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.

With sunlight shimmering across the water, the view of the waterway on the rear of the hotel is a thing of beauty. The brochures are by no means photoshop exaggerations and in the brutal heat of Karachi, a refreshing dip may be a tempting prospect. Perhaps a boat cruise along the distant mangroves…. such thoughts, however, bare no fruits. Closer inspection reveals the potential for hazardous side-effects with all sorts of floaties and submerged materials in these tranquil waters. My swimming shorts stay unpacked.

In Karachi, we were once again received with amazing hospitality. Karachi says hello, with the sounds of its streets, hidden alleys and of course the art we saw. The city is truly alive. It has an organic quality that makes itself known wherever one goes. Karachi, like all beings, has its scent. There is a foreign smell to every place one goes, whether it is through the humidity or dryness of the air or the heated tarmac. Like all other aspects of the city, its scent has a distinct organic quality. It is a fishy, sour (sweet) smell. In the humid heat, each breath becomes like swallowing some kind of steamy sweet and sour fish-mist, deposited at the back of the throat. There is a sisterliness to it, with all breathing the same air and perhaps occasionally sharing the same thoughts about it. The playing field is levelled and natures middle finger can be seen from all heights of society: as one leaves the taxi, opens the hotel door or during the awards ceremony of the biennial, everyone is enjoying yet another visceral gaseous soiree, served up by the polluting symbiosis of man and nature.

The Mangrove Project is a group exhibition at the Architecture Campus of the Indus valley that focuses on the dark side of urban development for the threatened natural habitats of Karachi. The mangroves are a diverse and wondrous ecosystem that provides a poor community of farmers and fishermen with food and source of income. The struggles and anomalies of this ecosystem have been part of a long-term project by Tariq Alexander Qaiser, resulting in a multiscreen documentary in the exhibition, where the artist/architect is showing the mangrove at different moments, throughout the years. It is an ambitious undertaking that aims to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of urban development for both citizens and nature.

During a dinner, Qaiser said he aims to continue documenting, with the final goal of collating the information into a book. His writing practice is unusual and poetic in itself. When he gets back from his expeditions, he watches the footage again to recall the moment to then put it in words. This is an admirable personal approach and we hope he manages to reach a broad audience with it. It is, however, curious, that a project that is aimed at generating awareness is shown in an exhibition that does not communicate in the local tongue. All the exhibition texts are done in English, the language that is primarily spoken by the elite whereas the vast majority of the population speaks Urdu. This is not a small oversight. What else is there to be concluded than that the choir is singing to an audience that already has access to the art world. School kids aside, this institution has forgotten the life that makes the art. This is not a finger-pointing exercise and the validity and talent displayed at the exhibition cannot be denied. However, it is debatable whether this venue is a suited conduit to allow art as a platform to focus and expand horizons, or to raise awareness, in a place where echoes of a bigger picture enter one's body with every breath, regardless of language or social status. Qaisers project and the works of other artists in the exhibition are important contributions to the debate, even though the biennial lacks critical reflection on the social networks it operates in. Perhaps reflection requires some kind of next-level event, in which the stink gets too bad to get used to and shames the highest echelons of the society that inhales it.

Later we were informed the scent is related to a recent storm. The factuality of this blog is somewhat dented, but the metaphor stands.

In any case, we were next bussed to the main venue of KB19: the newly planted park that hosted the biennials opening ceremony. An abandoned building is host to some 15 video works. It is in the same area the performance work titled ‘ Tabddeeli by Quinza Najm’ took place. This beautiful piece has now been removed from the programming due to political reasons, in other words, censorship. It’s unclear to us exactly what had triggered this exclusion of the performance. The work Najm had presented for KB19 was a further development of a work she made and presented for the Queens Museum in New York where she lives and works. The artist told us the work was a reaction to Trumps “Muslim ban”.

In the newspaper DAWN we read an article that has been published after the press release of KB19 regarding the censoring of Nam’s work and another work by Adeela Suleman. The Biennal writes “With regards to the exhibition in question, we feel that despite the artist’s perspective, it is not compatible with the ethos of KB19 whose theme is ‘Ecology and the Environment’, and feel that politicizing the platform will go against our efforts to bring art into the public and drawing artists from the fringe to the mainstream cultural discourse.” The timing is off. As if the organizers did not know what the artists were going to present! It is of course difficult to understand the full scope of the politics at play, although one would imagine that the biennale also has a role to play in defending their artists and their right to free speech. The trustees are after all some of the more influential individuals in the country. There is another way of looking at this. Perhaps the controversy shakes things up, raises awareness differently, in the corridors and homes to slowly seep into broad daylight. Time will tell.

For those of you planning to hire a car during your visit to Karachi, it may be worthwhile thinking again. Unless you have learned to drive here, you will have a hard time tapping into the method in the chaos that they call driving here. It all works out, and we have not witnessed a single incident, but the average Westerner lacks the reflexes and spatial awareness to manage the flow of cars, donkey-karts, random objects and noise on these miraculous streets. Perhaps the collaborative video work by German artist Folke Köbberling and David Moises had a particularly suited audience in this city. The artists describe the work as a performative sculpture that features a white Mercedes Benz driven by a robotic system.

There are two parked cars in the scene as the Mercedes bumps into the pillars holding up the building/garage. The robots driving becomes increasingly erratic, bumping the car into the various structures until the entire garage collapses and the scene is left as a pile of rubble. The status attributed to the Mercedes brand and its’s role as a national icon are both debunked in this piece. One may leave the piece feeling safer in the streets of Karachi.

The scene changes as we made a bus detour to drive by the seaside, which is remarkably similar to the flat coasts of the Netherlands. We were driving towards the Jamil Naqsh Museum that is dedicated to the eponymous artist who only recently passed away. This exhibition was titled “Fisherwoman of my Mohenjo-Daro” Born in 1939 in Kairana, Uttar Pradesh, India, Jamil Naqsh was one of the best-known contemporary artists from Pakistan. His works reflect both on the culture of Pakistan and that of the whole of the Indian subcontinent. It is an intriguing combination of modern expressionism and classical pictorial tradition. From this perspective, one could argue the works align Western Modernism with Eastern Classical practices. However it is not enough to think of the works in terms of their relationship to Western Modernism. Pakistans art infrastructure has thus far resulted in a strong relationship between academia and art making. The artist as educator seems to be a more natural fit than its contemporary counterpart in the Europe. Students and teachers become each others colleges and friends in ways that do not exist in the West, where the work of the newer generation is more geared towards supplanting the work of previous ones. The lines of communication and evolution are more complicated here. The past and present mingle differently. Like all artists Naqsh works are not merely a result of the ebbs and flows of art movements, but also testimony to interpersonal relationships that are deeply rooted in kinships, traditions and details that remain obscure and perhaps even secret to us as foreign observers. The charm of the work is not only in its’ alternative framing for Modernism but also its’ mystique as artefacts that counter simple historical categorisation.
This space feels like a house, a home of sorts. It is no coincidence that the architect of the museum is the late artists son. The organic, gaseous nature of Karachi takes a biographical turn here, as the artistic and familial merge in an interdisciplinary lineage that in turn merges art, interior design, biography and architecture.

Kianoosh Motallebi