Text | Aasim Akthar
Visuals | Courtesy Karachi Biennale Trust
How does art enter and change our daily lives? This was the key question posed by Niilofur Farrukh, Director of this year’s Biennale at Karachi. First held in 2017, this was the second biennale at Karachi and represented the city’s contribution to a plethora of international art exhibitions all over the globe, from the Venice Biennale in Italy to more recent versions in Europe and Asia. The stated purpose of the event had been to bring cutting edge art to Pakistan, and to transmit new forms of Pakistani culture abroad.
For the second installment, the curatorial reins had been handed over to Muhammad Zeeshan, who chose to explore the complex and unpredictable cultural, ecological and political environment in which we live.
Biennales have burgeoned all over the world during the past two decades. While some have lasted only for short periods, new ones keep appearing. In every case, the goal is the same: to show, in a regular, ongoing manner, the latest developments in contemporary art so as to benefit local artists and audiences. Over the past decade, however, their ubiquity has often been questioned, as has their apparently repetitious, and elitist nature. The late English art critic, Peter Fuller, attacked the kind of work regularly seen in biennales as ‘Biennale International Club Class Art’. With regard to biennales, such criticism misses three points. First, since the founding of the Venice Biennale in 1895 and the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh in 1896, this kind of an event has always and unashamedly, had both artistic and cultural tourist motivations.
After all, a crucial element in the attraction to visitors of the Venice Biennale, for instance, is the striking and extremely romantic contrast between the burgeoning contemporaneity and the relentless ageing of the city itself. Same is the case with Karachi. While the production and showcasing of art in Karachi, modern and contemporary in its appeal, tries to reach out to the public at large through art projects such as ‘Pursukoon Karachi’ and ‘A Reel Through Art’ (apart from the biennale itself), the city continues to dwindle and fall apart. The works showcased at the Karachi Zoological Gardens featured an eclectic selection in a diversity of media, from large scale sculptures to installation and video. As one of the more rigorous exhibitions within the visual arts programme of the KBF 19, it presented some challenging works that thoughtfully delved into a range of issues surrounding the complexity of human/animal relationships. The exhibition covered a broad thematic that included the domestication of animals for companionship and farming, the meat industry, scientific experimentation and species extinction.
While the breadth of the exhibition was not its strength, it did provide a prescient opportunity to engage with some familiar and unfamiliar artists in a context of wider debates about animal rights and ecology. In some ways, the breadth of Flight Interrupted: Eco-leaks from the Invasion Desk diluted the urgent call. While many of the works provided insightful and creative ways of thinking about animals, in others, such as Khalil Chishtee’s installation in polythene bags, the animals sat too comfortably within an historical trajectory that had anthropomorphised and sentimentalised them. However, the disjuncture between the rigour and experimental edge of the forum and some of the less challenging works did not detract from the overall pleasure of seeing local artists such as Munawar Ali Syed and Irfan Gul Dhaeri exhibited alongside Saks Afridi and Ranu Mukherjee. The choice of the Zoological Gardens was ambitious in its curatorial intent, and this seemed entirely appropriate to the seriousness of its subject. For artists who sought to make work about animals which moved beyond an androcentric view of the world, the challenge was to think about human/animal relations in terms that as Steve Baker, the English academic suggested, ‘acknowledge the animal’s own living otherness from humans, and let this otherness speak for itself…”
There is gentleness to Karachi’s Frere Hall building. A simple colonial-style exterior leads into an airy, open and light-filled interior. On the opening day, pigeons came and went through its lofty arches, gliding in and out on drifts of warm air, undisturbed, relaxed and at peace. Irony is nothing new in contemporary practice. It is a well-traversed trope that has informed and directed both the production and consumption of culture and society after 1968. However, the familiarity of the mechanics of irony has ensured its effect has been somewhat diluted in recent years and, as such, artists today have shifted their gaze from this once destabilizing concept towards a more rigorous interpretation of time, space and place.
