In a conversation with Niilofur Farrukh, the CEO, Managing Trustee and Chair of the Discursive Committee for the Karachi Biennale 2017 (KB17). She lends an insight into the backstage activities and more importantly, the philosophy behind having a contemporary art event as expansive as KB17, in Karachi.
Veera Rustomji (VR): Let’s begin by understanding when and how the idea of the Karachi Biennale came about; talk us through the gradual stages of how this initiative come into the form that it is today.
Niilofur Farrukh (NF): (laughs) I’m going to have to trek back into time when I was around 25 years old as I recall there was always a brewing conversation in the art circle of having a large gathering of national and international artists in Karachi to showcase work and collaborate across borders. There might not have been a large exposure to international art, but the local scene was burgeoning and innovative. For example, the Karachi Arts’ Council’s doors were open to people from all walks of life and the institution would hold major exhibitions by Sadequain, Bashir Mirza, Gulgee and Shahid Sajjad. This was in the 1970s and back then, we didn’t have to face the current hurdles of security and censorship with showing artwork to the masses. There was no barrier in the exhibition space between the man on the street who wanted to see art for the first time and take ownership of the culture and then the people who wanted to see art in order to take it further into discussions and careers. There were discussions in the 70s for a forum such as a biennale but the whole idea of a ‘biennale’ had not matured as yet. While there was a biennale hosted in the late 1980s by the PNCA, we didn’t have anything on that scale after it ended… Then there was a large hiatus afterwards in the local art scene.
Meanwhile, biennales were and are predominantly founded in Europe and it proliferated to America and South America. Naturally given the growth of artists in our country and the expansion of galleries and institutions, many people thought, ‘Why can’t we have a biennale in Karachi or Lahore?’ Over the last 10 years several groups had approached me to become a part of this desire to see a biennale of Karachi but none of them took off because now, while I sit here after all this work our team has accomplished, it’s truly a herculean task. The system and the infrastructure that one needs to have for a biennale in terms of expertise, space and financial support, is just not ready in Karachi. In developing countries people will always validate that the Corporate Social Responsibility money should be allocated towards health and education, which is fair enough, but then again one must realize that art is a way of building knowledge. Art is about learning about the unknown and it’s about creating an informed vibrant society, who participates and engages.
When one travels on vacations, you will inevitably visit museums and festivals because that’s where you collectively celebrate and discuss. That’s the kind of platform Karachi needs- a Karachi that has been extremely fragmented over the years! And so, the vision came together around a city that has become so polarized. We have been looking at how art can play a role in creating a collective experience which has become pivotal in our decision making. The biennale team had also begun to think of other biennale models present across the globe; I’ve seen so many biennales and somehow the biennales in smaller countries have a more grounded ethos. The respond to issues as the artists, curators and critics can then stretch the idea as to how and what they want to achieve through art.
VR: Having interacted with artists such as Ali Imam and Sadequain who are regarded as iconic individuals in Pakistan’s art history, what do you think their reaction would be to this biennale and what would their role have been?
NF: Of course if the modernists didn’t exist in Pakistan, there wouldn’t have been any mentors to a large number of people. I think if they were here, they would love to participate and would have contributed tremendously. The contemporary art practice doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in a part of continuity of the practices in a country. We did think about having a modernist show at the VM Art Gallery which would have been a retrospective show, but it could not be put together as it’s difficult to borrow works and it’s a big risk. We may still pull this through later on!
VR: Having selected around 170 participating artists for KB17, in what ways do you think that the artists of today are different from the generation of the modernists?
NF: They are very different – even as human beings. Actually for the Karachi biennale we’re not looking for a particular kind of stereotype artist. Anyone who responds to the theme, ‘WITNESS’ has a place in this biennale. Of course we can only have so many people and Amin Gulgee, the chief curator for the biennale has conceptualized the whole theme. I do see now, that a lot of young people are a part of KB17 who haven’t had a lot of shows or made big waves. It’s important for the biennale to give them this opportunity at 2 levels: it’s a very different exposure as compared to galleries… the biennale takes part in more inclusive environments of the city –
VR: Like 63 Commissariat, Karachi School of Art and the Rangoonwala Community Centre.
NF: Yes. It becomes a larger process when you include diverse locations. The first time I experienced the true reaction by the public to art was in a show we put together in the late 1990s called, ‘Mati ki Sargoshi’ which was a show at Frere Hall as part of ASNA with pots from all over the country. The men who sell refreshments at Frere Hall would come up into the gallery and point at the matkaas (pots) which were from their villages. So I do feel there’s a tremendous gap in between the artists and the mass public– public art can be done in a very protected environment and usually in Karachi we opt for that option. In KB17 are making ourselves very vulnerable by going out there in the streets because one has to be very prepared to defend what you are doing. The artists who are participating are really mindful of this. Secondly, the biennale offers the participating young local artists an international route that the biennale presents with the range of artists and curators coming to the city. Amin’s idea of performance is very important in KB17 which has allowed us include a trajectory of artists who are experimental and innovative as well.
VR: Speaking of International artists, as part of KB Discursive for KB17, there is a special section on South American art. That’s an unusual connection which Pakistani artists and writers haven’t really researched upon. Aside from South America, there’s a vast range of art practices from all over the world who will be participating in the biennale – how do you select these international artists and intellectuals?
