With her solo exhibition Manora Field Notes, the multidisciplinary artist presents her work in the Biennale’s first-ever Pakistan Pavilion.
Based in Karachi and London, Naiza Khan has been engaging with Manora Island since 2007, when she started crossing the harbour from Karachi to the nearby island looking to find a way to explore its many historical layers. The artist had worked and engaged with the city of Karachi for more than two decades, and her move towards the edge of the city, to the water and then across it was also a way of putting the metropolis of more than 20 million into a different perspective. While keeping Karachi in mind, her project on Manora developed into a long-term one and took on a geographical setting all of its own. Over the course of many years, Khan worked on the island and closely with its local community and inhabitants, its historical setting, and has created an archive comprising visuals, objects and recorded observations that today form part of a project that, within the 58th Venice Biennale, is titled Manora Field Notes.
Curated by Zahra Khan, Manora Field Notes is exhibited in a three-part, ground-floor space within the vicinity of the main entrance of the Arsenale, where one part of the main curated exhibition of the Biennale is installed. As the title promises, Manora Field Notes is conceptually designed in such a way that, upon entering the first space, the visitor encounters both geography and history in the form of objects and sound. Over the few past years, in general, and particularly since her engagement with Manora Khan’s work has been informed by a research mode that sets out to document the many facets of development and destruction that shape and transform the Karachi coastline. An archival document that she recovered in 2009 from the ruins of the 19th century Manora Weather Observatory, was used as the starting point for the exhibition.
The work Hundreds of Birds Killed is a soundscape with an installation of brass objects dispersed on tables. A female voice narrates from the report, a report filled with data about weather disasters and its consequences across approximately 33 cities in South Asia during a certain time period in 1939. The artist has confined herself to eleven cities, literally extracting them from the report with the help of digital research engines. The contemporary Google maps of these cities were then laser-cut into Plexiglas and consequently hand-cast into brass. This is where Khan’s knowledge and connection with the city were crucial. She has worked with artisans in Karachi’s Golimar for many years, which is where the brass maps for this project were made. The eleven cities that Khan materialised were significant to her in a personal way and reflect the journey and the interconnectedness of people across places and geographies. Today, then, these cities—so naturally connected in the colonial weather report—are separated from each other, for they spread across three parts of the divided South Asia that is Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Against the backdrop of the narrated report of weather data and its ecological consequences, we are confronted with landscapes, shiny brass-cast Google maps of cities according to current data. The juxtaposition of historic data, modern technology and traditional artistry is representative of the artist’s perception of a present that is shaped and informed by multilayered experiences and journeys.
The second room accommodates a four-channel film installation. Sticky Rice and Other Stories comprises two parts and follows the artist as she moves between artisans’ workshops and stalls on wheels on the beachfront selling model boats to local tourists. While the model boats reflect the popular taste for colourful gadgets, the second part of the film is about the elaborate cleaning and reassembling of a doorbeen (telescope); the collection of its vintage parts rely on smuggling routes between Iran and Pakistan. After the device was technically brought up to scratch it was fitted with cylindrical metal cladding, made ready to be used for tourism purposes on a beach in Manora. One such apparatus is placed in the courtyard between the two exhibition spaces in Venice, where it serves exactly the same purpose as in Manora. The oddly and anachronistic doorbeen is thus the connecting device between the two spaces and allows for a view that reaches far beyond prescribed frontiers and interpretations.
Leaving the courtyard and heading back into the first exhibition space, one encounters the three watercolours Cast of a City from 2015, which seem to make sense anew, in that they point towards the essence of places and geographies as not being static. The many cast objects that join the installation in the first room in connection with the shiny city maps are, then, a reminder that the extent of ecological disasters such as storms are audible and noticeable across borders.
While Manora Field Notes connects with the location of the Venice Biennale as well as with works shown at the Biennale in many ways, it stands out as a project, in both artistic and curatorial ways, which defies market pressure and preconceived expectations and which does not succumb to sensationalism and generalisation. The bar is being set very high, and future curators and artists of Pakistan’s national pavilion will be measured by the high quality of the first Pakistan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.