Karachi Biennale: Connecting a complex city

Text | Zehra Hamdani Mirza

Visuals| Courtesy Karachi Biennale

Issue 37

“I see it as a pop up museum. A pop up, temporary, contemporary museum,” Art critic, curator and writer Niilofur Farrukh, on the Karachi Biennale (KB). She serves as KB CEO and although her description may be too chunky to be a tagline, it sums up KB’s unique aspirations and importance. Scheduled for October 2017 in one of the world’s most populous and complex cities, the Biennale aims to connect “art, the city and its people.” With masters vaulted in drawing rooms, Sadequains disappearing under foreign auction hammers, and local jewels imprisoned in highbrow galleries, there’s no art left for the public. KB’s chief curator, the energetic and fierce Amin Gulgee says his wish for the Biennale is to “engage people at large.” KB’s public art project, ‘Reel On Hai’, the most ambitious the country has ever seen, penetrates deep into the mohallas. It invites artists, architects, designers and the willing to convert discarded cable reels into sculptures and installations to be placed in different areas of the city, based on their relevance to the community. Chaired by artist Masuma Halai Khwaja, the project has artists working on site—thus mingling with bystanders and residents. Several reels have already been completed and welcomed by their communities. UK based architect Wajiha Afsar’s reel stands on the grounds of a government hospital emergency ward, and uses its form to create a space for light and beauty. Afsar converts the clunky reel into a graceful interlocking structure that is a place of rest and shade. Titled Jugnoo (firefly), the reel is a sanctuary in the chaotic and stressful vicinity of the hospital; in an innovatively designed space, it has books and foliage and the cosiness of a cabin. The Karachi Biennale Trust is made up of artists, writers, educators and art enthusiasts, and together they have created a platform to explore new ways of seeing, and art as a vehicle for social change. Last year’s New Media Workshop conducted by KB for school children in Orangi, had Wolfgang Spahn and Stephan Kovats, New Media artists from Germany, help kids understand the building blocks of the computer via New Media art. They even made electricity using rotten fruit. More recently, a workshop by the Canadian New media artist Faisal Anwar, (his wonderful installations invite viewers inside and test the relationships between the public and the private) engaged students from Karachi School of Art, NJV and the community of Orangi Pilot Project. Armed with the weapons of urban living—smart phones—Anwar taught them to see in “layers”. More importantly, he made them see for the first time—the beauty and captivation of their daily journeys. The resulting ‘urban stories’ will be part of Anwar’s work for the Biennale. 

The Biennale joins two different strands: one of inclusiveness, that engages new audiences and art makers—among the Reel On Hai artists is a quilt makers guild with grandmothers and doctors—the other is international level, museum quality art and discourse. At KB’s curtain raiser held in January at Frere Hall, one got a glimpse of the Biennale’s reach and personality. Chief Curator Amin Gulgee has singlehandedly created a vernacular, space and audience for Performance art through his not for profit gallery. His curated shows confront and transport. At the curtain raiser, a video by Benish Mahmood “Forget me not, Basheereya!” played with archival footage and publications from Pakistan’s turbulent 70s (Barbara Sharif, war, cabaret and Zia ul Haq). In another corner, performance artist Muhammad Ali knits on a rocking chair, face shrouded by butterflies. Amin Gulgee has invited over a 100 national and international artists, as well as architects, filmmakers, and fashion and theatre professionals to grapple with the theme WITNESS, and serve it to new audiences. The KB’s main venue is the 160-year-old NJV School, a building that housed the first National Assembly of Pakistan and sits in the old and busy heart of Karachi. Residents of the city will get to see museum-quality art, free of charge, and they can bring their kids too. A major aspect of the Biennale is the involvement and activation of the youth, with activities planned for schools. The Biennale aims to have a conversation with the city: it will engage scholars, artists, intellectuals and thinkers. As part of its discursive programming, The First Roundtable “Womens Rights Movement as Witness” took place recently. With an intense panel of artists, legal and civil rights activists, media stereotypes on women were unpacked. At one point artist Roohi Ahmed shared her response to the map of Karachi; she charted the routes of violence, the trajectories she would have to negotiate daily to make her way to work and back safely. In a city with many connections and questions, the Karachi Biennale offers inhabitants a new route to connect and discover.

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