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How to discuss art at literary festivals

Published Mar 12, 2018 12:34am

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The panel of the talk titled Can Art Save the City at the Karachi Literature Festival 2018 | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
The panel of the talk titled Can Art Save the City at the Karachi Literature Festival 2018 | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) has become an annual venue for discursive talks on a range of literary, political and cultural subjects. With free entry, no formal registration, moderate security checks and open gates, the festival attracts crowds that often have to elbow their way to capture the seats of their choice.

This usually does not seem to be the case with its sessions on visual arts though. As a practising artist, I have always wondered if KLF’s panel discussions on art are meant just as a token representation or if they are seen as serving a cultural and social purpose that is closely linked to the one served by literature. I have also wondered if these sessions are successful in terms of the discussions they generate and the size of the audience they attract. Their success seems to have been moderate on both counts.

Perhaps this is because the appreciation and interpretation of visual arts is usually subjective, particularly in comparison with literature that, to a certain extent, gives shape and expression to emotions, feelings and ideas people have but cannot find words for. Art, on the other hand, is generally more about an artist’s own understanding of the world than being a manifestation of people’s hopes, dreams, aspirations and frustrations.

KLF’s organisers could have had this in mind when they allotted a venue to this year’s only panel that focused on art. Moderated by artist and documentary photographer Naila Mahmood, it was a talk titled Can Art and Culture Save the City? Durriya Kazi, head of the Department of Visual Studies at the University of Karachi, activist and actor Sania Saeed, graphic designer Faraz Hamidi and architect Yawar Jilani took part in it as panelists.

The discussion ventured into exploring various roles that art can play in making a city inclusive for all its inhabitants. Some questions brought up during the hour-long talk revolved around the extent to which art can have an impact on people’s lives; others led to a discussion on how creative thinkers – actors, designers, artists and architects – can empower citizens through art.

Jilani argued that art and culture could only flourish in Karachi once the city’s infrastructure had been made so sound that it helped citizens move between their home and work without much of a hassle. Saeed stressed that economic constraints had contributed to the silencing of theatre and the increase in political propaganda through television had suffocated original script writers and actors.

An art installation at the Karachi Biennale 2017 | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
An art installation at the Karachi Biennale 2017 | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Kazi, who had initiated the ‘Karachi Pop’ art movement along with artists such as Iftikhar Dadi, Elizabeth Dadi and David Alesworth in the 1990s, has many years of experience in probing the psyche and response of Karachi’s citizens to art in public spaces. She spoke about how visual arts could overcome social and economic divisions. Art, in her opinion, stopped the constant movement of Earth — whether by capturing it in a snapshot or through a painting or in a sculpture or with a performance. Grown out of a particular moment in time, these artistic expressions make the temporal timeless and contemporary universal.

Naila Mahmood and Faraz Hamidi, who both have years of experience in digital media and advertising, discussed how designers were continuously creating and communicating ideas through powerful images that successfully mould people’s likes and dislikes and have the potential to bring positive changes in the society. The panelists also argued that poor governance and hypersensitivity that both the state and the society show towards creative expression, curtail the progress of art in Karachi.

Contrary to what the organisers would have thought, the session was so well attended that eager audiences kept pushing their way into its packed venue throughout the discussion. This could be attributed, at least partially, to its diverse panelists who provided five different opinions on the relationship between art, city and citizens. It was perhaps also an indicator of the curiosity that Karachi’s residents have in understanding how a city with little to zero law and order can potentially be ‘saved’ through creativity and innovation.

In other words, the session was organised in a manner that invited people to join the discussion rather than keep away — as is usually the case with gallery-centred art exhibitions and art talks. Another example of a successful session, though it was not very ostensibly and directly related to art, was a talk given by the internationally acclaimed Pakistani artist Bani Abidi. Titled as History from the Margins, the session was moderated by Dr Kamran Asdar Ali, an anthropologist and a senior faculty member of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). It focused on Abidi’s research on World War I documents about Indian sepoys.

The artist informed the audience how archival research and investigation could be a form of art too — something that has been an integral part of her own art practice. She also showed how she had looked into the histories of 74,000 Indian soldiers who had died in the war as a means to probe and critique colonial historiography, the distortions it had made in the representation of facts and the contradictions that have crept into our history as a result.

There was an obvious lesson to be learnt from her session: if art is organically linked to other disciplines – history and anthropology in this case – it has a better chance of reaching out to a larger audience than when it is about purely art-related subjects.

Tazeen Qayyum performing at the Karachi Biennale 2017| Malika Abbas, White Star
Tazeen Qayyum performing at the Karachi Biennale 2017| Malika Abbas, White Star

Between 2014 and 2016, online art publication ArtNow hosted several talks on art at KLF. The panels organised by the magazine ventured into some really interesting topics such as Art as Part of Public Engagement, Chughtai Revisted and Making an Artist.

These sessions were held in a separate ‘section’ with its own designated hall within the main KLF venue. The audience in this section had access to special lounges, they were served snacks and were offered other exclusive privileges not available to the rest of the crowd at the festival. This segregation, however, did a serious disservice to both ArtNow and the idea of integrating visual arts into a literary event. The audiences were thin and the interest in knowing about the magazine and its work scant.

Of course, it was commendable to get sponsorships and patronage to support a public platform that ArtNow wanted to create for Karachi’s citizens where they could meet local and international artists, but the idea became convoluted due to its exclusive settings and the separation between art and literature. The division was especially puzzling because there are countless Pakistani artists who have used literature and poetry as vehicles of exploring and questioning our notions of history and identity.

The failure of the ArtNow experiment perhaps also contributed to the invisibility of dialogue on art at KLF in 2017 when the magazine did not set up shop at the festival.

It is, thus, important to think how location plays a critical role in the public outreach of art. Any contemporary visual artist in Pakistan will attest to the fact that audiences at their exhibitions are by and large their own friends and families, graduates from art institutions and potential buyers even when the gates of the galleries where these exhibitions are held are not manned by intimidating security personnel. As a result, most people are not aware of the critical role that art plays in our understanding of the environment around us.

It is, of course, vital to bring visual arts closer to public forums such as KLF but it has to be done in a way that the two disciplines of art and literature do not appear as separate but rather as complementary to each other. Art and artists need larger platforms to engage with the public and forums such as KLF need to be employed more effectively for the purpose than they already are.


This was originally published in the Herald's March 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.