Lahore Biennale is here

February 9, 2020

This year, LB communicates strong political content through its selection of artists, who are dismantling popular narratives about politics, gender and faith

Still from ‘A Season Outside’ by Amar Kanwar.

Lahore prides in its history which extends over thousands of years, arguably “it was founded about 4,000 years ago by Loh, son of Rama, the hero of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana”, and “the oldest authentic document written anonymously about Lahore was in 982 and is called Hudud-i-Alam”. With the second edition of Lahore Biennale (LB02) having opened, it has emerged as a leading global centre of art. This is not just because its curator, Hoor Al Qasimi, has invited artists from 44 countries; rather she has interpreted the city as a venue where many worlds meet, converse and converge.

At the LB02 (January 26-February 29, 2020), the link between a work produced in a far-off land and its current location has infused new meanings in the art piece, and altered the familiar sites of Lahore. Qasimi has brought what is possible Between the Sun and the Moon, which can be interpreted as between East and West, or North and South, and here and there. When you visit all 13 sites, the significance of this major art event emerges; a biennale of international standards is in our reach, since the curator has displayed works which are often seen in museums around the world.

There are several motifs visible at the LB02, including political segregation, gender equality, identity issues, and state of dislocation. Somehow all these converge and correspond, leading to freedom. This is an impossibility for a majority of people and artists from regions known for their narrow perception and restricted freedoms: political, religious, ethnic, or artistic. Many artists from South Asia, Middle East, North Africa, imbibe resistance and critique of power — whether state, public or orthodox by nature — in their work. Their art in essence seems closer to literature, as described by Northrop Frye: “The kind of problem that literature raises is not the kind that you ever ‘solve’.”

Rather one can push boundaries — formal, political, societal, religious — like these artists are doing. Mohammad Ali Talpur’s works on paper, derived from Arabic/Islamic calligraphy are placed in the hall of Lahore Museum filled with Buddhist statuary. Sparseness of expression in Talpur’s ink drawings, and grey stone sculptures of men and women of a bygone era, invoke the link of spirituality in these devotional yet detached images. Sculptures of Gandhara period must have been considered sacred, as is the Islamic script, but today both are enjoyed mainly for their formal and emotional aspects.

Similar aspects are evident in Anwar Saeed’s work. A painter who has pursued his vision, view and vocabulary for years without accepting acclaim or caring about restrictions, Saeed has carved a narrative that is rooted in history, myth, and everyday discourse. Displayed at Zahoorul Akhlaq Gallery in the National College of Arts, the paint speaks through forms, and forms talk about the presence of body, its interaction with other entities and objects, all trangressing lines. An act that appears to be the main motif of Rasheed Araeen’s mixed mediums when he challenges racism in the UK; his face overlapped by provocative graffiti.

History for many is a toy to tear, assemble, and dress in varying costumes. Here it is questioned, and grieved by a few participating artists.

The political divide is also addressed in Amar Kanwar’s film, A Season Outside, which documents porters on either side of Pakistan and India. One of those few ‘visible’ borders in the world, where a 12 inches wide white patch separates the two states. It may be politically and physically impossible to cross such boundaries, yet “butterflies and birds are free to fly”. The work deals with exile, displacement and the split between two nations.

That particular border is an aftermath of the Raj in the subcontinent. British colonial period’s exploitations and atrocities emerge in other works, too, of John Akomfrah and Barbara Walker. The curator’s creative decision to have them installed at Tollington Market, a colonial structure, add to the context and relevance of their works. Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs, with its part one Signs of Empire and part two Images of Nationality, investigates and documents, the visuals and audios, emerging from colonial rule. Walker’s charcoal drawings “depict soldiers from the Commonwealth in World War I”. Men of colour, employed by their white officers, who fought and died upon distant soils.

Drawings of these larger-than-life servicemen under the arches built by Indians for their European masters appears to be made for this site. Much like the video of Michael Rakowitz, The Ballad of Special Ops Cody relates to its location, the Lahore Museum. It is based on a threat about killing an American soldier in Iraq, a false alarm, because the image posted was of, “Special Ops Cody, a US infantry action figure made to exacting detail….. sold exclusively on US military bases in Kuwait and Iraq”. In the video, this life-like figurine walks and climbs into a glass case filled with statues of Mesopotamian civilization, and offers them “liberation, urging them to leave their open vitrines and return to their homes”. The toy soldier depicted through a stop motion video, interacts with ancient statues inside a museum display box. The video is played in a museum gallery containing other glass cabinets filled with artefacts from earlier periods, and becomes a way to connect with the present through the past.

“Past” in the words of Mozambican writer Mia Couto, “has not yet passed”, especially for contemporary Indian artist Vivan Sundaram, who resurrects memories of Amrita Sher-Gil in his series of photographs ‘Re-take of Amrita’ (Sundaram’s mother Indira Sher-Gil was Amrita’s sister). Using photographs by Umaro Singh Sher-Gil, Amrita’s father and other sources, Sundaram mixes the actual with the imagined, reality with fantasy. In these pictures different periods of time crossover, painted images and camera photos are combined, and unbelievable scenarios are fabricated using a reliable medium: black and white digital-prints. Through this installation, Sundaram not only re-makes his family members, particularly the legendry artist, but also comments on the concoction of historical truths.

History for many is a toy to tear, assemble, and dress in varying costumes. Here it is questioned, investigated and grieved about by a few participating artists. For example Basma Al Sharif’s video We Begin By Measuring Distance, conveys nostalgia through a melancholic recollection of a dispossessed community, who in order to cope with “The worst of all evil, boredom” starts calculating the distance between various European cities (beginning with their place of refuge), and ending by measuring the distance between Gaza and Jerusalem — of Palestine and Israel; the changes in whose numbers remind one of the crucial years in conflict: 1917, ’48, ’67 — until 2009, the date of the work.

Like displaced Palestinians, creative people also spend their lives wandering and wondering, reminding one of Spanish author Jorge Carrion: “Artistic expression cannot be limited by geographical borders nor copyright. Many of today’s artists are aesthetic nomads”. LB02 communicates strong political content through its selection of artists. Individuals who are dismantling dominating narratives about politics, gender, faith. Like Wael Shawky’s three animated videos Cabaret Crusades, based on The Crusade According to Arabs by Amin Maalouf, a rewriting of history from the other side of the fence, but “made with puppets rather than actors”, suggesting how often history is transcribed by puppets!

Lahore Biennale: Portraying Political segregation, gender equality, identity issues