The Lahore Biennale 2020 is a treat for the senses
The ancient city of Lahore has been abuzz with invisible ley lines of connectivity for the past month. Not in the religious sense; instead with reference to the deeply resonating connections between the artists represented at the Lahore Biennale 2020.
Expressed through paintings, prints, sculpture, videos, and installations, all the exhibited works appear to be emerging from the wellspring of the human condition. The diverse countries and art practices on display make no bones about breaking boundaries. Borders appears to magically dissolve, as the artists attempt to deal with issues of race, separation, the history of humankind on earth, the wars that we have engaged in, our loves and our despairs.
Exhibited in various locations across Lahore; whether in an old haveli or the Royal Summer Palace, the abandoned Bradlaugh Hall or the Planetarium, Tollinton Market or the Punjab University, the National College of Arts or elsewhere, there is a single thread that hums and connects the work like a live electric wire. Chosen by Hoor Al Qasimi, the selection of the artists displaying at the LB02 is a testament to her sensitive, extremely creative and intelligent approach to curating. For a curator to bring together the varied strands a group of artists is working with imposes an imperative need on them to not only know but understand the chosen work intimately. Not only is that knowledge a necessary first step, but to place together—sometimes in opposition and sometimes in harmony—the main concerns underscoring an exhibition indicates, once again, a comprehensive knowledge of the entire body of work. Qasimi has showcased and brought together artists that have worked with time, text, religion, myth, love, the loss of land, wars, waterways, freedoms and man-made boundaries; truly all the emotions that drive the world under the Sun and the Moon.
Land, that precious entity on which we live and which we fight over, on which past civilizations have left their imprint, on which we have spilt blood, drawn hard borders, negating all our inherited history; is a resonating theme in many of the artists’ work. Khalil Rabah’s embroidered, cross-stitched maps of disputed, constantly shifting territorial borders in Palestine, those silent flags highlighting the labor of love and desire in their painstaking making, are nonetheless a testament to war. Khadim Ali’s intensely colored embroidered panels too speak of war and its ravages. Concealed within the scenes of the Mughal miniature format are hidden missiles, sandbag barricades and soldiers in modern attire, engaged in death and loss. Viewed within the walls of the Summer Palace, these tapestries gleam with an added luster, lent by the 16th century space they hang in. In a different medium, Amar Kanwar’s video of the Wagah border, a much-visited tourist site, spins the same story. This border closes daily before sunset. Over it hangs the unspoken need to reconnect, to brush away the chalking of an arbitrary line that divided a country, of families torn apart, of unhealed partings. When one speaks of this border, the jackboot of colonialism raises its head.
Amina Zoubir’s installation of vinyl records featuring singing nightingales of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt—traces of whom were systematically erased during the 1990s civil war in Algeria—also harks back to the colonization of North Africa. Amina Menia, in a similar effort to repair the gaps of history in Algeria and deliberate erasure by the state, approaches her work by maintaining the memory of war, of corrupt power and history. A pristine building may still echo with its hidden scars and bullet holes. Basma Al Sharif in “We Began By Measuring Distance” evokes the same human need to revisit forbidden spaces, to lessen the distance between land that was once home, which may no longer be visited. Power and corruption are close neighbors, and John Akomfrah’s film examines the corruption of absolute power. Disappearances of dissenters, the march of the army’s booted feet, the threats, the guns, all speak of the need to possess and dominate. This is a lesson we’ve learnt not only from our erstwhile colonial masters, but it has its roots in the very nature of humankind’s overwhelming desire for power, resulting in inevitable wars, conflict and the reshaping of nations and identities. It was also fitting to view this film in Tollinton Market, originally an Exhibition Hall built during the British Raj in 1863.
