Tuesday, 31 October 2017


By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

October may not be the best month to launch events in Karachi, a city described as "maddening” by Amin Gulgee, the chief curator of the Karachi Art Biennale 2017 (KB17). But neither the sizzling heat nor the crazy Karachi traffic seems to have deterred artists or art lovers from doing the rounds at the 12 venues selected for this two-week event.

Touted as Pakistan’s "largest contemporary art event", the Biennale has artwork strewn across the city of 20 million and runs until Nov. 5. The prime location is the architecturally striking NJV High School, but other venues include an old bookstore, a cinema, the building of the Alliance Française, and the Karachi School of Art.

At the Biennale: Mussalmaan Musclemen by Z. A. Bhutto,
2016. Archival inkjet print on cotton fabric, hand-sewn
printed polyester and blue embroidery thread.
The theme of the biennale - "Witness" - aims to take visitors through the city’s history (with the opening up of old colonial buildings), to question the present, and to imagine what the future might be.

In the absence of a museum of modern art where the organisers could have set up the event under one roof, Amra Ali, a Karachi-based curator and art critic, is happy the biennial has opened "art that has been confined to galleries, to a larger audience".

"Public art interventions in 'non-art' spaces such as the ones selected by the organisers bring about a negotiation of art to its social and cultural histories," she said.

For their part, the organisers say they made a very "conscious effort" to let the public traverse the city and its historical precincts. 

Amin Gulgee, chief curator of KB17.
According to Ali, with people visiting one venue or the other, there is a greater "sense of discovery in revisiting, and in some cases visiting for the first time, spaces that have existed in our memory".

Additionally, such an event not only speaks of the "power of art to transform and bring people to view and be inspired," but it shows that art “belongs to us, as a city, collectively", she said.

The works by some 140 artists from more 30 countries include installations, videos, photographs, dance, performances and other art forms, most of it conceptual.

"It's been a labour of love, passion and a lot of hard work," said Niilofur Farrukh, the CEO of KB17, while Gulgee has reminded observers that the surreal journey he embarked upon more than a year ago was done on a shoestring budget.

For many visitors, however, some of the installations need decoding since most messages are not always obvious. "What I find amiss is a short guide with explanations of the art works," said Ingo Arend, an art critic and art editor from Germany. "If you want to reach out for a wider public, not that familiar with contemporary art, one should give them some advice."

A parallel south-south critical dialogue is equally taking place at the Biennale. "As a theme we want to explore how thinkers/artists/art from Latin America are bearing testimony to their times," said Farrukh.

Daalaan, 2017 by Salman Jawed,
Faiza Adamjee, Ali S Husain, Mustafa
Mehdi, Hina Fancy and Zaid Hameed.
"The project also aims to strengthen intellectual exchange directly between south-south independently and not via the north." she emphasized.

Cuban art curator Dannys Montes de Oca (who was reminded of Havana's road "chaos” by the tsunami of traffic on Karachi’s main thoroughfare) says that the voices from the South are usually missing at these so-called "international" art shows. This is because these shows are costly, so most artists from developing countries cannot afford to showcase themselves.

She thus favours "alternative" biennales. She said she was happy the art on display was not "passive" and seemed to engage the audience.

Arend, who was among the three jury members for the KB17 art prize, has, like de Oca, attended biennales in the North and had specially come to Karachi to see "something else". He expressed satisfaction that the event promotes a counter-narrative to the so-called modernist obsession with the white cube.

"They [KB17] should try and stay on the experimental ground and avoid the sterile white cubeism," he said, noting that had it not been for the venues, the event could very well have fallen into the Venice Biennale-like model.

For him, it was uplifting to see how the artists had reclaimed "amazing public locations" that had been relegated to the inner recesses of people's memories and had revived them, through the Biennale, to provide a platform "for collective discourse".

Untitled, 2017, by Ayaz Jhokio,
Mixed media installation.
Karachi curator Ali (who has attended Germany’s huge art fair Documenta), fails however to see why people should even think that KB17 needs to be compared with the European or "Euro-centric" model.

"There are thousands of biennials all over the world now; every major city has been holding them. In terms of structure, I think that looking closer to this region, to places such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, would bring more parallels and shared concerns,” she said.

“We have to develop our own models, even if the model is an anti-biennial model, and that will come naturally, as we evolve. That will all happen, as we have taken the first step, which is most difficult. We have opened ourselves to the world," she added.   
Art events across the globe have increasingly become a source of local pride, tourism and cultural capital, generating revenue for cities. Paolo De Grandis, an Italian contemporary art curator who works with the Venice Biennale, said that while art carries several messages including a very strong "political message" it provides "a massive business opportunity" too that needs to be tapped.

The grandpa of all these events is of course the Venice Biennale, founded in 1895. Fondly known as the "Olympics" of art, it is also the most prestigious.

This first Karachi Biennale may have taken only baby steps, but it is a big deal for the Pakistan artist community, who may see their work at the next Venice Biennale, in 2019.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.