Alliance Francaise de Karachi: A Convergence of Cultures


Alliance Francaise de Karachi: A Convergence of Cultures

  The cultural landscape of Karachi is sparse at best, and only recently has seen the emergence of various spaces for activities that promote

Letter from the Guest Editor


The cultural landscape of Karachi is sparse at best, and only recently has seen the emergence of various spaces for activities that promote cultural celebration and advocate free speech by providing a sacef space for cultural congregation. Alliance Francaise de Karachi is one of the few such spaces that have been around for decades, a valuable asset that maintains a sense of community, knowledge sharing, and creative expression.


Alliance Francaise is a French cultural center dedicated to the promotion of the French language with the wider goal of encouraging cultural exchange. Founded in 1954, Alliahnce Francaise de Karachi operates as a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization affiliated with the international organization Alliance Francaise, a unique network founded in Paris in 1883 by Paul Cambon and Pierre Foncin, now maintaining a global presence with over 834 centers in 132 countries.


Designed by architect Habib Fida Ali in the 1980s, it is a beautiful open space with gardens and a courtyard, an ideal location for countless cultural events and festivals, providing a safe, peaceful haven away from the bustle of Clifton and Teen Talwar nearby. With a library, bookstore, art gallery and café within its premises, and its various workshops, courses, performances, plays, art exhibitions, qawwali nights, musical concerts, movie nights, talks and panels discussions, and other forms of cultural activities, it has become a melting pot for diverse communities of artists, travelers, thinkers, students, researchers and all-around creative types. It is also once again a venue of the Karachi Biennale in its second iteration, currently on display till the 12th of November.


The art gallery at the Alliance Francaise is an especially interesting space, holding important events and exhibitions over the years. The large space divided into two areas offers interesting possibilities as a display space as well as for events, talks and presentations. The gallery was refurbished in 2016 and renamed Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Art Gallery. The Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation (MJSF) is a non profit organization that supports various philanthropic endeavors in the country, with a primary focus on healthcare, education, sustainable development through social enterprise and humanitarian relief. The foundation support various artistic and cultural activities and is one of the major supporters of the Karachi Biennale, of which the gallery was a venue in both its iterations.


The thematic for the current biennale is concerns surrounding ecology, specifically the dwindling population of migratory birds as a direct and indirect result of uncontrolled urban development. The works and projects on display explore the reverberations of this expansion felt with the social, cultural, ecological and economic dimensions of this crisis of humanity. From the devastation of the mangrove forests on our coast, to the pollution of our sea shore, the growing mounds of garbage to the increasingly unbreathable air, there is an endless array of conversations to be had on the topic, at the top of which is perhaps the depreciation of the value of human life itself. 98 artists from 16 countries have come together to respond to this curatorial premise, spread across 7 venues, one of which is the Art Gallery at Alliance Francaise, boasting a few of the biggest names and most exciting works to be seen at KB19.


The artists displaying their works at the Alliance Francaise include Alice Kettle, Ali Kazim, Waseem Ahmed, Kiran Saleem, Sana Arjumand, Abdullah M.I. Syed, Sadaf Naeem, Meher Afroz and Wolfgang Spahn. A few of the works that stand out incorporated an intriguing use of medium and scale to approach the thematic from a unique trajectory. Ali Kazim’s “The Conference of the Birds” is a large scale drawing spanning 5 sheets accompanied by a beautiful sound piece. The title and the work itself both refer to 12th-century Persian allegory by Farid ud-Din Attar and features the various species of birds mentioned in the poem taking flight, rendered in exquisite detail in monochrome watercolor pigment. The muted execution adds to the poetic nature of the work and in a way draws connections between our current human condition and the birds’ perilous quest to search for a mythical leader, the “simurgh” and eventual realization that they all are simurgh, carrying the sovereign and the beloved within them all along.


Alice Kettle’s larger than life colorful quilt featuring patched images of various forms of trees spreads across an entire wall. This new “Forest” brings together the works of local women who have all contributed their embroideries to this large wall hanging, all of whom have been named and credited for their hard work. The work acknowledges the human aspect of the social, economic and cultural landscape of the region and unites these various forms and hues of indigenous practices onto one harmonious plain, creating a sense of community. Waseem Ahmed’s paintings on ceramic create an interesting multi-leveled mosaic on the floor, placed on the terrace outside the gallery under the open sky. Titled “A Single Drop of Water” with hues of sea greens and blues with blotches of red, executed over fragmented ceramic talks about the fragility of this scarce resource and the narratives of violence it gives birth to. Wolfgang Sphan’s interactive installation incorporates technology and sound in an interesting way, converting the heat energy of the body into sound waves through synthesizers designed by the artist himself, allowing the audience to listen to the sounds of their own bodies, and those of others seated next to them, sitting in a circle and together creating their own private concert.


The works at the Alliance seem to respond to the cultural and communal essence of the space and speak about the human element of ecological discourse and the importance of the individual in building a culture and a community. From M.I Syed’s letter from his mother, to Sphan creating deep human connections on a sensory level, to Kettle bringing people together in the culture of making, to Kazim urging us to look within and realize our worth  and capacity to direct our own destiny, the works celebrate the very essence of being human and to exist within something larger than oneself, to belong to a cultural whole.