Lahore Biennale 01 at various venues, Lahore

By Shwetal A. Patel

Ayesha Jatoi, The Beloved has left, 2018, mounted wall text Photo: Usman Saqib Zuberi. Courtesy the artist and lbo1, Lahore Muhanned Cader, Lost Horizon, 2018 (installation view). Photo: Haseebullah Zafar. Courtesy the artist and lbo1, Lahore

Initiated by a group of artists, academics and cultural producers in 2014, the Lahore Biennale aimed, according to its first artistic director, the artist Rashid Rana, to ‘speak to’ 10 or 11 million people, taking art beyond the realm of institutional frameworks and structures and into public spaces while bravely ‘questioning the notion of art’ in a country ravaged by security threats and years of economic and political volatility. It was also supposed to be the first such art event in the history of Pakistan. All this led Rana on a regional and global tour that spanned New York’s MoMA, London’s Tate Modern, Art Dubai and various other artworld hotspots. Then, unexpectedly, in September 2017, just two months before it was due to launch, Rana (together with the Lahore Biennale Foundation) announced that he would no longer be involved with the biennial and issued a statement that his ideas for the ‘concept and methodology of the exhibition’ were his ‘intellectual property’ and would ‘not be used for the upcoming event’. As the Lahore Biennale was postponed, a separate biennial opened in Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital, in November, taking the title of Pakistan’s first periodic art exhibition.

Plunged into stasis, an expectant artworld audience speculated about whether the Lahore Biennale would take place at all. After a period of silence and a great deal of intrigue and speculation, a new opening date of March 2018 was announced, though without a single named ‘artistic director’ or evincible ‘curatorial theme’. Instead there was a new curatorial team of Qudsia Rahim, Mariah Lookman and Zarmina Rafi – later joined by Iftikhar Dadi, Aziz Sohail and Amna Suheyl (who programmed performances, lectures, workshops and symposia), hastily weaving together multiple exhibitions in historic and modern venues throughout the walled and historic city districts. It seemed that despite the last-minute setback, the organising committee was going ahead and everyone would just have to wait and see the outcomes. With very little information being made available in the days leading up to the opening weekend, it was only upon arrival that one discovered that the first Lahore Biennale included 56 artists and collectives incorporating a range of prominent and emerging voices from Asia and Europe, though it was not immediately clear what these disparate practitioners brought to the biennial as a whole. Works by CAMP, Bani Abidi, Amar Kanwar, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Shirin Neshat and Naeem Mohaiemen, stalwarts of the international biennial circuit, added little to any discernible narrative arc or precise curatorial focus, rather more as an auspicious display of practioners.

The official launch was a sombre and reflective moment for a city reeling from years of cultural deterioration and policy disarray. Politicians, artists and local grandees spoke of how the new biennial would put Lahore on the ‘global art map’ and do much to revive its once thriving cultural scene. While the expectation that there might be any delivery on Rana’s original pronouncements seemed ridiculous given the short preparation time offered to the new team, one could palpably sense that this was the beginning of something positive for the city, its people and their art scene.

Among the exhibitions, Lookman’s sensitively curated Invitation to Action, featuring work by artists including Ayesha Sultana, Lala Rukh, Rasel Chowdhury, Minam Apang, Muhanned Cader and Ayesha Jatoi, stood out. The exhibition argued for a degree of opaqueness ‘as a strategy of resistance against a straightforward reading of histories, cultures, and politics’, affirming Lookman’s interests in the links between politics and languages of abstraction in modern and contemporary art from South Asia. The works were elegantly displayed in Mubarak Haveli, a restored Mughal-era compound built around several courtyards and rooms, and the site itself was evidence of how art is starting to break out of traditional gallery spaces and attempting to reach into people’s lives. Perhaps over time these kinds of projects will lead to larger and more engaged audiences and greater local interest, essential for this fledgling and worthwhile initiative to succeed in the long term.

The Academic Forum – a series of public lectures, panel discussions and workshops that brought together curators, scholars, artists and writers from the region – adds the requisite discursive and pedagogic component that is redolent at these types of events. Led by Cornell University’s Iftikhar Dadi, the forums were successful in gathering local practitioners and audiences to explore a wide range of topics that included workshops on critical writing, curatorial practice, contemporary mediascapes and art and climate change. Though not directly tied into any distinct themes in connection to the exhibition, the gatherings, held at the Alhamra Art Centre, provided a much-needed platform for public discussion in a country where restrictions on freedom of speech and religious sensitivities generally stifle rigorous and open public debates. Amar Kanwar spoke eloquently and passionately about his research ethics and filmmaking practice, a rarity for any Indian artist in Pakistan today. The possibility of greater artistic and cultural ties between India and Pakistan through the biennial provided hope that such discursive domains and platforms could have a lasting and transformative impact on two nuclearised and perennially warring nations.

Pakistan’s most socially liberal and cosmopolitan city, Lahore has always exerted a powerful cultural influence over the region and is a major centre of the publishing and film industries, as well as the site of Lahore College of Fine Arts (NCA), whose alumni include international stars Rana, Shahzia Sikander and Imran Qureshi. This history was a key driver in the establishment of Lahore Biennale, raising questions about how the legacy of the city’s diverse and rich cultural past can be manifested in the biennial and how future curators and artists may engage with it, beyond just placing artworks in historic venues.

Lahore Biennale 01 at various venues, Lahore, 18–31 March

From the Summer 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia