“A cultural interventionist is anyone who comes from a more proactive space and aspires to make a difference through action rather than just negotiating theoretically.”
Art critic, curator, and art activist Nilofur Farrukh is also a self-proclaimed cultural interventionist – and rightfully so. A perusal of her work experience warrants that most of her projects are her vehement attempts to educate, shift, and expand our self-analysis, as an individual and as a society. She questions our tethered cultural predispositions and contests our self-imposed perception of our identity through academia and beyond.
Nilofur Farrukh was born into a politically conscious family of literary aficionados who relished a range of cultural disciplines. The genres spanned from music, art, theatre, mushairas, to Urdu literature. She recalls her childhood home in which the walls adorned reprints of modernist works, and how her parents oft attended evenings of musical and literary indulgence. It is unsurprising that the contagious enthusiasm quickly caught on to Farrukh who later went on to pursue a diploma in Communication Design.
Immediately after her graduation, Farrukh began work with the media and also began to write – something she already had a penchant for. Having started a family, the dormant passion resurfaced after Farrukh felt the need to rearrange her lifestyle around her domestic commitments. The focus of her writing soon shifted towards art and she began writing reviews for various magazines as well as Op-ed pages for the Dawn .This gradually evolved into a serious profession which Farrukh consciously chose to dedicate herself entirely to.
After becoming prolific through her extensive career in writing during the nineties, Farrukh became a member of the International Art Critics Association where she represented the country. She was able to connect with several critics from across the globe including those from developing worlds. She used the opportunity to draw parallels with the issues they faced in formulising theories, around visual culture, that were isolated from the western lens.
A lens through which Farrukh prefers to view her writings and curatorial projects are the issues of Post Colonialism. She developed an interest in the politics of theorisation and began to view it as a consequence of Colonisation. She believes it is immensely important to deconstruct the canon, or rather to decolonise ourselves in every aspect and discipline. However, it was no less than a challenge to critique post-colonialism when the structure of criticism – and specifically art criticism – is highly systemic and informed by the developed world itself.
For instance, one of the reviews that Farrukh wrote in the 90s was on a body of work by Jamil Naqsh. The artist had painted around 200 visuals of pigeons in every possible position and captured moments of flight. While ostensibly the overwhelming amount of works may look repetitive, Farrukh drew in the reference with ‘Bandish’ a classical music practice where the notes are repeated in different combinations. It is a singular, central idea that the artist/musician must continually struggle to configure within. To keep playing within the set premise is where the creativity lies.
A decade later Nilofur Farrukh also focused her attention to curating which she pursued lengthily. One of the exhibitions she curated was called “No honour in killing.” A project that paid homage to five women who were buried alive in the small town of Nasarpur, and to those women as well who dealt with similar problems. Farrukh felt handicapped in response to the news, and realised that some form of intervention and justice was required. As a member of the Women Action Forum, she partnered with her friend, Nasreen Siddiqui, from War Against Rape and conceptualised an exhibition with a focus on the crime against women. Farrukh asked artists who worked with issues of women to contribute pieces that resonated with the context, which she took forth to various cities. The exhibition travelled to Hyderabad, Khairpur, Islamabad, Lahore, and was finally displayed in Karachi. In each city, local artists were also asked to submit work in response, some of which Farrukh added to the traveling exhibition.
Each exhibition was also accompanied with a series of dialogues with the local public, student populations and activists who were already engaged with violence against women. This was designed to engage in a dialogue through art. This application was also fruitful in making the public understand and accept art as a vital vehicle to talk about these issues.
To curate this show was no short of a catharsis for Farrukh. For her, this is what a curatorial job entails. The task goes beyond just assemblage and editing of works, and seeps into tying and examining those works in relation to the prevalent social chasms as well as spearheading diverse conversations and space for dialogue.