Wael Shawky’s Trilogy Cabaret Crusades, based on Amin Maalouf’s essays on the Crusades, is riveting. Bloody, compelling and gory, the sole victor of this sad tale is death. It serves to remind us, yet again, of the overwhelming need to seek and conquer lands in the name of God. Self-appointed protectors of the three revealed religions battle out their guts, sacrifice their sons and sell their daughters into political marriage alliances. The puppets evoke a child’s chest of toys, but the acts they are engaged in only reflect our baser natures. From the cradle we teach our children the inevitable lesson of war. Again the viewing of Shawky’s films in the inner, vaulted chambers of the Lahore Fort colors them with a deeper resonance. Returning to more recent times, Michael Rakowitz presents us also with a toy; namely Cody, a U.S. infantry action figure. Supposedly on a crusade of freedom, the Cody toy figure was sent to U.S. families whose fathers were at the warfront. The ultimate in callousness, this toy was to serve as stand-in to the children of the father deployed at the front.
An undercurrent here is a reflection on how power bases shift and change. This is starkly apparent when we see Cody, a raw U.S. soldier facing ancient Mesopotamian votive statues. The power and civilization of Mesopotamia, which in ancient bygone times was the world power to be reckoned with; who could ever have imagined that an unknown continent, far away to the west, would one day be “playing soldiers” in the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates. Further along eastwards, referencing the Indus Valley civilization, there are the stone slabs of Rahat Ali and a modern ziggurat, adorned with clay figurines that are known to Pakistanis from displays at the Lahore Museum. Why does the past remain such an anchor in our creative process, be it a re-working of the Crusades or re-creating faux slabs with an unreadable script? Perhaps the answer lies in our collective histories and memories, which have both shaped and divided us, and our continuing need to decipher that past.
Bouchra Khalili, Barbara Walker and Basir Mahmood also examine their colonial past, which becomes the viewer’s colonial past, irrespective of nationalist borders. Be it Algeria or Pakistan, we can understand and feel the spaces that echo with the events of yesterday. In a little nod to humor and hubris, the transitory nature of Walker’s charcoal drawings on the arches of Tollinton Market shout out louder than any canon. The wheel of fortune is reversed and time, the great leveler has reshuffled the players on the board. Both Christodoulos Panayiotou and Diana Al Hadid use history as a catalyst for their work. The transitory nature of time is thus emphasized. A slice of time metamorphosed into two blocks of sediment and rock by Ayesha Zulfiqar, perhaps a reference to the Partition of 1947, is fittingly assembled in the ruined Bradlaugh Hall, the seat of revolutionary speeches in the subcontinent. From Allama Iqbal, Mohammad Ali Jinnah to the Sikh revolutionary hero Bhagat Singh, Bradlaugh Hall has hosted them all. Thus Zarina Bhimji’s film Yellow Patch, with an image of Queen Victoria filmed in locations across the Indian subcontinent finds a home here. Ironically, a few streets away, a statue of the Empress of India summarily removed in the 1970s from its pagoda in front of the Punjab Assembly now reigns somewhat circumscribed in the Armory Gallery in the Lahore Museum.
Resistance can be and has often proved to be a powerful weapon against tyranny. Gary Simmons’ Across the Chalk Line refers ostensibly to the game of cricket. This is a point of unity and antagonism between the states of India and Pakistan, as is the constant wash of visitors at the Wagah border in Kanwar’s work. Rayanne Tabet too uses the game of cricket to underscore the divisive nature of Pakistan’s relationship with India. Basir Mahmood’s “coolies” (porters) in their distinctive red uniforms are also a recognized feature in colonized nations, to whom the British—in this case India and Pakistan—bequeathed the railways. The numbered brass badges, the lives lived in tempo with the arrival and departure of trains, speak of what once was. Cricket, which we love to play against both India and England is another type of battleground. The cries and claps from the stands and pavilions won’t start a war, but do still underline where loyalties lie. Divisions and separations are the constructs of the language of humanity.
Farideh Lashai’s provocative film has references to the moon, a ball, a plaything, from where it segues into a metaphor for the whole world. Watching this silent play of power, Charlie Chaplain’s film The Great Dictator inevitably comes to mind. Hubris rears its head, with no heed paid to the adage that pride comes before a fall. A tyrant whose terror-filled reign over a country seems endless at one moment in time would eventually end, as all things must.
