Karachi to Venice: In conversation with Naiza Khan


Karachi to Venice: In conversation with Naiza Khan

  ArtNow: As this was the first year Pakistan participated in the Venice Art Biennale, what were some of your key considerations for the inaug

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ArtNow: As this was the first year Pakistan participated in the Venice Art Biennale, what were some of your key considerations for the inaugural exhibition?


Naiza Khan: With the curator and our team, we thought through the ideas and challenges of presenting works in the inaugural pavilion at Venice. With a country pavilion, it’s not the best idea to begin with an overriding ideological premise or try to encompass everything. The Venice Biennale is an image-saturated event, and it’s always a mistake to overload the space or the viewer. We felt that if audiences were engaged with the work, this would open a small window into a field of questions, which would make them curious about Pakistan; its contemporary art scene, its history and the narratives that come out of that place- beyond what is in the news media. So inevitably, that would offer a particular insight to the country, rather than being a generalised view.


My desire was to work with the ideas that are urgent for me and think about the narratives that I am engaged with. So the new body of work I developed for Venice was not forced, but something I was very eager to produce and share on this world stage.


There was a specific pavilion space that had to be considered, and we wanted the work to be immersive, so there would be a strong, tangible element of a specific locale, visually and conceptually. For me the local is a very generative space – it is critical for understanding the materiality and flow of ideas that I work with.


There were a number of ideas that formed the core of the works.


The filmic installation, Sticky Rice and Other Stories, and the soundscape and installation of brass maps entitled, Hundreds of Birds Killed – brought together aspects around discourses that are linked to issues of our day- ideas of labor and production, climate change and how we negotiate our colonial and post-colonial history today. So the works in the pavilion become a point of intersection to think about the conditions that we all face, between the universal and the personal.


It was important to bring these questions to Venice, from where I stand, as a female artist from Pakistan.


Lastly, this is a project, which was conceived with the context of where it would be shown. So this was another consideration that both the curator and I felt would resonate with audiences who came to see the work in Venice. There is an interesting relationship between Venice and Karachi – both are port cities, which have a history of commerce and are situated within historical transnational trade routes, and both at different times have been part of immense geopolitical change. More interesting for me is the way that modernity and industrialisation is negotiated within these places. The Pakistan Pavilion is situated next to the old arsenal, which was an industrial assembly line that built merchant ships and warships. My work in the pavilion is engaged with this history, as I have been working on a micro-scale with the production of model boats within artisan communities in Karachi.


For me as an artist, it is very important that the audience connects with my work in a personal way; to be moved, to engage with the poetry as well as the conceptual ideas I have presented. I think visual language has its own register and the narratives that are presented in the Pakistan Pavilion are a way to access the rich cultural terrain that we have in Pakistan.


AN: Where did your exploration into life upon Manora Island in Karachi originate?


NK: The commitment to this island space grew over time. I guess that when you live in a port city, the proximity to water is always something that draws you. Karachi has witnessed so many struggles in the past 25 years; from sectarian and ethnic violence; influx of refugees from war-torn Afghanistan and more. The city has a restless pace, which needs to be harnessed positively if you work within a creative space.


So I did not go to the island to seek out an ‘artistic project’, but the temporality of the island space drew me in, it offered a sense of freedom and gave me a space to think. Also the possibility of walking across the island, gave me the freedom to explore and to engage more personally. It offered a new subjectivity to look at the terrain and the ecology of the land. At that point, I did not realize the potential of the act of walking and what it could enact in my practice.


AN: Your artistic practice for Manora Field Notes combined modern technologies and traditional artistry. What were the collaborative aspects and processes of creating the contemporary digital maps laser cut into Plexiglas, and then hand-cast into brass by artisans in Golimar, Karachi? 


NK: This was a long and intensive process, which came out of the desire to think about the individual cities that are mentioned in the 1939, archival document of weather history from British India. Like many cartographic exercises, the methodology used to create this series of maps was primarily informed by how we could accurately transpose GIS data (i.e. Google Earth and Open Street Maps data) into physical representations of the selected sites.  This transformation from the digital and spherical to the final tangible forms of these brass-cast maps required my team to navigate numerous software programs and methods of fabrication between different people in my team working in Pakistan, London, and Berlin.


Once all of the data had been combined into a single file, we manually traced the borders of each city in Google Earth to create a highly detailed outline of that city.


Each tile was then manually exported and sent to Pakistan where they were laser cut before finally being cast in brass.


The labor-intensive process of brass casting has been passed down from generations and has its own materiality. The slippages of liquid brass as it is cast, formed part of the language of these work. I have been working for over a decade in Golimar, Karachi with a small community of artisans. Their forefathers came from Moradabad in India, which like Golimar, has a thriving community of artisans who work with brass casting and copper engraving. So this community is an ecosystem of relationships, forms of work and production that are interdependent; and that is also how I saw this process of making the maps.


AN: How was the experience to bring an island (Manora) to another island (Venice) both for you and the viewers?


NK: There was a very beautiful connection, not just conceptually, but to witness how the works connected to the water body that surrounded us, to histories of maritime trade and the ocean. There were many comments from visitors, who felt this quality of a floating landmass, of islands and cities. The narrative within the works gave an experience, which was very embodied. The sound piece for Hundreds of Birds Killed was a very watery soundscape, where you enter a landscape through its sonic experience.


AN: In your view how does the work relate to the issue of identity and dislocation?


NK: This is something to think about more deeply. I would say that my experiences of relocation and my engagement with the sea have been multifold. I think about the cultural implications of the ocean; and the way this relates to the history of migration; the idea of cosmopolitanism and how the sea becomes an agent of transformation, a tool of modernity, enabling us to imagine new identities.


In relation to the works in Venice, I feel the filmic installation Sticky Rice and Other Stories, contains a number of narratives within the layers of the film.


In the first part of this filmic installation, a man pushes a cart along the Karachi seafront against the backdrop of cranes that frame the Karachi Port. On this cart, we see miniaturised models of historic and contemporary vessels made by artisans in workshops in Karachi and Manora Island. They echo ideas of the New Silk Road and the global supply chain, but also ideas of scale and dislocation. What I find interesting is the displacement of these vessels from the ocean to the land, and this sense of what is encapsulated within this gesture, histories of making and of belonging and not belonging.


AN: While working in Manora for quite some time, has the site been turned into a symbol for something else, from what and where you started?


NK: Yes certainly, Manora Field Notes is a diving point for me to think about ideas that move beyond the space of the island. I feel the island’s landscape, history and present reality has given me a complex alternative geography, which conveys larger concerns of post-colonial histories, climate change and displacement.