Dr. Iftikhar Dadi is Associate Professor in the Department of History of Art and Director of the South Asia Program at Cornell University. He is the author of numerous books, essays and edited volumes. As an artist he works in collaboration with Elizabeth Dadi. Their work has been exhibited internationally, including in Lahore Biennale 01 (2018). Iftikhar is an advisor for Lahore Biennale Foundation since late 2017 and organizes the Academic Forum of the Biennales.
SI: You’ve been involved in Lahore Biennale since its inception. Can you share your perception of the Foundation and the goals of the Lahore Biennale?
ID: The Lahore Biennale Foundation (LBF) has been active for several years, but my involvement started in late 2017, a few months before the first Biennale (LB01) opened in March 2018. My role has been to offer general guidance, and to work on the academic program and research initiatives. For LB01, I also suggested a few artists that I thought would be important for us in Pakistan to be in dialogue with – artists from South Asia primarily – Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka – because the South Asia region was the focus of the first Biennale.
The Lahore Biennale is an important project for Lahore, Pakistan, and South Asia. Lahore is a very significant city for contemporary art in this region because of the number of artists who have studied here and live here and also for the city’s historical role in developing modernism since the early twentieth century. There are, however, a number of shortcomings. There has not been much exchange between Lahore and the international art world, or even with the immediate region. Some artists travel abroad and show their work, but by and large, most artists don’t dialogue with artists or thinkers beyond Pakistan. The Biennale can play an important role in exchange of ideas, aesthetics, and ways of working, which can benefit local artists, curators, writers, and arts professionals. Also, artists from abroad come and see what Lahore and its society and culture is all about – some of them will find new ways of engaging with this city. We all can learn about each other and our shared predicaments – especially in the Global South – by furthering exchange, generating new dialogs, and developing institutions.
LBF can also play a positive role in fostering critical practice. By critical practice I mean art that is informed not just by aesthetic form or market success, but also by other criteria that includes questions of research, theory, methodology, and art history, as well as by history, sociology, and literature. Formal considerations remain salient, but assessment of process and social engagement can also come into play. This can enrich the local ecology of art by promoting research-based and process-driven inquiry.
In the LB01 and LB02 academic programs we have tried to invite local and international thinkers, scholars, and artists and practitioners from diverse disciplines, but whose work has parallels to issues in our own region. Some of these talks seemingly may not have a direct bearing on contemporary art practice, but they inform us about the wider ways in which we may want to think about our place in the world today.
SI: Can you speak briefly about how the LBF advisory works? How many members on the board and what capacity they work in?
ID: LBF has a board of directors – I am not a member of that board. Its advisors include Ayesha Jatoi and myself. Ayesha has focused on publication and design. My role is that of a general advisor, with a focus on the academic dimension, and on research initiatives. I advise only, and do not hold an executive role.
SI: How do you incorporate the academic components into the biennale. How do you involve scholars, theorists, writers, as well as critics familiar with art. In terms of incorporating people from Lahore, what is your focus? Who is your audience?
ID: The question of audience and publics is an important one. In my opinion, there is no single audience or a single public. Publics do not pre-exist, but can be constituted through programming and outreach. For example, in many developing regions around the world, initially there was very little attendance in museums, but through programming and outreach, this was nurtured over time.
My hope for the academic program is that it can bring people together to talk about issues that are insightful for students, thinkers, artists, Lahoris generally. Numbers may not be very large in the beginning, but there is potential for growth, and this is a process that takes time. Of course, we at LBF bear responsibility to make it focused and relevant, and we hope to continue to learn from our experiences.
SI: Do you think the LB02 was successful in engaging with local artists? One of the general perceptions among people is that not many local artists were shown in the LB02. What are your thoughts?
ID: In the first Biennale in 2018, there were numerous artists from Lahore and from Pakistan. Contrary to perception, there are over 25 established and emerging Pakistani artists in LB02, which is not a small number. Also, there were many collateral exhibitions in LB01 and LB02 that were independently developed, in which many more local artists participated, and whose works were widely seen by visitors and written on by critics who visited LB01 and LB02.
Each Biennale is different, because there is a new curator each time with their own specific focus. The Biennale is not a local or national art exhibition, so each version will strike a different relation between local participation and international presence. To be formulaic or prescriptive about numbers or percentages is not a good idea in my opinion. More salient is whether the curatorial focus addresses issues relevant to the site, and whether local artists find opportunities to engage with it and foster their practice.
The question of inclusion and balance is an important one, but one that will almost always elicit criticism – even if there is a very very large show, someone will feel that they or artists they consider important have been left out. But each project is necessarily finite and can never be fully comprehensive. Through programming and through public engagement, LBF tries to open more doors, without compromising the integrity of the curator’s vision – it’s about striking a balance between focus and breadth, and this is a process that LBF is also learning from.
SI: What do you celebrate in terms of LB02’s success and what can be improved? Will you continue to stay involved with the Foundation? What is your vision for the academic program in future?
ID: Hoor Al Qasimi’s curatorial vision was about bringing together strong and emerging voices from our wider region, to reflect on our shared history and predicaments. In my estimation, LB02 is a significant achievement for Pakistan and this region, in successfully accomplishing this mandate. It has brought together artists from Pakistan and South Asia who have been shown alongside those from Central Asia, Africa, West Asia, and the diaspora. This, along with a rich program of workshops, performances, talks, and other modes of engagement, which someone of Hoor’s intelligence, experience, and tenacity has been able to realize in Lahore and Pakistan. The Biennale is still ongoing [when this interview was conducted], and undoubtedly, we’ll learn many lessons. We need to continue to reflect on it long after it’s over.
Even though I am originally from Karachi, I have been involved in the Lahore Biennale since late 2017, because I see LBF developing programs that are important not just for Lahore, but for Pakistan and the South Asia region as a whole. Keep in mind that LBF is a young foundation in a place where there are virtually no foundations or public institutions that focus on contemporary art. Expertise in running not-for-profit contemporary art institutions is lacking in the country, as we all know. We are all learning as we proceed.
I live abroad now, but visit Pakistan and South Asia regularly for my academic and artistic research. The Biennale and the larger project of LBF is open-ended, full of immense possibility but equally mined with pitfalls. We need to continually reassess what we propose or attempt to do in the future, learn from our successes, but even more, from mistakes that we will continue to make in future, despite our best intentions and efforts. There is an open-endedness to this that I find appealing and full of potential.
SI: There is a perception that Beaconhouse National University (BNU), a leading arts institute in Lahore, was completely left out. No BNU students were involved in LB02. What are your thoughts?
ID: BNU is indeed a fine institution, I personally hold its faculty and students in high regard. In the last Biennale (LB01) there were students from BNU who came to our events and talks, and in the current LB02 academic program, we held a talk by the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli at BNU on Feb 13, 2020. The BNU campus is some distance from the city center, so holding all Academic Forum events there is not practically viable for non-BNU attendees.
Currently, over twenty BNU graduates and students are part of the larger LB02 team. These include regular LBF employees, as well as site managers, assistants, and volunteers who have been engaged for LB02 on a project basis. We would certainly love to involve more students and faculty from BNU and other institutions, and hope we can do more together in future in various ways, this might include production, programming, and outreach.
We have also held events at other key institutions, including National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and Punjab University. We hope to continue to engage students and faculty from colleges and universities from across Lahore. All our programs are intended for the public. They are all free and open to anyone who wishes to attend. Students are especially welcome.