In the midst of the global climatic catastrophe that is upon us, the Karachi Biennale 2019 brings together 98 artists from 16 countries including Pakistan to talk about the theme of ‘Ecology’. Terming itself as a “green biennale” this exhibit of multi-faceted and diverse artists aims to bring art out of private spaces and into the public sphere. The biennale spans over 7 sites in total and is up for viewing till the 12th of November 2019.
Among the sites chosen is the Frere Hall, which was also a site for the previous biennale in 2017. The site showcased multiple artists including Imran Qureshi, Adeela Suleman, Atif Khan and Rashid Rana. Qureshi’s massive installation titled ‘The garden within’ occupies the historic Sadequain Gallery and almost violently consumes the entire room. Crumpled sheets of printed paper cascade through the room depicting massive green foliage and simultaneously resemble the landscape of a landfill site. Interestingly moving forward one sees Rashid Rana’s video installation where he places himself in a composition similar to Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedric. Rana stands and stares out at what appears to be a “sea” which is actually a landfill site very close to Karachi. Rana is the winner of the juried prize K19, and his work comments on consumerism and the issue of plastic waste. The second part his installation is a photo montage that from a distance looks like a depiction of the sea again but when you look at it closely is made out of photographs of plastic waste. Both of Qureshi and Rana’s works have a sort of visual and narrative continuity for the viewer and have an overwhelmingly powerful presence in the room, perhaps enhanced by Sadequain’s iconic mural that hangs above.
Suleman’s work titled ‘The Killing fields of Karachi’ has undoubtedly struck up more conversation than any other work in the entire biennale. The work commemorated 444 victims of extrajudicial killings that had taken placed in Karachi over the past seven years. The work created a stir and authorities arrived to the site and demanded for the removal of the work within 2 hours of it opening to the public. Over the course of the next few days the work was demolished and removed from the premises of the Frere hall. The site is no longer open to public and none of the works open for viewing. Interestingly, the presence and impact of the work has perhaps become greater in its physical absence. The artist’s narrative echoes more loudly through the waves of protest, debate and emotion that has set ablaze the artist community. The questions of freedom of speech and freedom of expression in art have transcend far beyond solely Suleman’s work and really make all of us think about the future of public art in Pakistan.
Another KB19 site close to the Frere Hall is the The Nadirshaw Eduljee Dinshaw University of Engineering (NED), City Campus. This site displays works of seven different artists, each tackling the theme of Ecology in a unique way. Entering the space, the first work you see to the right is by US based artist Simeen Farhat who has created a jungle of plastic and Peacock feathers. Her title ‘Kya jungle mein mor naacha?’, a derivation of a popular Urdu phrase, urges the viewer about the future of nature and wildlife. With global warming and a change in weather patterns we see our forests and wildlife depleting rapidly. Her use of plastic to create a sculptural installation draws attention to the concurrent discourse on plastic waste and landfill sites, similar to Rana and Qureshi. Using plastic waste to make art is a form of recycling artists around the world are taking up. Another prevalent narrative of the times is the influx of technology and our relationship and dependence on devices and screens. UK based artist
James Alec Hardy talks about this among other things through his audio and video installation of screens resting in hammocks hanging from the ceiling. On the very end of the hall, you enter the space to view the video installation by Larissa Sansour and Soren Lind titled ‘In the future they ate from the finest porcelain’, this work is one of the most captivating works on this site. The artists use live motion and CGI to depict a fictional documentary with surreal yet poetic visuals. The voiceover, an interview of the protagonist and her therapist, forms a rather intimate connection between the work and the viewer. The overlap of conceptual and personal narrative not only absorbs the viewer deeper into the work but also opens up a space for them to draw their own individual meanings of the work.
Similarly, two other artists on site approach the theme of ecology in an unconventional and more personal way. Naima Dadabhoy and Omer Wasim both talk about situating themselves in the world. Dadabhoy conjures an image of the self through memories and objects of her childhood and family’s history. The installation, almost like a museum display, conveys a feeling of an archeological site – where the artist pieces together a narrative or an archive of something lost or forgotten – perhaps a memory? Wasim on the other hand connects with ecology by drawing parallels in the precarity that prevails in both queer and botanical lives. His work like Dadabhoy’s places the artist’s self at the very core of it. His unique body of work consists of video, photographic prints, drawings and installations.
Srilankan artist, Abdul Halik Aziz puts together a compelling piece titled “On this picture you can see a local man presenting his jumping skills”, that comments on the exoticization and consumerism of the country’s culture following the rapid growth in tourism. He talks about neo-orientalism and how for tourists from the rest of the world the country’s landscape, people and culture function merely as a background. Interestingly Aziz through his display of abundant Instagram screenshots, comments on instant photography as a recent art form. Interestingly, a hand written not on the artist’s statement, mentions that “certain images are blacked out upon request”. These small forms of censorship in art leave one thinking about the lack of tolerance and freedom of expression that prevail in our society.