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A Sign of the Times

by Quddus Mirza
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A still from ‘We Began by Measuring Distance’, a single-channel film installation at Tollinton Market by Basma Al Sharif. Photograph by Laila Rehman

The Lahore Biennale 2020 is dominated by a sense of dislocation, of exile and discrimination

Jean Paul Sartre wrote “We live in time”; but as there is no singular time (zone) in the world, there cannot be said to be any center of the Earth. The planet has turned global in every sense of the word. With increasing means of communication, information, technology, and market, there are many centers, scattered around the world

Venice Biennale, once a prima donna of international art, is followed by other venues, different and distant cities, which are not landlocked by “country representation.” Changing and challenging the notion of nation, observed by Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Secure the Base “…every African community is said to comprise a tribe and every African a tribesman. We can see the absurdity of the current usage, where a group of 300,000 Icelanders constitutes a nation while 30 million Ibos make up a tribe.”

Now other tribes are also being elevated into nations, for example the art from South Asia, with Lahore Biennale being the latest addition. The second edition of Lahore Biennale (LB02), curated by Hoor al Qasimi, is spread over 13 different sites of Lahore, a city of Mughal heritage and English colonial architecture, reaffirming the shifting axis of art.

Shifting balance of power, politics, gender and popular idiom are a few points to pick at the Lahore Biennale 02 (Jan. 26-Feb. 29, 2020). Inviting artists, from South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia and the rest of the world, the LB02 turns into an extended essay of Franz Fanon. You see discourse from The Wretched of the Earth to Black Skin, White Masks, transformed into videos, installations, mixed media paintings, drawings and other formats. Yet the dominating motif of LB02 (with its theme ‘Between the Sun and the Moon’) is a point of dislocation: exile, political circumstances, ethical positions, racial segregation, gender discrimination.

Many of the participants resurrected memories of dispossessed people. Egypt-based Basma Al Sharif, in her video We Begin By Measuring Distance, maps the plight of Palestinians, who in the wake of displacement—and in order to overcome ‘The worst of all evil, boredom’ start calculating the distance between their temporary homes to different metropolises of Europe, reaching to cities in the Middle East, and finally ending up gauging the distance between Gaza and Jerusalem. Like any work of magic-realism, length soon turns into the unit of time, showing years, which had crucial and critical value for Palestinians.

An image from Amar Kanwar’s ‘A Season Outside (1997).’ Courtesy the artist

There are other distances. Experienced in Amar Kanwar’s video A Season Outside, focusing on the conflict involving India and Pakistan, and showing the insurmountable border between the two countries. Tension, drama, farce, and fierceness are several sides of political currency distributed among the population of both republics. In the video, porters from opposing sides are documented, along with soldiers of both countries, mutually performing across Wagah. One of those few ‘visible’ borders in the world, where a 12”-wide, white patch separates two states, Wagah is a difficult—nearly impossible—distance for humans, but here “butterflies and birds are free to fly.” The film includes footage from historic political violence, and of present exiled Tibetans housed in India. It alludes to the nature of conflict by showing combat between rams, and other games in which tension of opponents’ faces can be transcribed into larger (actual) battles. The work deals with displacement and split of communities, yet the tone of the text (by the artist) is subtle and eloquent. Confessing his presumption that porters from Pakistan would be wearing green, while Indian be in red; only to find out later that Pakistanis wore red, while Indians were in blue—exchanging sacks of grains on that impossible border stripe.

That particular border is an aftermath of the Raj in the Subcontinent, and it was relevant to watch Kanwar’s film projected inside a colonial building, Bradlaugh Hall, built in 1900. The exploitations and atrocities of Britain’s rule over India emerge in the art of John Akomfrah and Barbara Walker. Both artists, in their separate and individual ways, investigate that colonial past, of subjugation, exploitation and oppression, which enslaved indigenous people for white European cause, in the name of patriotism and heroism. The curator’s creative decision to have these works installed at Tollinton Market, another colonial structure, adds to the context and meaning of the artworks; as Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (one part titled Signs of Empire and the next Images of Nationality) incorporates documents (both visual and audio) of colonial rule.

Artist Barbara Walker works on ‘Alchemy,’ a series of large-scale, ephemeral charcoal wall drawings on display at Tollinton Market. Photo by Laila Rehman

Barbara Walker’s charcoal drawings meanwhile “depict soldiers from the Commonwealth in World War I.” Men of color—employed by their white officers—who fought and died in distant soils are represented in drawings under the arches built by Indians for their European masters, appearing to almost belong to the building. The residue of colonial rule in India is not just a chapter of history; it is also encountered in the present-day reality of South Asia, especially with reference to divides of religion, sects and casts that came into prominence due to/after British took over India. A legacy that two states of the Indian Subcontinent cannot ignore, since it has segregated the entire population on the basis of faith. Rabbya Naseer and Hurmat-ul-Ain, in their installation Distance Between You and I, have dealt with the segregation of sects and beliefs within one nation. Representing this through a poetic, playful and powerful arrangements of fabrics that moves from shades of green to purity of white, the artistic duo signify the disparity between faiths in the Islamic Republic.

Some other works also relate to the content of sacredness. Mohammad Ali Talpur’s inks on paper, derived from Arabic/Islamic calligraphy, are placed in a hall of the Lahore Museum that is filled with statuary of Buddhism. Sparseness of expression in Ali’s textual drawings, and grey stone sculptures of men and women of a bygone era invokes a link of spirituality in these devotional, yet detached images. Sculptures of the Gandhara period must have been considered sacred, and so was Islamic script, but today both are enjoyed mainly for their formal and emotional aspects.

