Islamabad Art Festival 2019

Text | Zainub Mawaz-Khan

Visuals | Mehwish Abid

Issue 50

By focusing on multiple art genres including fine art (painting, drawing, ceramics), music, photography, film, and other visual styles, art festivals have become tools to understand our history. From social trends to the economy, there are endless studies to prove that arts festivals enhance and benefit their environment. The Islamabad Art Festival 2019, delivered just that. The days leading up to the event were hectic and frenzied. After the Islamabad Art Festival (IAF) announced the open-call for curators at the end of June 2019 by August, the chief curator, Mr. Jamal Shah, along with an international jury had reviewed the proposals and rested on selecting a diverse mix of new and seasoned curators from all over Pakistan. 

These included curators such as Dr. Ma Dong, Bashir Ahmed, Dr. Sadia Kamran Pasha, Azam Jamal, Rahat Naveed Masood, Hina Tayyaba Khalil, Vicky A. Clark, Risham Hossein Syed, Iqbal Geoffery, Arjumand Faisal, Amin Gulgee, Aasim Akhtar, Sajjad Akram, Farrah Mahmood Rana, Dr. Surriya Chaudhry, Noshi Qadir, Asma Khan and Ms.Sabah Hussain and Rakhshanda Atawar. The thematic focus of the Islamabad Art Festival was an “Aesthetic Dialogue between Tradition and Modernity”. Challenges of indigenous vocabulary, identity, and of contemporary expression were addressed; local and traditional arts were celebrated in this extraordinary festival. Spread over 13 days, the festival featured around 250 artists from both within Pakistan and foreign shores. It was a celebration of diversity – local and international, – a joyous festivity of collaboration, and a welcome addition to the Capital’s art scene. Islamabad’s entrance into this festivity was quite delayed, especially since the Pakistan National Council of Arts had been receiving criticism on its lack of participation in the promotion of our arts and culture. 

This festival restored the artists’ faith in the revival of the traditional in the modern context. Underrepresented and largely fringed local artists were on center stage. There were the dhamaal dholak players who brightened and cheered even the most stoic of attendees; the ballet dancers from America, who moved the audience with their euphoric, mesmerizing performances. Showcased alongside the Chinese performers were our contemporary kathak and bharatnatyam dancers, from Britain, Indonesia, and the USA. It was a whirlwind of classical and fusion musicals, poetry recitals, and qawwalis. With artists from France, China, Denmark, Turkey, Palestine, USA, Iran, and Japan – a global art village was formed at the heart of the city; iconic locations, such as the Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA) and Sir Syed Memorial, becoming the main hubs for the majority of events and workshops. Other locations included Arts and Crafts Village, Convention Centre, Lok Virsa, and Islamabad Club. Whereas Academic Forums for discussion took place 

This festival was dedicated to the Late Jamil Naqsh, a beacon of an artistic and creative spirit that was put out too soon. His works and book launch were the highlights of the festival’s opening day. The works were acquired from the Jamil Naqsh museum by kind patronage of the PNCA, and were curated by Jamil Naqsh’s son, Cezanne Naqsh himself. Dr. Sadia Kamran Pasha curated ‘The Eighth Garden’, a show that was set to prove that one does not have to venture far from the traditional craft to arrive at contemporary artwork. In her exhibiting artists, we find that Risham Hossain Syed found her modern medium of photography could be woven into the age-old craft of tapestry. In the same vein, Asif Sharif with his ceramics offered playful modern designs upon his traditionally crafted surface material. Younger artists like Shuja ul Haq constructed and raised upon plinths – cement grids, semi constructed building forms – highlighting the dystopia of concrete and cement that our cities are becoming. The seasoned Humaira Abid used classical woodworking techniques to carve two pairs of shoes, a mother’s and a child’s, which Dr. Kamran meaningfully displayed in a modern context by placing them upon a simple wooden bench. 

Risham Hossein Syed displayed celebrated contemporary artist Rashid Rana amidst 40+ of BNU student’s work. One could witness first-hand the pedagogical influences flowing between master and apprentices. Murad Khan hung PVC cable wires from the gaping hole in the false ceiling of Sir Syed Memorial Hall, Dr. Surriya Chaudhry of Fatima Jinnah Women University. This put together an eclectic show featuring inter-disciplinary displays. Photography, carrying a scent of what the image meant to Rabia; indigo dye experiments, fashioned into one large wall piece; and an interactive pedagogical exercise in the ‘Tree of Life.’ Abdul Basit, the artist, had taught wire sculptures to a group of non-artists while relating the ‘Tree of Life’ myths from around the world. Farrah Mahmood Rana curated an exhibition that was also interdisciplinary in nature, with digital renditions and animations. 

