The Lahore Biennale: Painting the city red
Historic parts of Lahore became enlivened as the city welcomed its first art biennale. Art spaces opened up amid ancient ruins, architectural remnants of colonialism came to be reinterpreted and contemporary art shows illuminated many affiliated spaces. With a call to engage art with the public, the biennale marked the first art event of its kind taking place in Lahore in recent history.
Cities hosting art biennales may have become a mainstay of the 21st century urban experience but the practice of holding global cultural events stretches back to the world fairs put together in European cities since the 19th century and in North America since the early 20th century. Since the 1990s, however, this format has been adopted by the art world to promote the idea of ‘public art’ or art in public spaces. Rather than being confined to museums and galleries, proponents of this aesthetic endeavour argue that art should instead flow outwards into the urban space and engage the public inhabiting that space.
Lahore is no stranger to global cultural events even though it is hosting its first biennale only now. The Lahore Museum itself came about in the aftermath of the great Punjab Exhibition of 1864 in which arts, crafts and industrial products were displayed to the public early on in the British era. Nor is the drive to bring arts and artefacts to the public entirely new.
In a 1914 article marking the centennial of the founding of the Royal Asiatic Society, Colonel T H Hendley noted that given the magnitude and depth of the wonders displayed, “The Curator [of the Lahore Museum] finds the building already too small.” At the time, the British saw museums as an institutional opportunity both to educate the public and to create a boon for local crafts and industries. Hendley, therefore, pointed out that the curator “would like to have a day reserved for students, on which a small fee might be charged, so that educated men might resort to the galleries”. He also noted that “lectures are given” at the museum and “there is a much appreciated loan department of slides”. All this does not sound too far removed from the stated objectives of the Lahore Biennale 01.
Another 100 years after Hendley’s article was published, the Lahore Museum, among other spaces, became a site for a reinterpretation of our past and an invitation to reimagine what might have been. Queen Victoria’s statue, now housed at the museum, was confronted with songs of longing sung by women whose husbands never returned from the First World War. Alongside this highly emotional sound installation, the undelivered letters of the British Indian Army’s soldiers, excavated from the archives, were on display.
The curators walked a thin line between museum artefact and contemporary art object — as if destabilising the balance almost on purpose. The work of Fazal Rizvi, for instance, displayed the paws of a mythical tiger, enclosed in glass, alongside photographs of Britons, including Queen Elizabeth II, hunting tigers in India. Imagined realities thus mingled with supposed historical facts in a playful yet provocative manner. Historical pre-colonial sites, such as the Lahore Fort, the Shahi Hammam and Mubarak Haveli, were also part of the spaces utilised in the biennale. The contrast between the postmodern, abstract and conceptual artworks and the ruinous Mughal-era sites where they were displayed was meant to create its own dissociative impact. The Lahore Fort and Lawrence Gardens were perhaps among the most publically accessible sites of the biennale and people from different walks of life – whether by intention or by sheer happenstance – could be seen encountering artworks on display there.
An audiovisual installation by an Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, produced dissonant female sounds to echo through the walls in that part of the fort where colonial and postcolonial rulers once imprisoned and tortured dissidents. A highly symbolic and moving 80-minute video installation by Indian artist Amar Kanwar, narrating a mathematics professor’s descent into darkness, managed to engage small groups of variegated viewers despite its abstract nature. Some of the people who encountered these works had probably not come to the fort specifically looking for them, but these works confronted their curiosities in the midst of their leisure in any case.
Lawrence Gardens added a more playful yet contemplative dimension to the public aspect of art display. Children frolicked about on Noor Ali Chagani’s installation of terracotta bricks laid as mounds in a malleable form. Adolescents captured selfies and portraits in the backdrop of Wardha Shabbir’s vegetal patterns that drew inspiration from miniature painting. Imagined ruins of a lovers’ shrine laid out by Ali Kazim on a mound inside Lawrence Gardens created a meditative atmosphere in the secluded shrubbery. The site of the old colonial botanical garden, re-envisaged through David Alesworth’s archival exploitations of nature and colonialism, provided perhaps the most publicly accessible forum for the display of art.