Temporary Situations II, by Anwar Saeed, has been installed at the NCA in Lahore as part of LB02. Photo by Laila Rehman

The emotional element is evident in the art of Anwar Saeed, a painter who has pursued his vision, view, and vocabulary for years without anticipating acclaim or fearing restrictions. May it be official, gender, or class, Saeed carved a narrative that is rooted in history, myth, and everyday discourse. Relying on a varying set of symbols, Saeed constructs episodes of imagination: a man holding an alligator, another male who has lost his lower half, exchanges between men both pleasant and painful. Saeed’s canvases are cartography of ordinary folks from Lahore, those who would never make it to Biennale or any art event for that matter, but those who have a life beyond art.

That life, often considered boring, limited and without color is daubed colorful in Monument of Arrival and Return by Basir Mahmood. His video documents coolies from the Lahore Railway Station, clad in bright scarlet and engaged in rudimentary chores: carrying a pair of shoes, handling clocks, holding flowerpots, handing over books; menial (but uncommon for the protagonists) acts made monumental the way Mahmood presents these modest workers. Details of their faces, focus on their arbitrary expressions and highlighting their cloaks, which look not much different from John Singer Sargent’s Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi at Home, 1881 (subject of Julian Barnes’ book The Man in the Red Coat), enhance the poetic and personal element of the work that has a political subtext.

An image from ‘Monument of Arrival and Return’, a film by Basir Mahmood, on display at Mubarak Haveli. Photo by Laila Rehman

Probably the most significant aspect of the LB02 is the curator’s selection of venues, which completes the content—and expands the imagery. For instance, Michael Rakowitz’s video The Ballad of Special Ops Cody, featuring a toy soldier, whose name was once used as a threat by militants, but later discovered to be a “U.S. infantry action figure made to exacting detail…. sold exclusively on U.S. military bases in Kuwait and Iraq.” This figurine jumps into a museum cabinet filled with devotional statues from Mesopotamian Civilization, and suggests them “liberation, urging them to leave their open vitrines and return to their homes.” The video is installed in the Lahore Museum (another colonial establishment), thus connecting with the chords of history spread across times and regions.

LB02 appears to be an attempt to reclaim narrative, not from Western white dominance, but from every edifice of hegemony. The selection of artists range from established and much recognized names to some recent art graduates. Lahore Biennale 02 is magnificent due to its scale, spread and effect. Al Qasimi’s clarity of vision, her crisp choice and her careful layout, has made the entire exhibition an extension/interpretation of what is Between the Sun and the Moon. Or between North and South, between East and West, between mainstream and periphery.

All these dichotomies can be combined too, as some artists, coming from far off regions have responded to actual locations and created works that communicate history—often the painful past. Dana Al-Hadid’s The Escape of Anarkali is a structure of neon lights that replicates the tomb of the Mughal courtesan who, according to local legend, was buried alive in a brick wall. Al-Hadid’s preference to ‘re-construct’ her tomb at the Lahore Fort, the palace of her oppressors/executioners, is an act of defiance. Also an act of identification with all those who have suffered through a male-dominated, patriarchal society. When at dusk this tomb is lit, it turns into a celebration of love between the maidservant and the heir of throne, but that is one popular version. Who knows the other version? As there are always multiple views. Like the history of the Crusades, which is normally conveyed from a European/Christian/Medieval point. Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese Christian, in his book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes has collected “the story of the Crusades as they were seen, lived and recorded on ‘the other side’—in other words, in the Arab camp.”

Part of his ‘Cabaret Crusades, Wael Shawky’s site-specific installation is situated at the Summer Palace of the Lahore Fort until Feb. 29, 2020. Photo by Laila Rehman

Not only a historian or a public intellectual, but a creative individual also needs to search for accounts from the other side of fence. Wael Shawky, in his three animated videos Crusade Cabaret reconstructs the story of a crucial conjunction between East and West, or what superficially be called the ‘Clash of Civilizations.’ Not really though because the past, despite our earnest and eager attempts, does not always follow our whims. The historic incidents are told through puppets, enacting as if part of destiny. Communicating how history is written without the details of those who participated, but through the whims of those who were able to extinguish all other versions.

Perhaps this is most aptly illustrated through A Life (Black & White) by Nedko Solakov, a work that dates from 1998 to present, and comprises two huge walls perpetually painted from white to black, and vice versa. The cycle of covering one color with other, performed by different individuals at the exhibit’s location, confirms how history is wiped out, layered, coated and camouflaged. Reality is mere illusion. Especially in the context of regions which have suffered from “fake news.” ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, ‘War Against Terror’ ‘Axis of Evil’ and other such phrases at the end were purely pretexts to prolong New Imperialist agenda/program.

LB02 informs that regardless of their present address, an artist always survives in a state of exile; as in Halil Atindere’s video of a Syrian astronaut living in Turkey. What Lahore Biennale 02 offers is not much different from the dream of that man, who was settled in multiple worlds in his lifetime, because it makes you realize that your own world is made up of many segments that come from Kazakhstan, U.K., Egypt, Turkey, India, Palestine and other places.

Writing on films, Susan Sontag reveals “… it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to strut, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve”; similarly, from a regular visit to Lahore Biennale 02, a citizen learns to recognize their reality reflected in the art created by someone residing on the other side of the globe. Confirming that the globe is transparent, transnational, transgender—and above all, transformative.

Mirza is an art critic, artist, and art educator based in Lahore. He currently heads the Fine Art Department at the National College of Arts

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