On display were Zain ul Abideen’s 3D paintings; photography by Dr. Surriya Chaudhry; and a re-viewing and re-focusing on the spiritual spaces of inner Punjab by Saima Salahuddin through performance. The exhibition also featured artist Mehwish Abid who, with her minimalistic approach to spaces, addressed issues of migration; her work was distinguished from others’ as it had a completeness in its elemental expression. With base materials of terracotta, wood, and paper, amidst the weary rasps of the tremoring voice of the common laborer narrating his grievances against a society that has gone cold. A refreshing entrance to the musical segment of the festival was Ms. Saira Peters, a trained opera singer, who stupefied everyone with the range of her vocals. She also beautifully fused a few Western and Eastern musical compositions in her renditions of “Suunway Balori Ankh Waleya” and “Wada Karoo Sajna”. 

Out of the music segments, the author was lucky to attend and experience, the work of Sabah Hussain in which qawwali was so well curated and masterfully delivered by Mehr Ali and Sher Ali that its essence pervaded being, and pestered the mind with the issues of inner conflict that it aroused; lingered long after it had ended. The Whirling Dervishes of Turkey never fail to impress, soothe, calm and upset all at once. The flood of emotions that become attached to their swirling tunic hems and their rotating feet that glide as if hovering above the surface, the slow, burning rhythmic beat of the drum, how can a dance arouse upheaval in the viewer and yet be so simple in its execution?

There were performances by theatre groups and individual artists alike. Uniquely choreographed performances by Farah Shaikh (USA), Feriyal Aslam (Pakistan/ Indonesia), Amna Mawaz (Pakistan), Les Deformes (France), and the W.E. Chang group from China were thoroughly absorbing dance forms that resonated with the audience, leaving their mouths agape. A young artist, Shahaan Ahmed Shah, a fresh graduate and a lecturer at the University of Baluchistan enacted an intensely riveting performance on the meaning and loss of one’s traditions, also screening a documentary film that touched upon the core issues that his heritage has handed down to him. There were workshops arranged in which Amina Art Ansari, a UK based visual artist, taught free expressionistic painting with huge brushes and large canvases; Spike McClarity brought collaborative process art to the table and encouraged all that attended to tap into their innate creative soul with fun and simple drawing exercises. Mr. Tanweer Farooqui taught the skillful art of ink drawing and inspired all he taught with a renewed interest in the traditional tools of the trade: the pen and nib holder.

No festival of art can ever be complete without literature or textual references to accompany the art exhibits. Literary Conferences were also held at the IAF19, The Afro-Asian writers’ conference was convened in the ambit of the Festival. Discussants were comprised of prominent writers and poets from about 20 Asian African Countries. They assembled under the banner of a Three Day “International Writers Conference-Islamabad 2019”. Their deliberations and Poetry Recital Sessions engaged young writers and literary academia circles to promote an understanding of the two cultures. Poetry recitals and seminars on the issues of unleashing inner creativity, traditionalism vs. modernistic approaches towards art, discussions on what defines our indigenous culture and how it could be infused into modern context were subjects of debate and reflection. In summation, the Islamabad Art Festival was a welcome kick-starter to awaken the sleepy Capital into action. 

There were inevitable delays; schedules kept changing daily due to unforeseen postponements and unnecessary visa problems, helpers, and assistants were not available to the curators forcing them to rely on their own resources to make their exhibits successful. The governmental buildings that were designated venues for the exhibits were inaccessible to the curators until only a few days before the event launch. Additionally, when the festival was well into its 8th day, there were rumors that the government had pulled out and had decided to curtail its involvement with the festival. Here we see the artists that learned to persevere and endure rejection during their creative process, they learn to look at all possible solutions and then go on to invent a new solution in their practice. That, and the fact that the diplomatic communities involved stepped up to the plate to keep the show going. All of the embassies of the participating countries and their cultural representatives in Pakistan were a huge part of the success of this festival. 

It was a magnanimous festival that was due to the tireless efforts of those involved, to evolve this collaboration between worlds. Given the glitches and errors that come with the Herculean task of leading and assembling a mega-art event involving a plethora of art activities, the IAF’19 survived the ditches along the way and emerged as a most charitable purpose. The inclusive thematic premise was a holistic learning experience for the small but rapidly growing art circle of Islamabad, all under the leadership of Chief Curator Mr. Jamal Shah. However that being said, this IAF 19 showcased not only experiential art but championed the true creative spirit of Pakistan.

Zainub Mawaz-Khan, is an academic and artist having taught at various universities and colleges in Rawalpindi and Islamabad for the past 20 years. She is currently the owner and director of SelfWorks- a school for critical and creative thought based in Islamabad.

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