Text is an ever-present, beguiling form of both communication and design. A myriad variety of artists have created texts in this exhibition. The work of Abdullah Al Saadi, Muhammad Ali Talpur, Rasheed Araeen’s images, and the Ajam Media Collective all engage in text, be it legible, make-believe or graffiti. Some surfaces are to be read and others are deliberately indecipherable. The fact that they are made to look readable poses the question of how seminal this form of communication is. The naked eye reads the squiggles and understands the rows of marks as a lost alphabet. Where the word is meant to be read, in both Rasheed Araeen’s work as well as John Akomfrah, overlying image and film, respectively, it creates another level of understanding, informing the viewer where the artists are situating themselves.
At the Lahore Museum, Rachid Koraichi’s exquisitely embroidered banners and intricately worked prints also read as a form of text, in the manner of hieroglyphics. Here is a world where the viewer can remain for eons, decoding the signs and symbols and arriving at their own conclusions. Making one’s mark is as old a practice as time itself, therefore it comes as no surprise that in seeking to pay respect to the three revealed religions, Koraichi has used different marks, flourishes and colors to symbolize them, making them distinct from each other, yet joining them in a consanguineous whole. While the word “banners” conjures images of soldiers lined up behind their regimental flags, of loyalty to king and country, it also reminds one of the ties of identifying with a family, of belonging to a clan, a tribe and a common language.
Across the adjoining wall from the Museum with NCA, the gallery full of Anwar Saeed paintings might also be interpreted as a rich tapestry. While the palette is vibrant, it does not lend itself to joy. The introverted nature of the world Saeed depicts speaks of a loss to both humanity and freedom of expression. The vocabulary of symbols used by Saeed find common ground with those used by Rachid Koraichi. Rabbeya Naseer and Hurmatul Ain’s work also deals in loss of freedom. A simple construct of shaded green cloth that both divides and joins raises issues of acceptance and lack of choices.
Henok Melkamzer charts another story for the viewer, not on land but in the celestial skies. Time and its measurements in hours, days and months, the calculations and observations of the stars are documented like a patchwork quilt. This same obsession with heavenly bodies finds a resonating voice across the city in the Planetarium where Almagul Manlibayeva with Inna Artemova and German Popov lead us into the world of Ulugh Beg. There is another connecting ley line here; not only are we in a planetarium, studying stars, viewing the work of artists working on a ruined observatory, but are in a city once ruled by the Mughals, whose ancestor was Ulugh Beg. Ulugh Beg, the ruler of Samarkand, founded an observatory there in the 15th century. The skies of the PIA Planetarium serve as a backdrop for the utterly amazing texts, mathematical calculations and drawings that Ulugh Beg wrote and worked on. The overlapping of image and text, while creating a visual overload, succeeds in creating a mesh of imagery and musical notes. In close connection to these visuals is Haroon Mirza’s interplay of sound and light waves, crisscrossing the heavens like Ulugh Beg’s charts of the stars.
Madiha Aijaz’s “Veer Ras” is a metaphor for a tapestry of sound. The repetitively sung and spoken verses of her two protagonists have a mesmeric, dreamlike quality. The notes hang in the atmosphere, almost tangible, almost visible, like an equation. They form a ripple that turns back onto itself, in an ever repeating cycle of regeneration. In the Fort’s Diwan-e-Aam, Hajra Waheed stirs the fires of solidarity with “Hum,” eight songs of resistance against tyranny, oppression and colonization. The sound reverberates in the air. Time past is time renewed in the present.
From this present to the recent past Hrair Sarkissian charts a silent birdsong, that of the extinct Bald Ibis. This wondrous bird, once flying untrammeled though the skies above Syria, no longer exists. A negated sound, a dead note, resounds in the empty chamber of the Summer Palace in the Fort, forever trapping the six bird skulls. The flight of this extinct bird is analogous to both Death and War, which any country that is engaged in strife, whether internal or external, experiences. The artist, in a particularly haunting image, has shown the last known flight in a lit up line across a silvered terrain. Time as well as times past are once again interpreted by the duo, Hera Buyuktasciyan and Hajra Haider Karrar in “Infinite Nectar.” The human need to recapture and contain the past is expressed in the bricks, mortar, indeed the very bones of a city. The paean to Lahore to divulge her secrets is heartrending. Once again we have artists creating works on heritage that is unrecoverable. The border line at Wagah comes to mind yet again, as we contemplate the Bald Ibis, the reverberations of Veer Ras, sung by the last two men who are futilely continuing this oral tradition, emptying their song into an abyss of desolation. This bleakness of an empty landscape and of lost voices finds a parallel with the bird nest sculptures of Adrian Villar Rojas. Their similarity to mud ovens where bread is traditionally baked is striking and sounds a dialogue also with the work of Imran Ahmed Khan’s wall of breads from the tract of land comprising Central Asia to South Asia.
The role of women, in the home and outside the home, occupying the space traditionally earmarked by men, as agriculturists, explorers and investigators, has been most successfully and wittily employed by Marwa Arsanios in her documentary Who is afraid of Ideology and by the Pak Khawateen Painting Club. Arsanios introduces us to a group of modern day Amazons, self-sufficient, intelligent and brave. They live a peaceful fulfilling existence, supporting themselves, requiring no help. The Pak Khawateen Club, whose emblem is an embroidered badge of flowers, take themselves off on an expedition reminiscent of Victorian sketching trips that gentlemen indulged in, among the Swiss Alps. However these pioneering women, in an Amazonian effort, sketching aside, have documented the loss of villages, graves and homes of people displaced and dispossessed by the building of the Tarbela and other dams in Pakistan. The research is meticulous, while the presentation in pseudo machines, meant to recall the control room of the Tarbela dam, from where the water flow is controlled, is wryly humorous. These important seeming machines hum away busily, ruining the lives of generations in the name of progress. The stones from the riverbeds are lovingly encased within these blocks of machinery, as exhibits all lit up and ready to be admired. The displaced inhabitants’ mantra of “not letting the state make you stateless” remains an unheeded litany. In another exploration of women’s lives on canvas, the painter Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq depicts a map-like space, where routes and lines like isobars connect and wind around groups of Sudanese women, while they remain engrossed in their practices of spirit possession known as Zar.
To have no connection to land leads to a lack of identity. However, taken to the extreme, to identify oneself with a country, its flag, its religion and its ways of living, might also eventually lead to a state of intolerance for other ways of living. Therefore to question oneself, to remember and learn from our shared history of civilizations past and present, is essential to the fabric of remaining not only human but humane.
We fear what we don’t understand. Fear, displacement and the sense of not belonging are seen in the film by Lida Abdul and in Kader Attia’s exploration of the Khwaja Sirah community. A man holding his country’s flag slowly disappears as he wades into deep water, negating his identity and that of his country. The transgender community parallels the doomed space of the drowned man and flag. In denying them space other than begging on sidewalks and being objects of ridicule, they may as well be pushed into a lake to drown. As a society, we would prefer to not deal with the transgender community. Human beings with no identity will eventually be erased systematically out of record, like the man, his flag and his identity. Allusions to the element of water, like the elements of time and land, links the work of many artists in this Biennale; as we see in Lida Abdul’s drowning Afghan to Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrasiab’s tale of the Straits of Hormuz. Here the line between myth and reality is blurred as we learn about empowering winds that are both magical and interwoven into the daily existence of the people who live there.
These are but a handful of the artists featured in the Lahore Biennale 2020. The host of artists not discussed here is also seamlessly stitched into Hoor Al Qasimi’s curatorial framework. The selection of sites, many of which are traditionally no-go areas for the public, have served to bring the city’s heritage to the fore, contributing to a feeling of ownership and pride in Lahore. This year’s Biennale entices and beguiles viewers to visit and revisit its sites; emerging each time with new information, a greater understanding of the complexities of the works on display.
Rahman is an artist and teacher at the Department of Fine Arts, National College of Arts, Lahore