Currently, there are about one hundred and fifty to two hundred Art Biennials and Triennials held around the world every two or three years,
Currently, there are about one hundred and fifty to two hundred Art Biennials and Triennials held around the world every two or three years, generally understood as alternative exhibition spaces other than the museums and galleries. These are large-scale spectacles that draw a large number of artists from around the world. The host cities temporarily evolve into a pulsating center of marketing, internationalism, globalization and spectatorship. What does such an event mean in the context of countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal or Bangladesh? What is it that qualifies certain cities/countries to host biennales? Is the qualifier the art, the artists, or the political or economic standing of a nation? How does this play into the identity politics of a nation-state? These are some of the notions that this essay will explore.
Following the Karachi Biennale which was held from October 22nd – Nov 5th, 2017, Lahore’s first Biennale (LB01) is starting from March 16th – 31st, 2018. One wonders about its context and how it fits into the larger theme of the international biennials? Is it a postcolonial adaptation of the Venetian model or is it an anti-colonial model that Ranjit Hoskote, a cultural theorist, calls “Biennale of Resistance,” as in the case of the Gwangju Biennale. Or is it neither? I bring this up because interestingly Pakistan (debatably) had its first one time biennial called “The Art Biennale of Pakistan” held at the Alhamra Art Council Lahore on Jan 16th, 1987, organized by the Ministry of Culture and Foreign Affairs, during the reign of General Zia ul Haq. I will come back to discuss this later in the essay.
Scholars have proposed that the World Art Fairs of the 19th century such as “The Great Exhibition of Crystal Palace,” held in 1951 at Hyde Park London, and “The Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1883,” were the prototypes of the First Venice Biennale held in 1895. Hoskote argues that the biennial also has much in common with other late nineteenth century manifestations of the imperialist consumerist resources such as the expo, the zoo, and the pageants. Oliver Marchart, a sociologist, argues that even if the World Fairs were the prototypes of first Venice Biennale the globalization of the biennial substantially has transformed it from its Venetian model, and it is no longer merely a format in which former colonial nations of the West showcase the glamour of their own artistic production. He further posits “On the contrary, worldwide biennialization has instead contributed to decentralizing the West. For this reason, biennialization cannot simply be read as an ideological reflex to economic globalization, but instead, at the very least, also as part of decolonization struggles”. The Venice Biennial was initially designed in a salon style. It focused on showcasing European modernity and hence promoted the western canon. Though it started to include non-western countries in the mid-twentieth century, it was not until 1954 that it included artists from Egypt, Indonesia and Israel, and then continued to add India, Lebanon, Philippines, Senegal, Taiwan and Vietnam in following editions. Marchart also posits that often biennials emerge in countries that have yet to come to terms with national traumatic events, such as wars, civil wars or dictatorships.
In the context of Pakistan, it is widely accepted that in the last two decades, Pakistani contemporary artists like Rashid Rana, Shazia Sikander, Ayesha Khalid, Imran Qureshi, Saira Waseem, Nusra Latif, Hamra Abbas, Waqas Khan, Adeela Suleman, Naiza Khan, Noor Ali Chagani and many others have made a significant mark on the international art market. They all have set new records of exhibiting works in major art museums, galleries and biennales around the world including MOMA, Agha Khan Museum, Musée Guimet, Documenta, Art Basel, and Armory Show to name a few. Besides being in private collections, the works of these artists are also acquisitions of various prestigious museums and public spaces around the world. Hence they are the main stage players in mainstream art.
Reverting back to the question of qualifiers, one wonders if the well establishment of the contemporary artists on the international art scenes (keeping aside the geopolitics of the region momentarily – although it plays a major role in promoting and center staging artists on the international art scene), is the qualifying agent in equipping Pakistan to also host its biennials. Is it tied to the economic success of the Pakistani artists internationally? My contention is that Pakistan’s participation in international biennals didn’t start with its contemporary artists. Rather, the modernist artists such as Shakir Ali, Sheikh Safdar Ali, Ahmed Parvez, Zahoor Ul Akhlaq, Zubeida Agha, Salima Hashmi and many others started participating in International biennals right after the independence of Pakistan. In fact, the III Sao Paulo Biennale of 1955 showcased a number of artists from Pakistan including Zubeida Agha, Shakir Ali, Ahmed Parvez, Fyzee Rahmin, Esmet Rahim and Ozzir Zubi. The VII, VIII, IX and XI Sao Paulo Biennale in 1963, 1966, 1969 and 1971 respectively showed Iqbal Geoffery’s work. The 13th Sao Paulo Biennale in 1975 included Zahoorul Akhlaq, S. Safdar Ali, Salima Hashmi, Ijazul Hassan, Nighat Idrees, Ali Imam, Ahmed Khan, Masood Ahmed Kohari, Ahmed Syed Nagi, Jamil Naqsh, Syed Sadequain, Ahmed Naqvi, Ghulam Rasul, and Laila Shahzada. The curriculum vitae of these artists printed in the catalogue of the 13th Sao Paulo Biennale shows the active participation of each of these artists internationally. For example, S. Safdar Ali participated in the New York World Fair in 1964 and Paris Biennale in 1966. Sadequain along with several international group shows, exhibited in the 1961 Paris Biennale and 1963 ‘5th Salon’ Musee d’Arte Moderne, Paris. Ghulam Rasul had seven solo shows in different cities of the US between 1969-1972 besides his works’ acquisitions in the Smithsonian Institute, and Philadelphia Museum to name a few. Ali Imam had exhibited in Woodstock Gallery and John Whibley Gallery London. Anwar Jalal Shemza was part of the 1967 International Farvegraffi, Fredrikstad, Norway, and International Triennial of Original Colored Graphic Prints, Grenchen, Switzerland, and the list goes on. By no means is this a comprehensive record of Pakistani artists’ exhibitions around the world since the establishment of Pakistan – I am only using it here to establish that Pakistani artists have been actively making and showing works internationally. However, unfortunately, the preceding generations of artists did not bask in the kind of stardom contemporary artists are celebrating and enjoying today. So what has changed between 1950 and 2018 in geopolitics and the art world? Can one say that geopolitics has nothing to do with the rise and fall of art internationally? Having said that, perhaps it’s not a good idea to view the contemporary art of Pakistan in isolation as if it didn’t have a past.
