Qudsia Rahim is the Executive Director of the Lahore Biennale Foundation and is one of the driving forces behind this pioneering initiative in Pakistan. She also served as curator for its public projects for LB01, which was a resounding success and instigated a pertinent dialogue with the ancient city. With a BFA from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore and an MFA from Alfred University, New York with a major in Glass Sculpture, she has since been working in art academia, first at Alfred University, New York and later as an Associate Professor at the NCA, as well as serving as curator of its Zahoor Ul Akhlaque Gallery. She has independently conducted noteworthy research driven exhibitions that offered important original insights including Stet, a contemporary art exhibition at the Lahore Literary Festival 2014.
In the run up to LB02 set to take place later this month, Rahim graciously spares a few moments from her busy day to answer a few questions about the upcoming event and provide insight into its themes, programming, goals and much more.
1. What are the themes and projects that we can look forward to for the second Lahore Biennale?
The second edition of the Lahore Biennale (LB02) brings a plethora of artistic projects to cultural and heritage sites throughout the city of Lahore, including 20 new commissions from across the region and around the world. It features over 70 artists including Alia Farid, Diana Al-Hadid, Hassan Hajjaj, Haroon Mirza, Hajra Waheed, Anwar Saeed, Rasheed Araeen, the late Madiha Aijaz and many others. The biennale’s title, between the sun and the moon, reflects a concern with cosmology, the relationship between humans and the environment, and questions of identity and difference between and among people and other living beings.
2. How do you think the Lahore biennale fits into, caters to, responds to and/or is informed by the global and regional contemporary art context?
It is important in the Pakistani context for us to continue to develop greater awareness of our region and to be more aware of global frameworks. And we are very interested for the international art world to become more engaged with developments in Pakistan. The first Lahore Biennale in 2018 looked at our region primarily in the South Asian context. For this edition of the biennale we are interested in engaging with West Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
Several new commissions for LB02 deal distinctly with the history and/or geography of our region.
An immersive multimedia installation and performative experience by Almagul Menlibayeva is inspired by Timirud ruler and astronomer Sultan Ulugh Beg (1394 – 1449). This work combines explorations of the astronomer’s works in astronomy, mathematics, arts and Islamic metaphysics that are further brought to life through site-specific performances by sound artist German Popov and painter Inna Artemova.
A film by Alia Farid explores humanity’s multidimensional relationship with animals and their environment. Shot in the fertile alluvial plains of the Indus river and its tributaries in the province of Punjab, this work considers the effect of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, whilst examining the evolving relationship of locals with waterways.
The Pak Khawateen Painting Club (translated into “Pure Pakistani Women’s Painting Club”) studies traditional and modern distribution of water for irrigation and urban purposes, and policies of colonial and post-colonial hydrology.
Imran Ahmad Khan looks to the ancient civilization of Harappa to bring old knowledges to surface, while engaging with the present moment.
3. What are some of the things you learnt from the first biennale which have helped you with this one, mistakes to avoid or things you would do again?
Biennales are new to Pakistan, and we hope to learn from each iteration. Our goal is not only to put together a temporary show but to create a nurturing environment and infrastructure that will contribute to the flourishing of the arts in general in Pakistan. All our programs are free and open to the public, which is a core value that informs all our projects. We hope to work more prolifically, and would like to do more for the emerging artists during the next several years.
4. Is there a fear of not being able to top the last one, like a movie sequel that never lives up to the original? Or do you think there is no comparison between the two? How do you manage such heightened expectations?
Can I first say thank you for appreciating the last biennale. I work with a group of talented people who work hard to realise the various projects of the Foundation. As well we have a network of important advisors, for example art historian and artist Prof. Iftikhar Dadi, artist and publisher Ayesha Jatoi, architect Raza Ali Dada, and others who have always supported us, including the artist community at large. In this way, various synergies come together for us to do our best. Our working together is also part of our learning process.
Each Biennale reflects a particular moment with its own opportunities and constraints. You could compare them, but it is also more interesting to view each one within the context of its imagining and realization.
5. How was the experience of moving from having a “de-centered” curatorial model with collaborations between various individuals, to working with a professional curator with prior biennale experience? How much were you still involved in the curatorial process?
