It is 11 am at the Karachi zoo and busloads of international visitors have spilled into its grounds. The local public is bemused but many haven’t noticed, because they are struck by a transparent elephant, in which a “white lady” sits in a dress reminiscent of a Disney Princess. The monkeys squabble in their enclosure, trying to catch a glimpse of their neighbours: haunting white plastic figures by Khalil Chistee.
For a city that often scares visitors, the sight of Dutch curators shoulder-to-shoulder with Karachi zoo-goers fills you with promise. The Second Karachi Biennale (KB19) has been accessible, meaningful, eco-friendly (it has avoided printed invitations, even its signage is made of bamboo and printed on paper, not plastic) and for the whole city. But for some, that has not been enough. Should a Biennale be expected to solve all our problems, be the crusader who grabs thugs by the neck?
The Biennale’s reach spreads further than our eyeballs perceive. Curators and museums from around the world have chosen and commissioned artists from KB19, nourishing our local art scene. Part of the Biennale’s mandate is to create cultural visitors and celebrate Karachi’s vibrancy and resilience. That the institution is finding itself unloved is unfortunate.
It would be impossible to mention all the 100 artists who joined a global conversation on humanity’s impact on the environment, under the KB19 thematic Flight Interrupted: Eco-Leaks from the invasion desk. Curator Muhammad Zeeshan chose a mix to alert us to the precariousness of our place in the planet. Sohail Zuberi’s “Archaeologies of tomorrow: history and ecology of the town on a cliff”: is made of relics from a shore that Chinese, Middle Eastern, and local developers lust for. Pieces like Seema Nusrat’s “When Birds Collide II” and KB19 Peek Freans Emerging Artist winner, Arsalan Nasir’s interactive pre-smartphone game discuss our impact on animals. Canadian Lyla Rye’s “A Mediation” is a disconcerting reminder of our uneasy relationship with nature. Meher Afroz’s poetic “Scarce Water” or KB19 Jury award Rashid Rana’s allusion to Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”; “Beauty Lies” or the collaborative Mangrove project with Noorjehan Bilgrami, Zarmeene Shah, Tariq Alexander Qaiser, Sohail Zuberi, Sadia Salim and Marvi Mazhar – all bring a delicate landscape in focus.
The Biennale allows us to take a step back and see the bigger picture. In KB17 curator Amin Gulgee’s case, it even transports. In the performance accompanying “Impossible Growth”, four Anubis-like figures towered overhead, hands throwing coloured powder into the air. In the centre, a sun dial rises, jeweled, into the sky. To enter this sacred square, we must light incense, tie string, wish and share salt.
At a public event for KB17, a woman commented “aisi cheezain humein refresh karti hain” (such things refresh us). For a battered city, what a wonderful gift! An independent platform, built on volunteerism and donations with ambitions to create support for a permanent public museum is something precious
The Biennale’s reach is democratic, bringing a gallery experience to those who will never be invited to a gallery. At a public event for KB17, a woman commented “aisi cheezain humein refresh karti hain” (such things refresh us). For a battered city, what a wonderful gift! An independent platform, built on volunteerism and donations with ambitions to create support for a permanent public museum is something precious.
If only we lived in a world resembling artist Libby Hague’s paradise in “On This Wonderous Sea” (an alluring and cautionary tale on the consequences of our foolishness), where giant flowers and birds watch over our picnic. In such a place, I imagine, you wouldn’t be stripped of a prize for supporting Palestinians or shot in the face for your skin colour. A world where we can openly express our outrage and hurt. The Biennale is not advocating silence, in fact it’s theme for KB17 Witness, alluded to the “na maloom afraad” who plague us and disappear. If KB wanted silence, it wouldn’t have gone through great pains to create a giant like itself. In her opening speech KBT CEO Niilofur Farrukh mentioned the loved ones that they have lost, including her own husband and KBT patron Farrukh Sheikh, who believed in the dream of the Biennale.
Should a Biennale be expected to solve all our problems, be the crusader who grabs thugs by the neck?
KB19 has cast its net so wide — its discourse exhibitions and workshops, free and open to the whole city — that it cannot ignore the state. With a shaky economy, funds are scant and corporations are cutting back. Who will pick up the tab for a Biennale? Pay for the technicians, technology, logistics, shipping and security? It is romantic to think the state can be circumvented, but no other institution has the means to reach the public.
If platforms like the Biennale are not supported, the city will remain battered, and the woman on the street will still be at the mercy of a thug in uniform. The only difference being that now she and her children also won’t have access to art and all the inspiration, education and promise it brings. We must ask ourselves if we care about there being more art for every person, or to let everything burn so as to prove a point.