Text | Aasim Akhtar
Visuals | Courtesy Karachi Biennale
It is almost impossible to think about the Karachi Biennale without thinking about the city of Karachi – about where it is, what type of city it is and what it is not, about its role in the local and regional landscape, and what that role means when considered from a broader international perspective. Historically, Karachi has been a place where people come together and share knowledge about trade and commerce. It claims (if not prides itself) to be the port city, truly cosmopolitan and professional in its temperament, providing both artists and curators with a rich potential of ideas to explore. Over the years each of these explorations has taken us a little further towards an understanding of ourselves while giving those from elsewhere a framework to examine their own positions and knowledge. For all of us, it becomes an opportunity to challenge our convictions about who we are now and where we are all going. If we accept that a biennale has this potentiality and responsibility, then we must consider the priorities and aspirations that biennales are built upon. How can we both ensure the success of an edition as an experience for the local community and the art world at large, as well as uphold the legacy of the biennale as a project that continues to unfold over time. How should we reflect on the results of what, as an organization, KB17 chose to realize through the often-exhaustive efforts of artists, curators and other art practitioners? Biennales frequently appear at odds with themselves, torn between static formats of display and the ever-evolving discourses they enable. As expressions of conditions both elemental and cultural, the keyword is the node around which artworks and performances by more than 150 artists loosely congregated in Karachi.
KB17 has had different sources of genesis. Conceived, initially, by Shakira Masood of Art Chowk with daughter Camilla Chaudhary in collaboration with Spaces Gallery in 2015, the four-week long biennale was supposed to provide a ‘single platform allowing visitors a widespread look at the art production that is occurring in the country as well as to project Pakistan as an exciting destination’. Titled as ‘Aaj Kay Naam’, an Executive Committee was formed including Mehr Afroz, Rifat Alvi and Shakira herself. A tentative team of curators chosen from all across the country was also invited to jump on the bandwagon. A few months apart when Shakira and daughter decided to drop out, the biennale and the prospect of holding the first-ever mega art event in Karachi was taken in hand by Niilofur Farukh (CEO) and Amin Gulgee (Principal Curator) with Zarmeene Shah as a co-curator assisted by four younger curators, namely Sara Pagganwala, Zeerak Ahmed, Humayun Memon and Adam Fahy-Majeed. With the art world often polarized between factions that instrumentalise art to promote sociopolitical agendas and those that have financialized art for commercial gains, it was notable that the curator of KB17, Amin Gulgee, announced that his debut edition was “a Biennale designed with artists, by artists and for artists about the forms they propose, the questions they ask, the practices they develop and the ways of life they choose.” Refusing to be a checklist of big names or to carry a heavy critical framework, Gulgee’s Biennale had a catchy, affirmative title “Witness”. As it sounded, especially when shouted with gusto, ‘Witness’ was meant to be “an exclamation, a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist.” Perhaps reflecting his artistic background, Gulgee redirected recent art-world priorities back towards the thoughts, activities and politics of individual artists – instead of the curator’s – “to convey a positive and prospective energy.” While KB17 was capable of facilitating dialogue, the specific kind of experiential thought-lines generated between artworks – and not necessarily between their creators – within a given setting was comparatively underdeveloped within the context of KB17’s larger discursive program. In one example, the cramped pairing of Akram Dost Baloch’s massive installation with wooden caskets carved with primitive faces, with Munawwar Ali Syed’s cloud formation was unfattering to both. Their thematic relationship to one another and ‘Tombstones’ by Adeel uz Zafar, Noman Siddiqi and Husnain Ali Noorani which was playing in the same space seemed tangential, even nonexistent.
Aimlessness and adhocism are hazards of biennales. The debut edition of KB17 was so twitching and distractible that it risked fattening itself into a vast, paratactic prairie. Time, in the contemporary art world, advances in mincing increments, furnishing us with new batches of objects but seldom a new idea. Curators, then, saddled with the absurd task of ‘capturing the moment’ resort to the eclectic. But in the right hands, eclecticism can itself be spun into an expedient little point! If ours is an age of scattered impulses, monstrous churning, and outsize contradictory torments, then cast a wide net! Amin Gulgee and Zarmeene Shah managed to assemble a sprawling show that applied itself dutifully to every aspect of our cultural psychosis. The result is an inevitably failing exhibition, a massive, splashing sea broken in places by reefs of good work smartly hung. Having said that, KB17 has been extraordinarily diverse; 12 venues, from Karachi’s most influential galleries to dynamic young alternative art-spaces. Likewise, the artists ranged from emerging and upcoming practitioners from lesser-known art capitals to household names. The works they presented covered all artistic media – including painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, video, photography and performance. The role of the artist in contemporary art is not only as a maker of objects, works or exhibitions, but also as a maker of ideas; the socio-political analysis, poetry and space that calls on us as a public propels us to reflect, engage and challenge what we think we already know. KB17 was an admittedly naïve attempt to search for the knowledge that is not connected to language by focusing on ways of thinking and working together. Central to this approach was the early enlistment of dozens of art practitioners in sustained relationships that long preceded the exhibition. However, most but not all relationships begin with working together.
