The Karachi Seminar was conceived to bring together artists, researchers and curators whose work is of interest to Tate Research Centre: Asia and for collections and exhibitions research related to South Asia. The programme was timed to coincide with the academic talks and lectures organised by the Lahore Biennale and while there was an attempt to draw in participants and speakers from across the region, the themes of the seminar responded specifically to the local context. The event commenced with a day-long public seminar at Habib University, followed by a two-day workshop at the British Council.
Day One: 24 March, Habib University
The public seminar was organised around current research and practice in Karachi, bringing it into a wider context. Presentations were invited from local artists and researchers, while established academics were invited to moderate and lead discussions.
Panel One: Urban Sites – Working Through the City
DIY City is a collaboration with MadLab (Manchester) and Numaish Karachi, a Karachi-based public art and design collective. Saima Zaidi teaches design and presented recent public interventions focused on reuse of urban space via artist and student-led projects. While this is a new pedagogical model for Habib, the project overall seemed in line with British Council activities which are short term and based on creating visibility for UK-based organisations. The impact and afterlife of the interventions remained unclear.
Tentative Collective presented a film project developed around the Shershah neighbourhood of Karachi, an area known for its car and machine workshops and scrap metal disposal. The project consists of filmic portraits of Shershah residents whose lives are precarious due to economic and urban transformations. The project travelled to the Pompidou Centre, and members of the collective reflected on the conditions they faced through the commissioning, production and exhibition of the work in the context of a European institution.
Lecturers and artists Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani collaborate on projects that look critically at development and infrastructure projects in light of displaced or neglected communities, land rights and indigenous movements. They map the nexus of capitalist interest and the military industrial complex in Pakistan in relation to local communities, in this case in relation to CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) and plans to build road and rail networks with Chinese partners. Their new exhibition and web-based project compares the colonial rhetoric around the rail network built in British India to the language deployed by the new Sino-imperialist vision of regional connectivity.
CAMP’s lecture performance used archival material – news, cinema and documentary – to tell the story of urban housing in Bombay from 1947 to 1982. Using early black-and-white Bollywood imagery, the films that described the arrival of new immigrants into urban Bombay resonated with the Karachi audience in particular, where urban issues are often traced to unprecedented population growth in the wake of the population displacement caused by Partition.
Discussion was moderated by Dr Nausheen Anwar, Associate Professor of City & Regional Planning, Department of Social Sciences & Liberal Arts (SSLA), Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi, Pakistan. Dr Anwar was invited due to her in-depth knowledge of research on infrastructure and housing in South Asia, particularly in Karachi, and her familiarity with some of these practices from an interdisciplinary perspective.
CAMP’s presentation was well received, particularly their use of archival footage. The discussion was lively, with robust critique and discussion of funding structures, types of socially engaged practice and research-based practice. Panellists touched upon the contingency of living and working in Pakistan with increasing dependence on international grants and funding. It was interesting to note that international funding, while necessary, is also perceived as exploitative in terms of extracting knowledge or more cynically, for box-ticking in terms of increasing diversity. Inviting artists from South Asia to work with Asian communities in Paris, for instance, was a demand that Tentative Collective actively resisted in their response to the Pompidou invitation. How to ‘translate’ a work as it moves from local to global contexts is also an active concern. The DIY Karachi project’s lack of self-reflexiveness was commented on by Iftikhar Dadi. He was also mindful of LaJamia’s transposition of the colonial directly onto the CPEC rhetoric as perhaps being too neat. CAMP’s project led to a discussion around how artists might deploy accessible material to address complex concerns which continued into the workshops over days two and three.
Panel Two: Negotiating History – Recuperating Artistic Practice and Exhibition Histories
This panel highlighted recent art historical research related to Pakistan, providing a platform for mid- and early career researchers, and emphasised the importance of locally grounded research and how it might inform artistic and curatorial activity.
The session brought together studies of individual artistic practices (particularly by women artists), exhibition histories and research that reconsiders established local narratives.
Saira Ansari presented research from a recent fellowship with Asia Art Archive and the Lahore Biennale Foundation. She is Zubeida Agha’s niece and therefore has access to this otherwise elusive archive. She looked at Agha as a link between the intellectual and artistic worlds of East and West Pakistan and as a determined yet modest champion of modernism from the early stages of cultural production in Pakistan. A shift in the national narrative after the split of the nation in 1971 was followed by martial law and Islamisation, when she slipped into obscurity.
Samina Iqbal explored the magazine cover as a site for exhibition in her recuperation of a magazine that was launched in 1947. It ran from Karachi from 1949 to the 1970s, promoting ‘modern art and other secular topics to the general public’. Most of these works are impossible to trace and as such, the covers become a visual archive in dialogue with more progressive ideas circulating within the publication.
Mariah Lookman has begun an Adjunct Researchership at TRC: Asia and was a curator for an exhibition within the Lahore Biennale. She presented on the feminist activism of Lala Rukh, particularly a sound work based on the lawyers movement of 2008. The presentation shared new and tentative research, still in progress, honing in on Lala Rukh’s finely detailed but minimal practice, focusing in on details of her works on paper and leading into the poetics and context of the sound work. Lookman was close to the artist – she was her student and confidante – and was conscious of her own role as eyewitness to an otherwise resolutely private artist.
The youngest of the group, Aziz Sohail presented on recent research conducted during a fellowship at Cornell with Dr Dadi. The moniker ‘Karachi Pop’ was coined by Hammad Nasar with reference to work made collaboratively in Karachi in the 1990s. It was debated at a panel (Nada Raza, Adnan Madani, David Alesworth) in London, and seems to have become shorthand for a group of artists with enduring influence on pedagogy and practice in Karachi, particularly around the Indus Valley School of Art. Dadi was one of the artists who, alongside his partner Elizabeth Dadi, David Alesworth, Durriya Kazi and others, experimented with public art and used the language and techniques of popular street and cinematic art in Pakistan. Sohail’s presentation was detailed and lively, focusing particularly on the strength of women artists, especially in the latter half of the 1990s.
Saloni Mathur raised the question of academic distance with Ansari and Lookman, who are both working on artists they had close personal connections with. These relationships allowed them to access archives and eyewitness accounts. Sohail’s research was enabled through access to the personal archives of Iftikhar Dadi, who invited him to Cornell. This then raised the shared issues of imperfect and incomplete archives and selective access, as Iqbal had struggled to find a complete set of the Pakistan Quarterly. Given the small size of the art historical field and the challenge of accessing materials in the absence of museum and library archives of visual art, the importance of establishing an academic department and a collective digital archiving projects was highlighted.
Panel Three: Watery Biennials – Critical Perspectives on ‘Biennialization’ along the Indian Ocean
This session considered regional biennials through a comparative frame, consciously set against the backdrop of the Lahore Biennale, which was in progress at the time of the conference. Through critical responses to the Colombo Art Biennale, the first edition of the Karachi Biennale and the Sharjah and Kochi-Muziris models, the panel hoped to consider the effect the biennial has on infrastructure, art production and circulation.
Jyoti Dhar is an art critic currently based in Colombo. Presenting via Skype, she reflected on the production and reception of the Colombo Biennale and the arts festival, Colomboscope. The Biennale was started by local artists with commercial support and was an important space for expression in a city recovering from armed political conflict. Focusing on specific artworks, she compared the approach of the biennial, curated by an external guest, to the more embedded approaches taken by Colomboscope. While corporate-funded, in its early editions the model allowed for more collaborative and responsive curatorial approaches. However, these exhibit spaces, led and supported by local artists looking to develop local platforms, are becoming more restricted for critical or experimental practice by the financial interests that have fostered them.
Fiza Khatri and Sophia Balagamwala, who run a peer-group called Karachi Crit, presented a critical artistic response to the recent Karachi Biennale in the form of a joint visual presentation. While the format was playful, the critique was sharp and dealt directly with the issues raised by the arrival of the mega-exhibition format and its impact on a largely commercially driven artistic scene. They raised ethical questions of language and unequal access to the exhibition, and what impact this had on the local artistic community and its latent politics of inclusion and exclusion.
I presented on current PhD research, focusing on biennale models in the Indian Ocean region that are based outside major metropoles and ground themselves in the cosmopolitan histories of their past as port cities. Giving an overview of the site of each biennale, I considered the relationship of the sites to the narratives and works produced, and the audiences they address. I focused on how these coastal sites allow a space for artistic dialogue and projects that challenge the strident nationalism prevalent in the region.
Discussion was moderated by Dr Iftikhar Dadi, who brought in themes discussed over the course of the day and pointed towards the biennial as a meeting space for new connections and communities. In the absence of other forms of institution-making in the Global South, the biennale becomes a space of possibility and engagement. The role of capital and urban real estate development, and the idea of the exhibition as an access point for cultural tourism and, potentially, gentrification was also discussed. The discussion broadened out from the exhibition format to what art historical scholarship might contribute towards pedagogy, critical practice and curatorial practice.
The international market and museums and their effect on local and regional production remains problematic, particularly in relation to the biennale model.The modes of commissioning and funding in South Asia are quite organic at the moment, while international curators still seek works that either represent regional identities or perform what Miwon Kwon identified as locational specificity. It was acknowledged that artists now work with an awareness of these wider networks, tropes and economies, but are still figuring out how to mobilise these resources to make work that is locally rooted and relevant while negotiating the demand for ‘glocal’ art.
Days Two and Three: 25 & 26 March, British Council, Karachi
Workshop led by Adnan Madani, Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths
This practice-based workshop was held over two days with the same thirty participants who were asked to prepare short presentations with specific questions that they wanted to share with a peer group of artists, curators and teachers.
The workshop explored experimental pedagogy and critical perspectives on artistic research and education, led by participant presentations. Groups made presentations on an archive or object that can open up current issues in artistic and academic research in Pakistan, particularly from the perspective of education as a practice of decolonialism. The particular focus was on the ethics and genealogies of collaboration, solidarity and resistance in relation to entrenched colonial and capitalist notions of value, method and progress in the postcolony. The aim was to begin to produce a conversation about how artistic research in Pakistan can respond to both hyperlocal conditions and to increasingly globalised networks of exhibition, funding and circulation.
The format was non-hierarchical and sought innovation, discussion and learning between all participants. Attendance for the workshops was much better than expected, given that it was free and ran across two days. The presence of travel grant attendees from Lahore and Islamabad worked very well, as it brought together a group of artists who do not often discuss their work together. This meant that the very different conditions of production, audience engagement and patronage, even within Pakistan, could be compared.
Each participant was invited to present for five-to-ten minutes, followed by a group discussion. With the assistance of our local liaison, independent curator Hajra Haider, these were loosely organised into clusters. They included artists, curators, academics and artists who are involved in arts education. Themes that emerged from the presentation include socially engaged practice and performance; collaborative practice; and neo-liberal formations, as most public initiatives are privately funded. The discussions were open and there was lively participation from the group. CAMP (Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran) and Adnan Madani helped guide the discussions towards questions around ethics and strategies that might be useful for artists as they negotiate their autonomy vis-à-vis the structures of funding and circulation they operate within.
Common themes that emerged include the question of local versus international; the need for funding; increasing self-organisation; more local and DIY attitudes towards archiving and sharing; and the need for more peer engagement and review. Difficult questions around performance as a form and how the public is perceived by producers in relation to class and access were discussed, with most artists recognising that the documentation of live work and its circulation is problematic and, in this context, unresolved, as often the public recognition and participation in the work is limited. The power of the Western museum, the international art market and the specific concerns of artists and researchers who seek more local and regional engagement were also discussed.
