The Venice Questionnaire: Naiza Khan

The artist talks about building bridges between Venice and Karachi for Pakistan’s first participation in Venice

Naiza Khan, Sticky Rice and Other Stories (still), 2019. Courtesy the artist

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists exhibiting in the various national pavilions of the 2019 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening on 11 May.

Naiza Khan is representing Pakistan. The pavilion is located at Tanarte, Castello 2109/A and Spazio Tana, Castello 2110-2111.

What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

My project for Venice is titled Manora Field Notes, which is an homage to Manora Island and the city of Karachi where I have worked for over two decades. It benefits from the expansive research I have done, but moves forward through the materiality of that space to question broader ideas of labour and production, optics and erasure.

There is an interesting relationship between Venice and Karachi – both are port cities which have a history of commerce and are situated within the historical transnational trade routes, and both at different times have been part of immense geopolitical change. Karachi has been an important node in the Indian Ocean maritime trade, but more interesting for me is the way that modernity and industrialisation are negotiated within these spaces.

The Pakistan Pavilion is situated within the shadow of an old arsenal, which was an industrial assembly line that built warships at an intense pace. My work is engaged with the history of what this place embodies, as I have been working on a micro-scale with the production of model boats within artisan communities in Karachi.

The exhibition is in two parts. The first is a film installation – Sticky Rice and Other Stories – which traces my journey between different artisanal workshops to produce miniaturised models of historical and contemporary boats from the Karachi harbour. Some of these are container vessels which are part of the global supply chain, and others are historical vessels from fifteenth-century Europe. It also shows the construction of a vintage telescope made with old Russian binoculars which are smuggled from the border outposts of the Iran-Baluchistan border.

The second part is a series of maps and objects cast in brass, which relate to a sound piece. This sound work grows out of my encounter with the abandoned Observatory on Manora Island, together with a text found in the Observatory that classified storms and cyclones in British India. This archival report of weather history offers a way to think about landscape as a diverse unit of assemblages: of power, colonial history and collective memory. So this exhibition explores the relationship of the residue of history and contemporary lived experience.

What does it mean to ‘represent’ your country? Do you find it an honour or is it problematic?

It’s a very special moment and a privilege for me to represent Pakistan at the Venice Biennale. There is a depth and breadth in our cultural sector that has yet to be celebrated on the world stage. It’s a country which has a rich terrain, however this is often locked behind the current flow of media and world politics, especially after 9/11. Too much is scripted in our narrative from beyond our reach and this flattening out of our lived experience is really unfortunate. I think we have to start from the ground up, and talk about the narratives that concern us, working from a position of freedom. This is not to say that Pakistan is without its complexities, problems and contradictions. My work often begins from a personal space and my experience as an artist working on the ground is incredibly rich. Karachi and Pakistan continue to inspire me, to surprise me even after all these years; as it does for visitors and artists who visit the country. So this pavilion at Venice is a beginning for us.

Is your work transnational or rooted in the local?

The local is a very generative space – it is critical for understanding the materiality and flow of ideas that I work with. Over the last decade, ideas have compressed and the specificity of the local has become a way to look at broader issues that we confront in the Global South. So Manora Island has been a space of incubation, where ideas have germinated and found form in different guises. The port city of Karachi has a very interesting history – its development before and after the partition of British India is dramatic, but even more so is its recent history against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, as well as this port being a strategic node in the New Silk Route and the global supply chain. I feel there is solidarity in the way we experience life in Karachi with someone living in São Paulo or Khartoum. So this space becomes a point of intersection to think about the conditions that are faced by hyper-modernisation and neoliberal politics, and in that way it has resonance with the historical past of Venice.

How does having a pavilion in Venice make a difference to the art scene in your home country?

This question itself is a problem, as it assumes a certain sense of legitimisation of one's work in the West that Venice gives to its participants. I am interested in an exchange of ideas – Venice is an art market, but I see it also as the market of ideas. So it is a space that we can benefit from, but also our work being presented at Venice can benefit the art scene here in Europe. I feel there is beauty in what [Édouard] Glissant says in Poetics of Relation [1990], that everything has to exist in relation, and if you see it that way, then Europe is also benefitting. That said, the event does provide a tremendous spotlight for Pakistan’s art scene. Venice is the largest gathering of artworld actors in the world, so for there to be a Pakistan Pavilion at Venice is an opportunity on many levels.

The arts infrastructure in Pakistan is still nascent and support for culture and contemporary art is very thin. But we have been producing great work and will continue to produce great work, and so it is important for artists from Pakistan to be recognised on a level playing field with the rest of the world, to showcase our work as equally relevant and dynamic.

The importance of culture as a basic need is something I believe in strongly. In a country like Pakistan, culture needs to be put on the same level as healthcare and education. In fact many of the difficult issues we face today are because we have let go of our shared cultural fabric, which held society together. Unfortunately it is often the case that as artists, we need to bring this point back home, after getting recognition from outside; to spotlight creative and intellectual endeavour as part and parcel of a country’s growth. Neither can grow in isolation for us to be whole. I hope this pavilion will be the first of many and pave the way for more inclusion and equity, which are much needed at international art events.

If you’ve been to the biennale before, what’s your earliest or best memory from Venice?

At the 2009 edition of the Venice Biennale I was at the launch of Palestine c/o Venice – this marked an important moment, and the energy and enthusiasm at the opening was very palpable. But the most important edition for me was in 2015, with Okwui Enwezor as artistic director. I think he changed the direction of the Biennale. He did not shy away from the political and was unapologetic about inclusion and issues of post-colonialism. I found many of the country's pavilions were radical and offered a critical insight into the current politics, culture and language of their space. For me, the most resonant voices were those that talked about their context in a personal way.

You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing at the biennale?

I am interested in how audiences and artists who visit the Biennale will respond and engage with my work. I also look forward to meeting other artists who will be presenting at the Biennale this year. It is great to hear artists speak about their process and their work.

The Venice Biennale runs 11 May – 24 November 2019