The hero of the day: Lahore Biennale 2020

Text | Sarah Cheema

Visuals | As mentioned

Issue 51


Perhaps its lady luck or maybe it’s written in the stars but the past few months have been very good to Lahore.  Starting out with being chosen to be part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network along with 65 other vibrant cities of the world, Lahore also got declared as the City for Literature for its pulsating literary and intellectual character. To further boost this accolade, it’s now playing host to the Lahore Biennale Foundation’s Art Extravaganza making it seem impossible for everyone to be anywhere but here. 

Of course, if you look up Lahore’s past and its rich history since time immemorial, it’s no surprise that Lahore has finally reclaimed its rightful place and rekindled its past glory which has always been synonymous with a rich culture comprising of great arts, scrumptious cuisines and acclaimed literature.

With the second time running, after a successful inaugural run in 2018, this time the Lahore Biennale is bigger, better and definitely the talk of the town, or rather, region. That being due to its curator, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi’s wide scope of international experience being the founder and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation and the driving force behind the Sharjah Biennale, having put it on the global map. The choice of appointing an outsider to head the Biennale, however, was seen with raised eyebrows when the decision was announced last year, but this bold and calculated move by the Lahore Biennale Foundation was taken in order to make the event more influential and at par with the international art shows, and now it seems like the right decision. Even though a foreigner and not being familiar with Pakistani culture and its many predicaments per say, Al-Qasimi does seem to be fully acquainted with the problems and pitfalls of traditional societies such as her own, where one has to be very careful not to offend religious and moral boundaries.

“There are always sensitivities about the kind of work that you can put in public space but that is the same in Sharjah or anywhere else.”

she claims. Issues of ethnic, religious, linguistic and national divides, Burdens of post-colonial societies struggling to forge modern identities, an over looming climate crisis –all are weights that we carry, an inheritance common to us all globally. Therefore, it seemed only natural for Al-Qasimi to accept the invitation of undertaking the Lahore Biennale and choose a rather befitting title that addresses today’s global concerns perfectly. 

‘Between the Sun and the Moon’ begins with an exploration of the shared history of cultural exchanges between South and West Asia with a focus on common disciplines like cosmology and astronomy which have for centuries, played a pivotal role in the lives of the inhabitants who have oriented themselves with reference to the sun, the moon and the constellations. The aim here is to continue upwards and onwards from there –to tackle common issues facing us in the contemporary times together and to forge new cultural ties and understandings for a new future without neglecting the underpinnings of the past.

With an ambitious panel of more than Eighty artists from across the world and boasting some Twenty new commissions, the LBF has accomplished a herculean task amidst global hesitations to travel to Pakistan because of the dangers of terrorist attacks. With the current government very keen on changing the global image of Pakistan, The Lahore Municipal Authority worked hand in hand with the LBF to choose venues throughout the city for the biennale takeover. At the end of this very meticulous selection, a wide variety of thirteen public sites were chosen which range from the Mughal Lahore Fort to Mubarak Haveli in the walled city, the Colonial Tollinton Market and the revolutionary Pak Tea House, from the iconic Lahore Museum to its neighboring art hub of the National College of Arts to the PIA Planetarium and the Gaddafi Stadium –this is truly the making of an art extravaganza. Naturally, it doesn’t end just yet –additionally to these sites, there are numerous independent collateral exhibits taking place all over the city converting Lahore into a vast live museum and definitely the place to be. 

With all events being free and focusing on public exchange and participation which has always been the LBF’s most primary concerns, the foundation is expecting more than a million visitors during the one month the Biennale is on for. The LBF with its ‘go big or go home’ policy has caused a lot of financial headaches requiring hefty amounts of fundraising. But amidst grand plans and even colossal expectations, one can’t help but wonder if the art exhibited throughout the city is really meaningfully engaging with the public or is it just for the educated art world elites? 