There were two presentations that stood out. The first was by former Brooks Fellow Rabbya Naseer, who spoke about the push the fellowship enabled in her research on performance practices in Pakistan. Based on her conversations with me, she has developed a video archive where eyewitnesses are interviewed as part of the documentation process. The second was by Abeera Kamran, who spoke about The Past is Now, an experimental curatorial intervention at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery which has led to wider debates around decolonising collections.
At the end of the second day, Karachi LaJamia took a smaller group on a tour of Karachi, a condensed version of a series of ‘Radical Tours’ they lead through historic sites that have become obscure. We visited the site of a Sikh place of worship that was attacked and destroyed during Partition, but remains hidden behind a school.
Perspectives from Travel Grant Awardees
There was a recurring theme in the symposium about institutions and their fraught relationship with artists. Several artists/collectives expressed their frustrations with a lack of autonomy, leading to unrealised projects or a diversion from their original course of action.
Tentative Collective’s presentation explained how their initial ideas were not readily accepted by the Pompidou Centre. Alternate routes had to be taken to cater to the needs and projections of the Museum. Iftikhar Dadi asked why outside funding with strings attached was accepted, why could they not look into their own funds for the realisation of the project. There were several discussions during the symposium on how international funding/museum exhibitions come with hitches, yet they are coveted: prestigious awards lead to endorsements, a widening of audiences/opportunities and recognition. Unavoidably, artists from the Global South need to look to the Global North in order to make their mark.
I presented the Murree Museum Artist Residency. Its birth came with the shutting down of a local city museum by the government in order to open a multinational coffee shop franchise. This led to the pilot project for the Residency, made possible by befriending the locals who worked for the museum. It was occupied and used every day for two months as a studio/exhibition space for the artists, leading to tensions with the local government who eventually resorted to threats to forcibly vacate the premises. The space ultimately never became a coffee shop, and remains closed. The Residency still has limited access to it for a few days at a time and uses it for public exhibitions.
Abeera Kamran spoke about a group curated display The Past is Now at the Birmingham Museum, a response to an invitation to respond to and ‘decolonise’ the collection. The intervention included eighty-three objects related to the British Empire and new texts which challenged colonial histories and methods of display. It was interesting to note that the curators did not translate the poetry of Bahadur Shah Zafar, which was understood only by those who could read Urdu, deliberately marginalising a large number of visitors.
A representative of Awami Art Collective shared her experience of a project with the Lahore Biennale and the Punjab Horticulture Authority (PHA). While PHA was the main funder, it was also the main competitor, since it has long been involved in yearly canal projects. It dragged its feet with the bureaucracy of permissions and proposals, leading to an eventual burnout. In the end, a fraction of the lights that had been requested were provided, leading to a watered-down version of the actual proposal.
CAMP added that in 2004 they also worked with the municipality. They bluffed their way into a large colonial square and used the lights of the state buildings and leftover Diwali lights owned by neighbouring homes, which were linked to a crank and software which controlled the set of lights that were to be lit up, leading to a successful interactive public project.
There was discussion around performance and performativity as tools for research and social commentary. It directly led to discourse around collaborative practices and the rise of collectives in the urban landscape of the Pakistan art scene. This led to a discussion about works by artist groups in public spaces; performative gestures recorded and unrecorded, shared only through memory; and archives of performance in the Pakistan art scene since the 1970s.
Designers, architects, researchers, critics, thinkers and writers came together to take part in conversations around art and the nature of cross-disciplinary encounters, creating more opportunity for performance-based practices, research-led projects, curated archives of performances, public inventions and forms of protest. Questions arose around approaches to researching, recording and archiving such practices, and the difficulty of endorsing viewpoints, positionality and borrowing from disciplines like anthropology and academic objectivity was pointed out.
Funding and Research – Tentative Collective
The Tentative Collective from Karachi raised questions about the effect that funding from museums and institutions has on the nature of research and work production by artists. The hierarchy and functional independence of the art world are being shaped by the expectations of sponsors and funders. In such a scenario, what is the role of artists in negotiating their creative freedom and autonomy, particularly when their work shifts from a local to an international context?
