Two major art and culture events took place in Karachi in February, Sindh Festival and Karachi Literate Festival, and ArtNow had the pleasure of participating in both. Sindh Festival was positioned as a celebration and showcase of the indigenous culture of this region, as a bulwark against the rising tide of extrememism and religiosity flowing in from the Arab world. As part of the many activities planned for the festival, which included a sound-and-light spectacle amidst the ruins of one of the oldest civilisations in the world, fashion shows and donkey races, Frere Hall was transformed from an unused building to an art gallery displaying works from Pakistan’s modern masters and contemporary artists. Art Fest at Frere Hall featured installations, video art, paintings, and scultupures both outside on the Frere Hall lawns and inside the building itself.
For the first time in years, a public space that is open to all was used as an exhibition space for art, and the response, seen in the number of visitors and school field trips, was overwhelmingly positivie. Canvas Gallery and Vasl Artists Collective, who organized the exhibition must be given their due for transforming the dusty, junk-filled space inside into a modern, clean art gallery and for their vision of making contemporary art accessible to all, most especially those who are not regular gallery-goers.
ArtNow supported Art Fest by organizing two talks, one by Marjorie Husain, the well-known art writer, and one by Quddus Mirza, our Lahore-based editor and National College of Arts professor. Marjorie led the audience around the gallery, relating anecdotes from the lives of the artists whose works were on display, most of whom were friends or acquaintances of hers, such as Ahmed Pervez, Shemza, Jamil Naqsh, and Gulgee. Quddus Mirza spoke about the art created in Karachi, explaining that there were themes and motifs specific to it that were not found in art created in Pakistan’s other cities or regions.
The following week, ArtNow organized two gallery treks which began at the Frere Hall exhibit, moved to Canvas Gallery and made a last stop at Mahatma Palace Museum. At each location, the artists or curators were present to provide an insightful and informative overview of the work to the gallery trek audience. At the last stop, the audience had the pleasure of being guided by Rashid Rana, whose magnificent exhibition, Labyrinth of Reflections, closed a few days later. ArtNow also organised a morning of children’s activities at Frere Hall, with artist and teacher Adeel uz Zafar leading kids and parents on a tour of the exhibits and then conducting an art class on the lawn outside.
Frere Hall is an important historical monument of the Raj era, lying ignored like most of Pakistan’s pre-Islamic Republic history. The massive ceiling inside is decorated with an unfinished, decaying mural by Sadeqain, which has been damaged by years of rainwater leakage and neglect. Perhaps the attention that has been centreed on the building recently will persuade the SIndh government to actually make moves to protect the culture they are fond of extolling – unless, of course, that culture extends only as far as cattle races and charity trunk shows.
Karachi Literature Festival, now in its fifth edition, is an anticipated event in the city’s cultural calendar. This year saw the first ever dedicated Art Section, organized by ArtNow, at KLF. Featuring daily talks, an art exhibition, a photo exhibition, a book launch and an art book reading corner, the Art Section struck a chord with attendees, who welcomed the initiative.
The first day of opened with a talk by Jalal Uddin Ahmed, editor of ‘Arts & the Islamic World’, the wide-ranging arts journal that covered historical and contemporary art from across the Muslim world. We were told ‘there is no such thing as the art of the Islamic world, but 18 years and 36 issues later, I think it was not a bad idea.” Novelist H.M. Naqvi, award-winning author of Home Boy moderated a lively panel discussion on “The Art of Writing on Art” with Marjorie Husain, Quddus Mirza and Zarmeene Shah, who spoke about the role of the critic in understanding and interpreting art.
On the second day of KLF, according to Dawn , “Painters and art lovers, among others, gathered for the highly intriguing session, ‘Arts and the Politics of Our Times,’ well before the scheduled time. The place was buzzing with excitement, but more significantly, anticipation.” Featuring Durriya Kazi of the Department of Visual Studies, University of Karachi, Gemma Sharpe of Vasl Artists’ Collective, Muhammad Zeeshan of Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, and moderated by Quddus Mirza, the discussion was a good-natured but spirited argument over, amongst other things, the tropes and symbols that stereotype art from this region and how that can be circumvented.
Following in the afternoon was “Challenges Faced by Art Galleries” with Zohra Hussain of Chawkandi Art, Sameera Raja of Canvas Gallery, and Quddus Mirza, and was moderated by Nighat Mir. One of the pioneer gallerists in Pakistan, Mrs. Hussain opened Chawkandi as one of the first art galleries in Karachi almost 30 years ago. Ms. Raja of Canvas Gallery is pioneer as well, showing leading contemporary artists and bringing art to the public, as she did with Art Fest at Frere Hall.
On Sunday, the third day of KLF, Paul Collard of Creativity, Culture and Education, a UK-based charity, spoke about ‘Creative Partnerships’, an educational programme being piloted here as an international collaboration between Pakistan and the UK, with artists and creative practitioners working in Karachi-based schools.
In the afternoon, artist Naiza Khan spoke about her art with novelist Kamila Shamsie, discussing amongst other topics the changing themes and concerns of her work over the years, her engagement with the space and history of the city and of Manora Island and the work that resulted from her exploration of these places. The talk was followed by the launch of her monograph and a book signing.
The exhibitions at KLF, curated by Adeela Suleman, artist and Associate Professor and Head of the Fine Art Department at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, also engaged with the city of Karachi. The photography exhibition, “24°51’N 67°02’E”, featuring works by Naila Mahmood and Sohail Zuberi as well as archives related to Karachi from the collections of The Citizens Archive Project and Vasl Artists’ Collective.
The art exhibition, with works produced by fine art students in their final thesis projects will questioned how the persistent turbulent political situation of Karachi over the last decade affected the mindset of art students, how their experience with the city transforms into art works and the psyche of the city affects the art.