Nilofur Farrukh with Meher Afroze and Shehnaz Siddiq later formed the ASNA which has organized three ASNA International Clay Triennale (www. Asnaart.com). ASNA was intended to cede beyond just an exhibition of ceramic art but a forum that incorporated dialogues as well as documentation on Pakistan’s rich history of clay practices. They not only adjudicated how to tie those traditions with contemporary practices, but also raised the importance of understanding and acknowledging certain rich craft traditions that have not yet been recognised by the western canon. This approach inspired Farrukh to further question the western canon and the way art history is written in the west. She lays stress on the recognition and ownership of our multi-faceted traditions and artistic practices, despite it not being visible through the lens of someone else’s history. The organisation held guided tours, talks with school children, and also gave a platform to the local craftspeople. In doing so, they were able to bridge the gap between the kumhaar and the contemporary ceramists – an aperture, she claims, that are aftershocks of colonialism that eclipsed craft wisdom and practice.
During her writing career, Farrukh also came to the realisation that most of the publications were only willing to publish art reviews and were not yet ready to give space for discourse on art. Amra Ali, Sabiha Imani, Rumana Hussain and herself collected to create that needed space and founded NuktaArt in 2005. NuktaArt was a biannual magazine that tackled issues in art and talked about cross disciplinary ideas in depth which there was previously no forum for. The magazine was a way of cataloguing these various discourse and the discursive space became an effort of Farrukh’s to examine and nurture a mechanism to counter the impact of colonialism on local critical discourse. One of its key issues was during the commemoration of Pakistan’s fifty years. For this, the editors asked critics from countries of around the same age to write on their art scene in which they addressed similar problems to those troubling our local art sphere.
Farrukh believes that society cannot detach itself from its political moorings when it proactively shapes your country. How community, society, and art can be an intervention in the cultural dynamics has always been an investigative lens for her. Much of what she has achieved as well as continues to practice is informed by this lingering thought. And undeniably it was this mind-set and position that catalysed her proactive involvement with the Biennale.
Karachi witnessed one of its most violent years in 2016, and she along with a few others felt this dire need to connect the city back after it was shaken up with various disparities and clashes. Eventually, ten trustees formed the Karachi Biennale Trust and took a gargantuan task of organizing the city’s first art biennale with the theme “Witness”. The stage was set for criticality and innovation while connecting art and city with its people. It was an instrument to propel the city’s art forward and also to have a magnetic affect by drawing in positive attention – and creative energy – from the across the world. Not only was the biennale successful in doing so, but it also inevitably lent visibility to the history of the city through the iconic buildings that were set up as the venues.
This year, the Biennale was set in motion with a different vision. The theme ‘Ecology’ felt timely, considering the direct impact Karachi, and the entire country, is encountering due to climate change. Now set mostly in the outdoors in open air, the focus on venues shifted from the semi-public or private historical spaces to publicly accessible parks.
Besides being one of the trustees, Farrukh also chairs the KB Discursive program, which has set up an interdisciplinary, Critical Knowledge Lab. This incubator of ideas is a space to discuss the discourses of our time that individuals from a gamut of fields can engage with. It allows for a cross pollination of ideas which is also documented and made accessible later for research. Farrukh iterates that this is how theories are created – by creating critical materials for researchers. Farrukh laments that the primary reason why we don’t already have that body of information is because academies have not been proactive in this respect; otherwise a locally produced corpus of theoretical content would have been available for those who want to write criticism or teach.
One of the projects that Nilofur Farrukh leads through the discursive program is the study group under the ‘South-South Dialogue.’ For the previous edition, they drew in research from Latin America to distinguish how the society and art from the two regions had evolved in similar conditions after their political history. By doing so, a gap was bridged and a dialogue was created. For this year’s biennale, the study group is focusing on Africa and is reading, interpreting, and connecting with writings by the local scholars and critical thinkers from the continent. While there was a strong presence of Latin American artists and curators in the previous biennale, the biennale this year will be hosting three African artists to present their body of work.
Farrukh cites that the long-term goal for the Biennale should most definitely be sustainability. Despite the many hurdles, the biennale has been installed in public parks. With small interventions from high end to grass root level, Farrukh believes that the Biennale has truly connected, and continues to connect people to the city. It is removing barriers, bridging gaps, and making partnerships. This penetration itself, Farrukh believes, has longevity.
Longevity, after all, lies in where you truly get anchored in your realities.