Research-based practice – Tentative Collective, Studio CAMP
The Tentative Collective and studio CAMP from Mumbai both have research-led practices that are developed across mediums and methods. Studio CAMP has been building an archive of film footage and excerpts that relate the story of Mumbai’s urbanisation and its socio-political landscape through a cinematic lens. The Tentative Collective are positioning themselves in a similar place of exploration and study in relation to the city of Karachi. Their work often welcomes participatory engagement with city dwellers and raises concerns about power relations, the reclamation of public spaces and the use of cinema projections against the landscape of the city.
Performance in public spaces – Studio CAMP, Tea Collaborative
Among the various projects that studio CAMP has conducted, those held in public space and those that are generated as a result of activating public space are of primary importance. A project in which they lit up a neighbourhood with a single continuous line of light raised concerns around agency, permission and collaboration, as the neighbourhood dwellers had to be convinced to allow the line of light to pass through their homes and balconies.
The Tea Collaborative from Islamabad is a collective that activates landmark political sites in the city by having tea at those sites. D-Chowk, a politically charged junction in Islamabad that has been the location for many protests, riots and marches, is visited by the collaborative on the day of the clean-up after a big riot has taken place.
Performance as a Tool for Education and Research – Rabbya Naseer’s Performance Art Archive
Performance art in Pakistan is not yet part of the formal pedagogy of art institutes across the country. The informal aspect of the practice makes it difficult to define, label and criticise. However, the attempt at collecting undocumented (and in some cases partially recorded) performative gestures is one way to formalise the existence of this practice in Pakistan. Naseer raised multiple questions regarding the significant role that institutional structures and position play in the challenges of building such an archive.
In the last few years a number of artist collectives have emerged in both Lahore and Karachi. Some of the participants present at the workshop are active members of these artist collectives. These groups of artists have come together for various reasons to work collaboratively. One wonders why so many (mostly young) artists suddenly feel the need to form these collectives. One possible explanation is that the country’s current socio-political turmoil has sent a hum of tension through our daily lives. These collectives are perhaps a need of the time. The need for a collective ‘no’ to certain values and practices and a collective ‘yes’ to others. The work created is not made for gallery goers, but for a much wider audience. These artists take the work to its audience by carrying out their artistic gestures, performances, installations and video screenings in public spaces. A common feature of these practices is to intervene in public spaces either by working site-specifically in response to the rapidly changing city, or by collaborating with communities of a certain neighbourhood. More often than not, the projects of each such collective are city-specific.
During the workshop at the British Council we saw various examples of socially engaged practices, produced by independent artists as well as artists’ collectives. Various questions regarding the ethics of engagement with people and communities were brought to the fore. The question of who has agency, who the primary audience for such works is and the issue of altering the visual language to communicate with that audience were explored through the perspective of the artists, public(s), government authorities (granting permission for the projects) and funding bodies, especially in the context of Pakistan. The limitations of working with government authorities and funding bodies for such projects is a constant struggle for a lot of these artists’ collectives, but the need to continue with this practice (with or without funding from national or international organisations) was echoed in each member’s presentation.
The discussion hopefully helped the participants to reflect critically on: the aims of such practice (and its context for Pakistan); the visual language employed by its practitioners; how it is similar to or different from just displaying works in public spaces; how one measures the success of public art/art for the public/socially engaged art/art activism/participatory art (or whatever other category we may want to put this in). A lot of these ideas resonated with the questions that I am trying to address through developing an archive of performance art produced by artists in Pakistan. Furthermore, the objectives of the two recently-hosted (and first ever) biennales of Pakistan (Lahore and Karachi) correlated with the above concerns. Both biennales placed emphasis on activating the city, its sites and its public(s). Because the workshop was hosted only a few days after the opening of the Lahore Biennale, the above questions regarding engagement with public sites and wider audiences fed back in to a broader discussion analysing the two biennales.