Curating for the Public: An Interview with Muhammad Zeeshan, Curator KB19


Curating for the Public: An Interview with Muhammad Zeeshan, Curator KB19

  A biennial – or biennale in Italian – is a large-scale biannual art event that often involves international artists and varying social and c

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Muhammad Zeeshan


A biennial – or biennale in Italian – is a large-scale biannual art event that often involves international artists and varying social and contemporary themes of art.
Successor to KB17 of two years ago, Karachi Biennale 2019 is an upcoming contemporary art event, that brings Pakistani art to the forefront by engaging with local and international audiences. Organized by the Karachi Biennale Trust, KB19 invites artists to respond to its thematic focus Flight Interrupted: Eco-Leaks from the Invasion Desk that concerns with Karachi’s pacing landscape, ecology, and environment. KB19 has presented discursive roundtable talks on social issues, conducted workshops on sustainable art, and various educational programs in Karachi. The biennale will culminate with art exhibitions, opening October 26 at various locations in Karachi.
I recently sat down with Curator KB19, Muhammad Zeeshan, to hear his thoughts and perspective on Karachi Biennale 2019.


1. Flight Interrupted: Eco-Leaks from the Invasion Desk: How do you imagine connecting your curatorial experience with Karachi Biennale 2019’s theme?

When beginning this journey as Curator, I conducted research on Karachi by speaking to experts who have been working on Karachi. I met veteran historians, architects, urban planners, social workers; people whose knowledge and experience are a real asset and I decided that I wanted to speak to them about the city. Culturally, Karachi is so diverse, in terms of the languages spoken, cuisines, and arts, everything! I wanted to converse with her people, about what holds us all together in a common thread. This led to the idea of spreading the message of Ecology within the city and her people.


2. Pakistan’s seventy-two-year-old art history is multi-faceted: It has been shaped by modernists such as Zubeida Agha and Shakir, traditionalists such as miniature painters, and contemporary artists including yourself in various ways. What sort of artistic creativity and media do you expect KB19 to generate?


Not just artists but for KB19 I have also invited architects and gardeners and engineers and sound technicians, theatre performers, and story tellers to participate. KB19 will not just be received by artists but by everyone, thus my vision has been to include people from varying disciplines and from the public, so that their different voices and messages will help our universal message spread faster and more effectively. These different voices will come together and will resonate with viewers differently, with some voices appealing more, or less, to people, depending on their own leanings.


3. KB19’s theme Flight Interrupted: Eco-Leaks from the Invasion Desk sheds a light on “sustainability” in art. One aspect of this theme stimulates a conversation about the effects of urbanization such as high concrete towers that are wiping out low-flying birds. A topic of this scope is well understood by the local artists. How do you visualize participating international artists responding to this year’s theme?


Let me answer your question in two stages. In my opinion, sustainability in art is to consider the harrowing breaking of a natural cycle, from an intervention that is foreign or imposed. This visual metaphor you mention of concrete towers is one interpretation or response to this reality, but this lends itself to so many different aspects and responses and visual interpretations.


When the environment is the basis of discussion, the concerns surrounding it are not confined to one area, a specific region or specific people even. Everyone has a relationship with the environment and in their own capacity, they are affected by it. From all points on the earth, you see the sun and the moon. One particular area cannot claim ownership over it. The environment is changing everywhere in the world, this change is not specific to Karachi.
KB19’s theme has a universal appeal because everyone has a relationship with it; it resonates strongly with both Pakistani and International artists as filtered through their individual experience.
Despite the nature of this topic, some international artists wanted to work specifically with the environment of Karachi, and for them my team, Assistant Curators Noor Ahmed, Rabia Ali and I provided curated research to each of them.


4. With regards to your artistic and curatorial practice, how important do you think it is for Karachi to continue having biennials and events of contemporary art like these that focus on the city’s ecology, social history, and sustainable art practice?
Any genre of art is the most effective way to communicate with the public. As an artist or a curator, I believe we have very modest institutional galleries and spaces to discuss environmental themes. Events such as biennials are a great way to engage the public and communicate with the public on a larger scale.
Ecology or these specific art practices are not restricted to Karachi and its inhabitants, everyone has an ownership of them. Thus, a public event like this forms a great basis to discuss these issues.


5. The theme for the first Karachi Biennale, held in 2017 was “Witness’. Do you think that this last theme can connect or inform this year’s thematic focus?
*Laughs* This event, because it is 2 years later, is what will make it a Biennale! Otherwise this event on a later date could be so many things but never a Biennale.
KB19 will galvanize the city like KB17 did before!
Amin Gulgee had a great vision for KB17 and him and his team’s efforts were very important. More than a theme, the biggest connection I feel is that people in the city are waiting to see what we’re going to do in Karachi, because they remember the events of 2 years ago.


6. As Curator KB19, what aspects of the program are you most excited about?
With KB19 we are not just inviting the public to come and see, instead we are going to the public, to where the public already is. This is the focus of this Biennale, to create a bridge between art and the public. My mandate is that instead of inviting the public into the gallery space, I am taking art to the public, to areas that the public already goes to and uses.


7. KB19 has an interesting mix of artists. What criteria do you utilize to select local and international artists? Are the criteria the same for both groups?
My main aim was to personally visit as many artists in their studios as much as possible, and really familiarize myself with their art practice and not just one artwork. Then, I shared my Thematic Note with them and invited them to participate. I was also interested in artists who could work outside of the white cube, in the public. I am very excited about the artwork and I support the artists who have given their time to participate in KB19. I invite everyone to come and look at this effort. Our opening is on 26th October.


8. What factors did the curatorial team consider when deciding the sites for art installations in KB19?
As discussed, reaching out to the public is a very important factor to me. Due to this reason, we chose accessible public spaces with heavy footfall. Two of our locations this year are the massive Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim and the historic Karachi Zoological Gardens. By taking art to the public, it becomes a part of the lives that people are already living.
The nature of some artwork is such that it requires an indoor space, so for this reason I have chosen historic places like Frere Hall, institutional galleries and Universities to involve students, including VM art Gallery, Alliance Francais Gallery, IVS Gallery and the Exhibition Hall at NED City Campus. .


9. Globally and locally, there is much discussion on the consistent exclusion or limited inclusion of female artists in art exhibitions, including biennials. How has KB 19 addressed that? Are there any barriers to inclusion of female artists? If so, what are they, and how can they be removed?
Your question has reminded me of something that I had the privilege of hearing Abdul Sattar Edhi say. Someone questioned him about his religious zeal, to which he responded that he was a devout Muslim. He went on to say that as devout as he was, his focus was even greater towards humanity, because he was a human first, even before he was a Muslim.
I am a very big feminist, but as big of a feminist as I am, I am an artist and curator first and foremost. As far as I am concerned, the artwork comes first.


10. Two years ago, KB 17 successfully generated an intellectual discourse via its main exhibitions, including probing initiatives such as Discursive Roundtable talks, Orangi Pilot Project, and installations of art works such as cable reel for the public. However, it also raised criticism that the “aam awaam” did not have the capacity to comprehend the works of art or navigate KB’s sites. How has your team responded to that in this year’s projects?
As discussed earlier, I am looking at the public and my curation is in relation to this nuanced audience. I have planned it in such a way that projects will be a part of the daily lives of people and will be running alongside them, so regardless of whether they view it as art or not, art is still happening to them.
As Curator KB19, I look after the Curatorial along with my team, but there are dedicated teams of individuals who look after the Educational Programs, and Discursive sessions whose commendable efforts I am sure you and the audience are following.


KB19 opens Oct 26 in Karachi and continues till Nov 12, 2019.