NF: The KB17 team itself is extremely diverse in their approaches and ideas and to be honest, a biennale team should be very different from each other because that’s how you can harness different resources and multiple energies to reach out and create a wider circle of participating artists. The people who are here in Karachi are bringing their own visions and their practices to the biennale, and so, there’s a critical practice – which is where I focus on for KB Discursive. My own practice has been very much into examining the status quo and the established institutes who play a role in the growth of the art sphere but then they tend to handicap the system as well. These power structures are very entrenched and I thought for the biennale and KB Discursive it was important to question these systems. While I have studied a lot of South Asian and post-colonial studies who look at post-colonial practices, there are parallel dialogues in Latin America. Unfortunately, when Western writers analyse our work, whether it be South Asian or Latin American they have to package and slot artists. When I was touring Latin America as part of the International Artists’ Critics Association, I presented papers in conferences located in Paraguay and Brazil. The audience responded with a sense of understanding and could relate to the issues my paper discussed. It was called ‘Problematizing the Extremist Narrative’ where around 10 years ago in Pakistan, it was a prime time for extremism. When I looked at the Pakistani artists and their practices, I saw that they were the only ones who were really addressing the issue at core. Within these scenarios the artists were – and they still are – trying to deconstruct the times which we live in and this link made me think there is a possibility to reach out beyond South Asia and so my experience with my Latin American colleagues brought about an interest to create this discourse as their political regimes and turmoil is something we as Pakistani artists, writers and curators can associate ourselves with very easily.
VR: What are you looking forward to the most in KB17 programme? Are there any aspects of the programme which are particularly close to your heart?
NF: As a curator, it will be very exciting see the international and local practices side by side. I’ve never seen such a large chunk of Pakistani artists interacting with the work by international artists who have utilized such different mediums and concerns. It’s always been the case that the practices emerging out of the South have been looked at as a ‘derivative practice’…this whole idea that the ‘real concept’ emerges in the West somewhere and it’s somewhat adapted in the South. If you look at the work from the artists present in the biennale, their practices are very much anchored here and the issues and languages they use are central to their geographical location. I’m also really looking forward to see how the artists address the challenge of doing a convincing body of work – and the biennale will be able to make them realize this pitfall if they’re not successful as the vast amount and diversity of audiences present.
VR: As we look at the mapping of Karachi and its ever expansive nature and planning, it’s easy to say it’s a very difficult city to navigate around. How has the KB17 team taken this into consideration when selecting the locations for the biennale?
NF: The architecture, commercialization and residential spaces of Karachi have really come into play for the biennale. For over a 100 years, M.A. Jinnah has been the main artery of Karachi. You have the NJV School, Capri Cinema and Pioneer Book Shop. Jamshed Memorial and 63 Commissariat which are all locations extremely close by that are connected by this main artery. Leading up to these sites, you will come across Claremont House and Frere Hall. So there actually is a planned route in this chaotic mass of a city!
As post-colonial city, which was divided into elite locations and still is, Karachi has to be looked at socially and not just geographically. Hence I’m hoping that the viewers who will be navigating around this city will be more aware of the societal changes in geography around the city. While it’s incredibly romantic to sit in your own space at home and think about the vastness of your city, to get onto the roads and understand that city is really a different experience. A lot of people will have to un-learn some habits in order to interact physically and mentally with the public. The historical spaces in Karachi are going to be given immense visibility for KB17. And that’s how it should be – for instance, when we are traveling abroad we first get onto a train and then into a bus and walk for 45 minutes to get to our destination! It’s strange that we don’t apply this habit to our daily lives in Karachi and sometimes we just don’t understand the importance of our own city.
VR: Let’s talk about your team; what has the KB17 been collectively working towards?
NF: We have an incredible team – hats off to all of them. The strength of Pakistan is really its people and this desire to make it a better place. The artists have risen to the occasion and Amin has worked very hard engaging with the artists. We have thought extensively about the locations and every day leading up to the biennale, our KB17 team has been debating upon how people will get to NJV School which is the main site and the location for the inauguration. There’s no guarantee of security and there’s no guarantee of parking and it is a precarious guess that so many well-to do artists and art enthusiasts will travel to the NJV School. We have however, advertised the public bus routes and arranged our own buses to give that option to students and those travelling from abroad; we are pushing people to get out of their comfort zone and have an adventure! We’re really offering you the rough and the tumble of the city!
The KB17 team consists of individuals who all have regular 9-5 jobs but everyone has prioritized their time towards the biennale. We have also been incredibly grateful to all our supporting organizations and sponsors. I felt very strongly that for the biennale, we must continue to build links with the corporate sector because they have the resources and it would benefit all of us by making Karachi a dynamic space. In the long term, a lot of the corporate companies will have a cultural inclining and this would be more sustainable than putting all your effort into strategizing with the government.
VR: The participating individuals in the biennale reaches beyond the artists and the curators. With your educational programs, discursive events and community building how has your outreach program taken off as part of KB17?
NF: We’ve been working at many levels – we have created a community of partners who will bring visitors, religious groups, and educational groups to the sites. We anticipate around a 100 school children visiting from Monday to Thursday and for 2 years we’ve been conducting workshops at schools letting them know about the multiple forms of art which are present in the biennale and asking these young students to volunteer and be a part of the biennale. We’ve allocated the weekends for families with art activities. We have made an effort to get people together through the KB Discursive events through discussing literature, critical thinking and art practices around the globe.
VR: Finally, what do you hope to see emanating out from all this hard work once KB17 ends?
NF: I do think we will really start to see results after the third biennale – the first two are still going to be a form of us improving ourselves and understanding how to grow. I feel that for KB17, we have set out to create a larger audience for art and what we want to achieve is that more and more people should come towards art and culture. This event is really been designed as a pop up art museum really. There is a vibrancy and resilience which originates from art that may not provide answers and resolved ideas but it does create more viewership, more discussions and more inclusivity. We are hoping that we build and sustain the community of support and develop the Karachi Biennale through the years.
As part of KB17, the Prize Committee acknowledges the most evocative exhibits in KB17 by awarding two art prizes: the KB17 Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation Juried Art Prize and the KB17 Shahneela and Farhan Faruqui Popular Choice Art Prize.