Orientation trips
The Mondriaan Fund organises orientation trips for visual artists and mediators to Asia, Latin America and Africa since 2004. The trips are aimed at exchange and cooperation between visual art professionals.

The first appointment of the day was Sanat Gallery owned and curated by Abid Merchant, a former banker who in a late age had turned to art and had become a gallerist. Abid Merchant showed us his space and introduced us to a business model, which we were to find out was typical for the galleries in Karachi. Exhibitions are opened every fortnight. With very few galleries and a huge fleet of artist as a country with 250 million people has of course, this model seems like a logical and necessary solution. Sanad was showing an exhibition with Khalil Chisthtee, a Pakistan artist based in New York who had come to town because of the Karachi Biennale. Chisthtee creates western pop cultural icons in arabic lettering. The gallery is placed in a former industrial area turned owned by Yousuf Bashir Qureshi who have been working several years to change the area into a cultural hub for art, fashion, film, music, and more.

Yousuf Bashir Qureshi showed us his studio and told us about the project. We also got to side line a photoshoot he had going on. We said our goodbyes and headed to Canvas, another commercial gallery in Karachi. Here we got introduced to the place by the owner Sameera Raja. Canvas have existed in Karachi in about 20 years and are showing both emerging and establish Pakistan artist. Just like Abid Merchant, Canvas opens exhibitions around two times a month. According to Raja, she invented this model when Canvas first started in 1999. Pakistan has very limited public support for the arts and is therefore depended on sponsors and feasible business models. After the introduction, we took a look around the building which had been built by Canvas specifically to show art. In order to stick to the tight program we now headed to Koel Gallery.

After a warm welcome by one of the initiators of the Karachi Biennale and curator of the 2017, the first edition Amin Gulgee the night before, we were toured through his gallery and house

In his spectacular house full of his own work and his father’s paintings, his father was a key figure in the introduction of contemporary art in the Seventies in Pakistan, we were introduced passionately by Amin to the need of art in Karachi. Schooled and trained in the US he returned with his partner to Pakistan to develop a contemporary art scene here. His drive and enthusiasm are contagios. The books that were scattered around gave us an opportunity to get a first glimpse on the Pakistani art scene. 

After a short drive we landed at another very special place in this intense city: Gallery Koel, a complex that consists of a gallery, restaurant and shop. Koel was established in 1977 as a textile workshop. Founder Noorjehan Bilgrami opened the workshop as a space to preserve the then-dying craft of hand-block printing, an artisanal technique for which fabrics are decorated with patterns by using a carved wood block much like a stamp. With time, a gallery was added to the workshop with a similar mission: to preserve and promote regional artworks, including paintings, sculptures, photography, and craft objects such as ceramics and, of course, textiles. Noorjeham welcomed us in the gallery and explained this mission, added a plea for presenting contemporary art in Karachi and Pakistan and explained the meaning of the name Koel, a local that bird that sings before the monsoon season comes.

On display was a well curated exhibition: Beyond the waters. Curator Amri Ali introduced the show for us. Starting point was the unknown early work of Rasheed Areaan, known for his playful abstract work. These early figurative water colours depicted the waves of the water, a forecast on the later abstraction. From there a line with works by mostly Karachi artists among others Zohail Zuberi (wall sculptures), Farrukh Adnan (artist book) and Noorjehan Bilgrami herself, paying tribute to the indigo traditions in textiles and a poetic video piece. This grassroot art space is another oasis in a deserted cityscape.

After a generous lunch and a meeting with mister Wouter Plomp (the embassador of The Netherlands in Pakistan) we went to the official opening ceremony of the KB2019, the second edition of the Karachi Biennale
This takes place in the city’s s largest urban park, built in 2007 at the seashore. The park stretches over 130 acres and contains a cluster of heritage buildings. When we arrive the prayers of the mosque flow over the gardens and eagles swarm around the high rise office building that is just being build next to it.
The speeches by Niilofur Farrukh (CEO KB19 & Managing Trustee KBT), this edition’s curator Muhammad Zeeshan (Curator KB19) and the Mayor of Karachi Mr. Wasim Akhtar the ceremony;s take place and several prices are given to participating artists.

The theme for KB19 is inspired by the ecological consequences of dense urbanization, poetically caught in it’s tittle “Flight Interrupted: Eco- leaks from the Invasion Desk”. The title invokes the loss of species of low flying birds, wiped out by vertical structures, the high buildings in Karachi that broke their flee flight and marginalized life cycles. This dramatic loss seems underlined by the pulsing electronic sound, that floats over the park continuously. One aspect of the monumental installation that Amin Gulgee our host of the first night made at the central position of the park: a dark place for hope and reflection.

The first encounter with the large park is overwhelming. A long stairway brings us to a pier where under most of the artworks of this location are placed. Since we will return to this site later this week it now was mainly the performances that draw our attention. As varied as we have seen the upstairs sections of the galleries earlier this day, was the variation in this art form. From dance inspired performances to large group rituals and media based performances, the first night for sure kicked off.