I made my way to the Lahore Fort, the largest of the Biennale sites on a clear sunny Saturday, the biting chill of January behind us –the perfect day to see art. Ofcourse, it seemed that all Lahoris had the same thing in mind and the Fort was jam-packed. Whether it was to see the Biennale or immerse themselves in some history, or even just to lounge on the fort gardens overlooking the Diwaan-e-Aam, sunbathing and devouring on oranges –Lahoris seemed to be really enjoying themselves. Entering the Summer Palace which appeared to be transformed to an art gallery, with its historical walls adorned with works of art from across the world and its niches functioning as mini film theatres. Though all works of international artists who have exhibited globally, the themes capture universal issues and address collective concerns. One of the most poignant installations was by the Pakistani Australian artist Khadim Ali, who hails from the Hazara community and addresses through his works, the prejudice and persecution of ethnic minorities like his own. Having been trained in the miniature tradition at the National College of Arts in the 90s, Ali’s theme revolves around historical references exploring symbols, language and image making and questions violence and loss that stems out of it. His most powerful Tapestry ‘Invisible Border I’ depicting dragons and demons, angels and kings, the oppressors and the oppressed was undoubtedly the jewel of the Summer Palace. 

Another gem was contemporary artist Wael Shawky, a powerful voice from Egypt, who through a range of different mediums of film and installation had proved to be extremely compelling and thought provoking. Screening the second part of his magnum opus video trilogy ‘Cabaret Crusades’ named ‘The Path to Cairo’, Shawky reinterprets the Crusades based upon the Labanese historian Amin Maalouf’s book of essays ‘The Crusades through Arab Eyes’ (1983) with puppet performances delving into elements of musicals, nativity plays and horror shows all rolled into one making it into a big, dramatized blend of historical account and mythical fables. Though children had gathered in the small niche where the film was being screened clearly attracted by the puppets, the message was far more complex than a mere puppet show (though quite apt at the same time), with a heavy emphasis on political biases throughout history and how different narratives can alter historical records. In the midst of these extremely political and powerful works, I couldn’t help but notice groups of families and friends making their way from one exhibit to the next, taking selfies, laughing and whispering. I asked a group of women with children what they thought of the exhibit, they shyly admitted that it was a family day out and they had come to the fort for a picnic and had  stopped to see the exhibits on their way to the fort grounds. 

What was interesting though, even if they didn’t understand the art and its deeper meanings, for a brief moment, the Biennale had managed to draw in crowds to a variety of public spaces across Lahore, those public spaces that you often forget about in the hustle and bustle of daily life. The Biennale had managed to open our eyes to our city, transform our everyday spaces into the wonderful possibilities of what our city can be for us and finally to give us a chance, as citizens, to reclaim our city. One of the reclamation of public space was through the work of Montreal based artist Hajra Waheed whose soundscape installation had managed to transform the colonnaded hall of the Lahore Fort’s Diwaan-i-Aam featuring songs from South, Central, West Asia and Africa. The ‘Hum’ of Resistance included an amalgamation of synchronized recordings by Habib Jalib, Faiz, Ahmed Fouad Negm and many more addressing our heavy history of struggle against oppression. Through the Biennale we are given the chance to actively engage with spaces which once belonged to kings and oppressors and to unravel them to find new meanings and reinterpret them in today’s world. Such questions and interpretations arise from a lot of works at the Biennale especially like that of British artist Barbara Walker, who was commissioned by the LBF to make large scale charcoal drawings in the blind arches of the colonial Tollinton Market, an apt location depicting nameless native soldiers with their piercing eyes –underrepresented men of colour from the commonwealth during World War I, fighting and giving their lives for their oppressor’s war. For busy Lahoris who are so engrossed in their daily tasks and schedules, the Biennale offers a new kind of encounter with the city, a golden chance at re-discovering their hometown –It offers a prospect of generating new meanings to old and familiar territories. And eventually, it even goes well beyond just art, It’s a dialogue between the citizen and the city. Cities are fluid like its people, ever changing, always evolving. Lahore has hosted the Biennale and in exchange the Biennale has given Lahore the possibility of change, the chance to become what has always been so inherent to Lahore’s character –modern, global, tolerant, progressive, creative and vibrant. And at the end of the day, art seamlessly ceases the day. Breaking boundaries, permeating through the thick layers of class, creed, ethnicity, politics, gender and finally borders. Whether you’re an art buff or an orange devouring selfie taker, the theme remains universal, the truth identical. No words, no phrases are needed to realize that in a world engulfed with global crises and catastrophes, the matter of fact remains that we are all in this together. 

About the author:
Sarah K Cheema is an Architectus Verborum and Assistant Professor at the NCA, Lahore

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