Let’s turn to the 1987 Art Biennale of Pakistan, which some may call an innocent effort or altogether not even consider it a biennale. The 1987 Biennale included three other countries besides Pakistan. These were Bangladesh, India, and Iran. There were a total of one hundred and twenty-five artists with two hundred and forty-five works. There were six artists from Bangladesh with thirty works, three artists from India with twenty-two works, one artist from Iran with seventeen works and one hundred and fifteen artists from Pakistan with one hundred and seventy-six works. In addition to the artwork on display, the Biennale catalogue published essays by various art critics and writers of the participating countries such as Geeta Kapur, Syed Amjad Ali, Sayeed Ahmed, Paramjit Singh and Safi Safdar. The Punjab Council of the Arts and Alhamra Art Centre played an important role in organizing the exhibition and a seminar. Interestingly enough, there were welcome addresses by the President of Pakistan General Zia ul Haq, the Prime Minister of Pakistan Mohammad Khan Junejo, the Governor of Punjab Makhdoom Muhammad Sajjad Hussain Qureshi and the Chief Minister of Lahore Mian Nawaz Sharif. The messages of the dignitaries besides hailing the Idara Saqafat-e-Pakistan and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for curating the first Art Biennale of Pakistan unanimously conveyed that the 1987 Biennale aims to foster, peace, harmony, and friendship in the region. By looking at the participating countries, one can see that the agenda of the Pakistani government was neither purely Islamic nor artistic but to use the Biennale as art diplomacy to promote regional harmony rather than to initiate an artistic endeavor.
The international representation of Pakistani artists from the 50s to late 80s was sponsored and supported by the Cultural Ministry of Pakistan of course in line with the government agenda. This has definitely changed in the last two decades. Pakistani artists are now no longer dependent on the support of such government institutes. Their work holds a certain position in the international art scene, and while for the majority of these artists their work is independent of their Pakistani nationality and/or identity, for others it squarely fits into a neat bracket of “Pakistani art”. No doubt this is a debate for another time but it reflects how times have changed. Art is no longer merely a cultural representation of a particular country in the international arena and the nature of biennials has experienced a similar evolution over the years.
In my opinion, the LB01 does not follow in the footsteps of either the “Venetian model” or the “Biennale of Resistance” and nor does it need to. The glimpses of participating artists and the venues of LB01 flashed on social media from time to time to cultivate interest and enthusiasm in the general public indicates that the focus of the Biennale is on individual artists – mostly well-established Pakistani artists and a few well-known international artists such as Amar Kanwar and Shirin Neshat. This focus on individual artists deprives the Biennale of a holistic representation, theme or agenda. However, The LB01 also launches an academic forum organized by Professor Iftikhar Dadi along with the art exhibitions. In the academic forum several international curators, critics, and scholars are conducting various workshops, public lectures, and studio visits. Organized by an academic, it has a conceptual clarity in its exploration of the relation of art practice to history, archives, and the role of institutions in fostering critical thinking and dialogue. Marchart suggests that contemporary Biennials are a way of signaling that a city is willing to join in a globalizing economy of commerce and culture by using art to encourage tourism, economic regeneration, and international media profile. One wonders if this holds true for Lahore. Even though the premise of the LB01 remains somewhat ambiguous, one must certainly commend the energy, spirit and effort invested in the orchestration of this exhibition. It promises diversity, creativity and critical examination all under one expansive curatorial roof, evoking memories of the past while laying fresh turf for days to come. It also succeeds in creating a positive image of progressive Pakistan internationally.
Samina Iqbal is a practicing artist, art historian, and an academic. She is currently teaching as an Assistant Professor in the Centre for Media Studies, Art and Design at Lahore School of Economics.
 Ranjit Hoskote, “Biennials of Resistance: Reflections on the Seventh Gwangju Biennial,” 2010
 Hoskote, “Bienniale of Resistance,” p.308
 Oliver Marchart, The Globalization of Art and the Biennals `of Resisitance: A history of the biennials from the Periphery, 2013