It has been a great working experience. Hoor Al Qasimi is a true professional and is very precise in her thinking. She knows the region very well and is aware of the limitations and concerns working in this region and has been able to work with our on-ground conditions and concerns. As Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, she has worked with artists from Pakistan over the years, and has in fact supported the early careers of several major Pakistani artists early on. It has been incredibly enriching to work with her on LB02.
6. The venues for LB01 captured the spirit of the city quite successfully, taking you through old Lahore and its historic architecture as well as its natural beauty with Lawrence Gardens. Can we expect a similar conversation with the city, its public spaces and its inhabitants with this iteration?
From the beginning, the mandate of the Lahore Biennale Foundation has been to bring art to public spaces, and to build artistic communities. Of course each edition of the biennale aims to engage with more of the city, its heritage sites as well as its lesser-known markers, its diverse publics, and to create bridges between the local and the global. With Lahore Biennale 02 you can also expect to see engagement with a number of sites, institutions we have not previously engaged with. In this sense Lahore itself may be considered a site at large.
7. What aspects of the local context do you aim to highlight/address/critique through this iteration?
As I mentioned, this edition of the Lahore Biennale takes a keen interest in ecology and cosmology. Among the many projects that will feature, you can expect to see works that engage with the rich history of these phenomena in Lahore as a city. Punjab as a region, and indeed the wider frame of Lahore’s interaction and interconnection with its environs, and other parts of the world. Asia and the larger Muslim world feature particularly prominently, but there is also an attempt to forge dialogue with artist’s projects from Africa and Latin America. This embrace of plurality, diversity, and openness (particularly among regions of the Global South) could hopefully present a way of thinking and making that forges solidarity and generosity.
8. What were some of the invaluable local and international collaborations or supporters that make this biennale possible?
Lahore Biennale LB02 has strong support of the Government of Punjab and its various departments, especially including the Commissioner’s Office, Lahore. Our institutional partners include the National College of Arts, Punjab University, Lahore Museum, Walled City Authority, Aga Khan Foundation, Alhamra Cultural Complex, PILAC, Naqsh School of the Arts and the Goethe Institut, Pakistan. We have received support from the Barjeel Art Foundation (UAE), the Turkish Foundation SAHA and the South Asia Institute.
Lahore Biennale Foundation’s Founding Patrons include: Syed Babar Ali Foundation, Nayyar Ali Dada and Associates and Ferozsons Laboratories Ltd. Habib Bank Limited has been our lead partner since inception and AkzoNobel has also been our supporter from the beginning. We have several new supporters this time around including Servis Foundation and Agha Steel Industries.
9. What are some of the highlights from the collateral program, accompanying workshops and discursive program?
Keeping in line with our mandate of supporting arts as well as emerging scholarship in the region, in 2018 we initiated The Research Unit. The Research Unit is a platform for investigative learning, focusing on modern and contemporary art, visual culture and its social dimensions in Pakistan and its diasporas. It is committed to supporting creative art practices, promoting a diverse cultural ecology, and encouraging interdisciplinary approaches and outcomes. In its first cycle the initiative granted four awards to promote research into the visual and art culture of Pakistan. In the same vein the Lahore Biennale 02 will have a comprehensive program of Academic Forum talks, and a curated program of film screenings. We will have a robust program for youth with programming dedicated to youth.
Select collateral programs include: A Rich Tapestry curated by Jonathan Watkins and Aisha Khalid at Aisha Khalid Studio Gardens; Every Colour Is A Shade Of Black, opening of Hamra Abbas’ exhibition curated by Seher Tareen at Como Art Museum; Aaj Mein Kal: Feminist Excavations by Women’s Action Forum that will showcase the women’s movement and highlight artists, singers, theatre practitioners and poets from the 80s and 90s.
10. Recently it seems like no large scale art event is free of its own set of controversies which might at times be unavoidable and difficult to control when dealing with something as volatile as the city and its public. Is that a concern for you, and if such circumstances do arise, how do you plan to respond and manage it?
I believe that art is beyond politics, it is universal and has the ability to cut across limitations, and to travel across boundaries. We see art as a force that unites rather than antagonizes. Artists have much to contribute towards society. The curator frames these practices within an academic and exhibition context. As a Foundation we help realize their ideas towards tangible outcomes, which are intended for the public.