and conviviality.
James Wines (2008) writes “Without Art the whole idea of sustainability fails.” Art’s presence in spaces and society works as a humanizing force, creating an intimacy between people and their environment in the words of Ivan Illich, conviviality.
Karachi is poised to host its very first biennale in 2017, with ‘Witness’ as the theme. It aims to bring art from Pakistan and the rest of the world together for a large public audience. The theme of the Karachi Biennale has the capacity to address multiple issues of politics, of representation, erasure and selective documentation and expand the conversation to much broader and inclusive level. Extending over two weeks, the Karachi Biennale will offer architecture of exhibitions, public art projects, discursive interventions and extensive visitor programs which will aim to combine creative energies and spark new ones.
The main venue of Karachi Biennale is the 160-year-old, Narayan Jagannath Vaidya High School (NJV) building. “Karachi Biennale has chosen to locate its principal venue at the 160 year old NJV School, a building that housed the first National Assembly of Pakistan to invite reflection on the city’s history that has always embraced diversity and intellectual independence,” explains Nilofer Farrukh. “This will give easy access to new audiences and also bring into discussion Karachi’s history, which has been often overshadowed by tensions of rapid growth.”
The biennale will present art works created by both local and international artists. “We all bear witness to our times and ourselves, both in the present and the past,” says Amin Guljee, the Chief Curator of Karachi Biennale. “The issues addressed by artists based whether here or abroad have a resonance for my city. Some are a commentary on the times and others explore the artists’ own inner dialogues. They are acts of defiance and celebration that will take viewers to places unexpected and unexplainable.”
The Public Outreach initiatives of Karachi Biennale aim to take art deep into the ‘mohallas’ of Karachi. “Reel on Hai”, a public Art project consisting of 100 cable reels, invited artists designers and architects to turn cable reels into works of art, which have already begun to be installed in various public places in Karachi. Educational activities like New Media Art workshops for school children have been planned some of which have already been conducted while others will be part of the biennale.
The Karachi Biennale has also focused on creating discursive interpretation of the theme ‘Witness’. The discursive interventions aim to cross-pollinate ideas and explore meaning and truth across disciplines and contexts. Through a series of ‘Thinkers Baithaks’, ‘Roundtables’ and ‘Kalam Series’ the conversation has taken the form of critical discourse. Some questions that have been raised at these discursive interventions held during the course of this past year have been, what is the direction of change that the current times are propelling us towards? Are we passive participants in this change or are we active? What is our role in the change? What can the past tell us about the present and whose version of the past? The discursive also includes the creation of the Karachi Art Directory, which will serve as an invaluable resource documenting current data on visual artists, exponents of popular and traditional arts, art critics, curators, art educational institutions and galleries. The Karachi art scene is believed to be amongst the largest in South East Asia. The project aims to map this and contribute towards paving the way for understanding the scale and diversity of art practices that exists in the city.
As Miles (2000) expounds, a measure of development must also be of values of the societies and individuals, not just material things. Initiatives like the biennale overcome the social divisions found in the tradition of gallery art and bring art out into the public. They allow the fulfillment of the human needs of leisure and beauty. By enabling this interaction they encourage a better understanding of each other and reconnect people with their own needs of self and collective expression. They also challenge the existing conceptions of art, design and culture and open the forum to new ways of thinking, interpretation and application of art design and culture. They remind us of art’s role as a humanizing force, and create an intimacy between people and their environment, stimulating greater ownership of our surroundings. They also sensitize us towards conceptualizing Art’s presence in surroundings and not just spaces. Conceptualizing them in such a way makes us aware that they are not static but evolving, reflecting our past but also subservient to a global phenomenon of fast paced change. Thus they force us to think about a more holistic application of art and design, - one that is at once critical and proactive.