The Alhamra Art Gallery attempted to mediate between these disparate sites through works such as Shahzia Sikander’s installation that painted past and present imperialism in the midst of a grander cosmic theme of creation, chaos and destruction.
Several parallel or ‘co-lateral’ events were also staged across Lahore in art galleries and other spaces. Notable among these was a contemporary art exhibition, titled A River in an Ocean, at an abandoned textile factory on Gurumangat Road. Curated by Natasha Malik and Abdullah Qureshi, the show reclaimed abandoned industrial terrain as an art space, weaving in visual, plastic and performance-based works to question the conventional boundaries of the body, gender, sexuality and spirituality. Aspects of time and motion in the context of a reclaimed space became enlivened through various sound, dance and conceptual performances. It was especially heartening to see an audience in which women were in the majority, witnessing works that provoked ideas about a woman’s place in the public gaze and public space.
Holding events in historical spaces ostensibly involves a certain degree of reimagination but, in the case of some parts of the biennale, it also made certain artworks inaccessible to many who do not frequent the historic quarters of Lahore. Yet, in this inaugural biennale, this was a fitting way to make a statement about the layered histories of the city.
The initiative to host an art event on a citywide scale is clearly an attempt to mark the arrival of Lahore as a potentially global city in the postmodern age — a process that also plugs into the global circuits of neo-liberalism. As Iftikhar Dadi, an advisor of the Lahore Biennale Foundation, said on the sidelines of an academic conference he organised at the Alhamra, “Biennales also come with a dark side of neo-liberalism, where they open up a city to finance capital and corporate social responsibility.” Still, in a place like Pakistan, he added, these endeavours also create otherwise impossible opportunities to generate a dialogue with the public who would otherwise not encounter these concepts, debates and statements.
Locating the public in a city like Lahore can be a challenge for there is not one but many publics. Asking the question of which public gets to converse with which art intervention is equally complicated. Dadi admitted that these questions lend no simple answers. “Even if some people are not versed in the conceptual terminology of contemporary art, they could still become curious, as viewers, about why something was put in juxtaposition to something else in the first place,” he argued.
The selection of artists and exhibition spaces in this first biennale appeared to be a centralised process, possibly owing to the fact that it was all happening for the first time. For the future, Dadi hopes for the centralisation to give way to new artists using the biennale more as a grass roots platform. Having such a platform in place could give credence to these new voices as they take the biennale in new directions, engaging different strata of various publics in the coming years.
Iftikhar Dadi wrote to the Herald after the article's publication claiming that he has been quoted incorrectly by the author. Below are the last three paragraphs as amended by Dadi:
The initiative to host an art event on a citywide scale is clearly an attempt to mark the arrival of Lahore as a potentially global city in the postmodern age — a process that also plugs into the global circuits of neo-liberalism. However, Iftikhar Dadi, an advisor of the first Lahore Biennale and organiser of its two-week long Academic Forum at the Alhamra, noted that in a place like Pakistan, these endeavours also create new opportunities to generate a dialogue with the public on these and other topics. For example, in her lecture, Esra Akcan, professor of architectural history at Cornell University, discussed how during the past two decades, Istanbul has greatly expanded and has been reshaped by massive construction projects, a process that has important lessons for Lahore.
Locating the public in a city like Lahore can be a challenge for there is not one but many publics. Asking the question of which public gets to converse with which art intervention is equally complicated. Dadi admitted that these questions lend no simple answers, because curatorially a balance needs to be maintained between the transparent accessibility of an artwork, and the challenge a “difficult” work may pose as provocation for further reflection. “Even if some people are unfamiliar with contemporary art, they could still become curious, as viewers, about how to respond to an unfamiliar form of art, or why one artwork was curatorially placed in juxtaposition with another work,” he argued.
The selection of artists and exhibition spaces in this first biennale was accompanied by a number of collateral exhibitions and projects, which began to expand the scope of biennale. For the future, Dadi hopes that along with the main exhibition program, this process of decentralisation will continue, with more artists and curators using the biennale as a grass roots platform to organise new initiatives. Having such a platform in place could give credence to these emerging voices as they take the biennale spirit in new directions, engaging different strata of various publics in the coming years.
This was originally published in the April 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.