ArtNow: The relationship between curator and artist is a unique personal and professional one. What drew you to selecting Naiza Khan to be a solo artist for the exhibition?
Zahra Khan: I thought carefully about how best to present the first Pavilion of Pakistan at the Venice Art Biennale. The goal was to create a conversation between Pakistan and Venice and to create an experience for the viewer, where they felt immersed within a space. I wanted to present a project which resonated with audiences in Venice – which was set in Pakistan and dealt with local issues and conversations but was simultaneously global in its outreach and current in its relevance. The Venice Art Biennale is such a prestigious and weighty platform that it was important that the pavilion be a solo exhibition, where an artist can really take ownership of the pavilion and create a stellar presentation.
I have followed Naiza Khan’s work for many years now, my dissertation for my master’s degree at SOAS focussed upon her body of work on Manora Island. I admire the manner in which she works – her art practice is critical and thoughtfully unpacks the cultural and historical nuances of Manora Island, a tiny peninsula off the coast of Karachi, with a dynamic multi-cultural and multi-religious social and historical foundation. It is based upon layers of research, archival materials, and a process of immersion. The art is grounded within contemporary frameworks and conversations, moving easily across mediums. It was also important to me that Naiza was a female artist, I wanted Pakistan’s first pavilion to have the benefit of a strong, critically aware female voice at its helm.
AN: Can you tell us more about the interesting parallels between Karachi and Venice?
ZK: While considering the dialogue between Pakistan and Venice, the parallels between Karachi and Venice stood out. One of the most immediate and important similarities is the presence of water which surrounds Venice and is also an important characteristic of Karachi. Both are port cities within historic transnational trade routes and have had to negotiate modernity and industrialisation. They have strong enduring maritime associations. Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city, and it continues to be Pakistan’s most significant port. Venice is an extremely popular tourist destination and the Arsenale, where the Biennale takes place, is still a major shipyard. Climate change and rapidly transforming ecologies are leading both cities to rethink some of their local policies.
AN: What motivated you to present and showcase contemporary art from Pakistan, both within the country and internationally?
ZK: I have worked as a curator in Pakistan’s art scene for several years, through Satrang Gallery and Foundation Art Divvy. I find art from Pakistan to be more vibrant and cutting edge than a lot of contemporary art I have come across during my years working at galleries in New York and in London. To continue to grow and evolve artists need to be supported by strong local and international platforms. Pakistan’s recent local biennials and museums, which cater to non-commercial, large-scale public art exhibitions, are extremely important, as are local art foundations. With that in mind, in 2017, my mother Asma Khan and I set up Foundation Art Divvy, which is focussed upon bringing Pakistani contemporary art into the public arena and creating a greater understanding of contemporary art.
When I visited the last Venice Art Biennale, I was disappointed that Pakistan was not represented at Venice. I decided to take Foundation Art Divvy a step further beyond the work I was doing to highlight art from Pakistan and I began working towards presenting Pakistan at the most prestigious art event on the world stage, the Venice Art Biennale.
AN: The exhibition provides viewers with a unique lens into Pakistan through Naiza’s works. Having curated the exhibition, what key things would you like viewers to take away from it?
ZK: The exhibition presents a new body of work specifically created for this pavilion at Venice, which create a conversation between the landscape of Venice and that of Pakistan. The first installation, Hundreds of Birds Killed, 2019, was primarily inspired by an archival document from 1939 listing extreme weather conditions in British India. The display creates an environment where viewers can immerse themselves within the region, as they are guided by a disembodied narration and interact with the maps of eleven cities spread across three nations in today’s contemporary world. The inclusion of a physical telescope in the courtyard, Doorbeen (Telescope), 2019 encourages viewers to explore the pavilion through the lens of the artist, almost as if they are being led through by her. Sticky Rice and Other Stories, 2019 the four-channel film projection presents some of the very real concerns regarding contemporary trade, migration and transforming labour conditions in a nation navigating its way through a changing contemporary culture, lasting colonial influences and shifting regional power balances and infrastructures.
Manora Field Notes is not trying to represent all of Pakistan’s diverse and vibrant art scene. It is presenting a particular, unique view into Pakistan, as a diving off point from which audiences can gain an understanding of the larger region. It is geared towards breaking down barriers of separation by engaging viewers in conversation and highlighting the viewpoint of the artist as a medium through which they can delve deeper into social, political, ecological and post-colonial concerns.
AN: In what new context is the work at the Pakistani Pavilion seen at the Venice Biennale?
ZK: Naiza Khan first began creating art about Manora Island twelve years ago, when she began slowly documenting a transforming islandscape, through the lenses of ecology, architecture, migration and memory. These are transformations which are not unique to Pakistan’s coastline, and are challenges that are faced by other international localities. The works in this presentation are a continuation of her research and investigation into Manora Island and Karachi’s coastline. They are expansive in terms of outlook and consider challenges being faced by the region as a whole.
The exhibition in Venice showcasing this new body of work, which is interested in specific concerns with regional and global impact, to an entirely new audience, and in the context of presented within a national pavilion set within a forum which celebrates global art, but also openly discusses and queries political, social and historical challenges being faced by nation states.
AN: In your opinion how does the work communicate with viewers and in how many diverse languages?
ZK: The pavilion is communicating ideas that are local in nature but have a global outreach. By drawing the viewer into Manora Island and immersing them within the pavilion, the exhibition provides the viewer a platform from which to consider issues which are common across the global south. One of the strengths of the pavilion is that it communicates these ideas via multiple mediums – sculpture, audio, video and works on paper. An important consideration during the conception of this presentation was to create conversations between the artworks and the viewers. The pavilion is designed to engage the viewer and encourage them to reflect upon and absorb the information, the images, and the audio being presented to them. The work speaks to viewers on multiple levels, both as aesthetically pleasing, the beautifully crafted brass sculptures, and exquisite ocean scenes in the films, but also as conceptually sound, critically analysing layers of meaning and depiction. We have had viewers emotionally moved, and have received many comments regarding the familiarity of ocean scenes and images of the beach.