This is not to say that irony has no validity in contemporary practice, but rather that the critiquing of a society caught in the clench of a ‘postmodern’ and ‘post 9/11’ world requires new strategies to ensure that spaces are made available to explore and comprehend these modalities. The geographic position of Frere Hall offers an inimitable platform for artists and curators to explore new approaches for dealing with the ever-pervasive hegemonic relations endemic to our globalised world. Another reason the Karachi Biennale 19 survived is because it had been adaptive enough to take on tasks that museums, in their collecting and exhibiting, have tended to defer or eschew. In recent years, biennales have also grappled with issues that contemporary art criticism, as it has narrowed and become largely promotional, has strenuously avoided. Questions, such as: What are the major currents in contemporary art? And what does current art look like from a global perspective? The second edition of the Karachi Biennale responded to the criticism on the first chapter by adapting its form, scope, orientations and locations.
This adaptation took place with extraordinary flexibility. Overall, the 2019 Karachi Biennale was a reasonable representation of current art practice, and a quite varied presentation of contemporary art spread across seven venues around the city. Different and more obviously curator-driven, relying heavily on a curatorial association between the curator and the participating artists, it was not flawed but rather more openly and honestly partial. For example, the selection of artists and their respective works did not necessarily correspond to the overarching theme of the biennale yet the curator invited them – a sizable number of who included a long list of friends and associates. The weakness of the biennale was that it could not look beyond the familiar pool of artists who frequent the biennale circuit. The lingering trauma of colonisation and occupation and their impact in post-colonial times was seen in works installed at the Frere Hall. Take, for instance, Rashid Rana’s Beauty Lies. Part video projection and part photomontage, the installation made a huge impact as a satire on the port city as a site of garbage and refuse. Evoking references to Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Rashid stands still atop a hill of garbage looking into the haze of rising smoke in the projection while the sea waves from a distance in the facing projection appear to be composed of photo stills of waste plastic bags and refuse when seen up close. Within this panoply of stratified and differentiated artistic agendas stood Adeela Suleman’s The Killing Fields of Karachi that drew both flak and criticism from the local authorities.
Deeply subversive of the politico cultural neurosis underlying the society, the message that the cemetery of those killed in Karachi with gravestones carved out of cement and wilting flowers cast in metal growing from them, the sound piece and the video, and the rhetoric it delivered In case of the largest body of works shown in situ at Bagh Ibne Qasim, conceptual distinctions were tenuous and seemed to have no relationship to the exhibition itself. Some works, such as Basir Mehmood’s video projection were shown in isolation while painting and conventional two-dimensional works in media were spread around almost haphazardly. No curatorial argument could be immediately divined from the physical proximity of works, nor could any aesthetic engagement or delight be found in surprising but coherent slippages between the works of one exhibition area and another. The viewer’s relation was with each work separately, with only serendipitous links to the overall conceptual structure. Disappointingly, the curated group exhibitions within the biennale were the antithesis of the deftly selected solo presentations, with the clarity of the artist’s voice often obscured. The creation of spectacles to seduce or compel viewers has long been a feature of large-scale international exhibitions. A presence that was felt most emphatically was the weighty exhibition at the IVSAA Gallery called The Mangrove Project. Designed by Tariq Alexander Qaiser, the project was a collaborative between the architect himself and Noorjehan Bilgrami, Sadia Salim, Zarmeene Shah, Sohail Zuberi and Marvi Mazhar that included, maps, drawings, photo and video documentation, projections and multi-media installations highlighting the ‘fragile ecosystem’. Forensic and cool, the gallery’s labyrinthine white rectangle was divided to individual artist’s specifications, creating the sensation of moving through a series of solo exhibitions. There was something slightly cynical in the accessioning of made-to-measure spaces, and this heavy-handed ‘architectural’ intervention, while absolutely intrinsic to the exhibition’s internal logic, was strangely at odds with works by artists that largely eschewed spectacle in favour of the more discreet advancement of ideas. Karachi Biennale 19 was an exhibition of contradictions, binaries and seemingly incompatible methodologies. The abstraction and aestheticization of complex political ideas was problematic, while the exhibition design was often distracting, leaving the viewer with the feeling that they had digested something that was undoubtedly worthy but rather absent of flavor. And yet, for the most part, the artists’ works were able to move past the strictures of the exhibition’s dogmatic structure.
Aasim Akhtar is an independent artist, art critic and curator. He teaches Art Appreciation and Studio Practice at The National College of Arts, Rawalpindi. He has been published in magazines, catalogues, and books both nationally and internationally, and his artwork has been widely exhibited. He is the author of two published books, Regards Croises (1996) and The Distant Steppe (1997), and has just finished writing his third, Dialogues with Threads: Traditions of Embroidery in Hazara.