Through the process, one came to understand cultural producers as people – their vulnerability and power, intensity and insecurity. Knowing how artists’ work comes to shape an exhibition’s intentions and ambitions. KB17, from its very inception, has been dependent upon the capabilities of these individuals – they were not the only ones invited, but their participation fueled every part of the project, and the mutual trust determined its ambition. Among them, guest curators such as Carlos Acero Ruiz from the Dominican Republic (artist, art critic, curator and professor), Paolo de Grandis from Italy (art curator and president of PDG Arte) and SPARCK (Space for Pan-African Research, Creation and Knowledge) run by Kadiatou Diallo and Dominique Malaquais, were notable. Ruiz can be accolade for curating works by nine Latin American artists and for working on KB17 Discursive Committee on the South-South Critical Dialogue – a study group devoted to discussing the effects of colonialism and globalism on South America and South Asia. Of the twelve venues, 63 Commissariat Lines looked at artists’ beliefs in creating constructive or utopic alternatives to reality, building toward forays into esoteric and spiritual dimensions. At IVSAA Gallery, between Ruby Chishti and David Alesworth’s installations where Gulgee included Joyce Lee’s provocative photographs, the atmosphere became a wild celebration of natural states. Gulgee seemed to largely avoid cultural fetishisation of ‘outsider’ artists, women’s bodies and indigenous cultures, while the Biennale’s most evocative section was a series of installations and videos clustered around Claremont House.
New York based Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander’s video installation worked on a mythical level with modern day implications, titled ‘Disruption as Rapture’ at the Alliance Francaise. We stand in the center of a wide expanse, on whose blank walls a vertical projection of Mughal miniatures dissolves into splotches. At first glance, they are organisms forming in water; at another glance, they are starburst galaxies. By suggesting demons in the place of manmade weapons of mass destruction, this work gives us a vision of universal awe – of cosmic destruction as well as creation – rendered in a perspective only possible from South Asia. The history of exhibitions conjures the political, social, cultural, economic and of course artistic realms in which they were produced. The case of an exhibition mounted by a private organization, held in a non-museum space, opens up a dimension of thinking about exhibition-making practices beyond conventional art institutions.
KB17 embodied hundreds of individual gestures of support for Karachi in the form of donations of artworks and help in organizing. When looking at those individuals, who contributed, and the networks and collectives of which they were a part, the event of the exhibition expands beyond the collective gesture: for many artists, this was just one instance of political engagement and solidarity among many. KB17 served as a starting point to understand how, in Pakistan, artists and dissidents mobilize around the political and the cultural cause. The challenge undertaken by the Biennale was that of managing an entry into the international art circuit, while also addressing the needs and epistemologies of nations that continue to be ‘occupied’ and ‘colonized’. The question, at the end of the day, however remains: “Who are biennales for – the local community or for artists, curators, or institutional recognition on the world stage? “Here, in the context of postcolonialism, tourist development, creating a softer image and indigenous resistance, the word “local” is contestable and problematic. The artworks challenged the hegemonic gaze, but it is unclear whether they managed to bind the community It will be worth watching to see if the Lahore Biennale taps into the spirit of KB17 just a few blocks away, which literally shaped the spaces around people’s lives, and emphasized creative process and community collaboration. If KB17 innovated in its operation, it would not be by importing an operational format that is all too common in today’s art world, but by enacting a vision for art only possible in South Asia. Art and secular politics are their own religions, with the power to organize, mobilize and bind people and ideas. They produce their own kinship networks, disciplinary norms and material culture. In an historical moment where the ideological and militant Left has been overwhelmed and outgunned by neoliberalism, secular fascism, religious extremism and military dictatorships, the possibilities of imagination and the potentialities of the unknown are sorely needed – an enchantment of some kind. Tis coming together, this object making, this exchange of ideas and practices is a series of small acts pulsing in the shade of a daunting world of problems.