Mikkel Elming and Bart Rutten

Karachi Biennial Opening night performances at Bagh Ibne Qassim 

Welcome to the Karachi Biennial 2019 (KB19) where the local meets the global, where the poor is said to meet the rich, distinct social classes are expected to converge into one audience, and, where a group of European arts practitioners – we – are warmly encouraged to behold the scene. As I am waiting for the opening ceremony to inaugurate while sipping on a fresh masala lemon drink, a massive orange sun is setting, hiding behind tall buildings surrounding the park ‘Bagh Ibne Qassim’. The spectacular view onto the impressive public park, where the opening ceremony is held, feeds into rising expectations. Despite the fact that we haven’t seen anything yet, it’s hard to not be impressed by the scope of the opening ceremony. That is, it is plain to see that future ambitions run high for the role of the arts to play in a spectacularly diverse port city that is Karachi, the countries’ largest metropolis. After extensive introductions by the CEO of KB19, Nilofur Farrukh, several initiators, stakeholders, and trustees, and finally the curator of the second iteration, Muhammed Zeeshan, we are led on a path of spectatorship across the ‘Bagh Ibne Qassim’. The park, which had opened in 2007, is virtually located at the beach side an its name commemorates the historic figure of Muhammed Bin Qasim: An 8th century Arab conqueror of the Umayyad empire whom at the age of 17 led the first Muslim conquest of the Indian peninsula. As one of the seven locations of this year’s biennial, the park itself aligns with the biennial’s ambition ‘to bring art to the public’, while functioning as a central node of the KB19.

During the the opening night ceremony, the park, which had been designated as a key location through close collaboration with the mayor of the city, hosts a series of performances, sound based works, alongside sculptural works and large installations, effortlessly mixing a variety of references to local customs, cultural practices, and music as an undeniable part of contemporary urban life. Arresting performances and acts have been curated across the site, and are taking place simultaneously. Well dressed Karachiites of different generations stroll down the promenade stretching over the length of the park, each, in their own way, animatedly engaging with the performances and works on display. Meanwhile, some members of our group seem to attract the attention of the local press, while others, like myself, are lost in a kaleidoscopic affair of colors, sounds and visually enhancing displays of specific theatrical narratives and gestures.

Pakistani artist Waheeda Bano Baloch’s performance features a group of, more or less, ten performers – men and women – wearing black outfits, who engage in a choreography akin to affective, conditional and communal ritualistic practices, seemingly expanding notions of violence and care. Crushing and throwing fruits with meticulously choreographed movements, the performers swiftly disperse across the balcony overlooking the park, and come together to form one – collective – body, offering an alternative to individual projects such as by the Swiss artist by Victorine Muller. Muller’s performance act seems to give rise to concerns from onlookers: Seated silently in a light blue gown in a giant inflatable see-through elephant, some of us are wondering if the artist has steady access to a sufficient flow of oxygen. Yet, she seems to be unbothered, as though in a state of meditation. The image is aesthetically enhancing the elephant, an important symbol for the subcontinent. Muller’s image-act remains memorable and haunting, unsurprisingly indicating anthropocentric questions.

How can we make sense of that which remains insensible? Hints of anxiety and violence seep through several other performances, with performers acting through clear-cut visual images and fluidly choreographed movements, using references to local customs and rituals. One such example is a performance that centers around the figure of the Hindu widow by the Pakistani artist Natasha Jozi. All performs are dressed in white and are notably young. Pakistan itself is an undeniably young nation located in a geopolitical territory where a history of cultural dissemination is embedded in the interconnectedness of different regions and of linguistic, religious and indigenous traditions, and where the traces of epistemic violence consolidated by the nation state, are continued to be felt.

Indeed, while the city of Karachi manifests the complexities of the story of Pakistan and the culture of violence that has overwhelmed the city since Partition in 1947, the historic and present-day complexities would largely remain unidentifiable for cultural tourists [like us] if not sought after. By the same token, the theme of the biennial remains generic, and yet urgent, while actively and sensibly steering away from verbalizing notions of national identity or the indication that Karachi as a city, for a long time, had been synonymous with danger and violence. Indeed, curatorial decisions favor “local” ways of seeing the city, e.g. “the ecological consequences of dense urbanization”, to quote from the curatorial statement. Nonetheless, there is a pattern: In a number of performances allusions are made to Hindu culture and traditions in particular. Perhaps, the biennial’s ambition to forge a South-South dialogue could then also be understood as selective and defined solely through conversations taking place within an imaginary ‘indigenous’ subcontinent. A question mark.

In two distinct performances, the Holi celebration powder seems to play a central role in unfolding gestures and a tentative narrative. One of these performances is the work of the incredibly active and animated artist Amin Gulgee, who had kindly welcomed us into his eccentric home/gallery the night before. Formerly acting as the curator of the first Karachi Biennial, in this edition, Gulgee presents sculptures alongside his performance work “4MAKERS” which incidentally highlights the notion of collaborative making processes. Visually compelling and strikingly symmetrical, four performers with bird headpieces dressed in black gowns, perform the act of fire-keeping, while throwing with different colored powders. A minimalist and musing soundtrack accompanies the performance: Composed of the sound of water drops and wildlife bird noises, it is the source of much of the attention, order, and orientation throughout the opening ceremony.

Yet another performance taking place in one of the park’s pavilion structures, highlights Bollywood video-clips as it’s main backdrop. One of the actors steps forward looking at me while I am filming with my phone camera, making the scene on my screen look intimate and comedic at the same time. Lip-syncing to what seems to be a classic Bollywood love-song, it’s as though he is addressing me lyrically. It leaves me smiling.

Katayoun Arian