Journalist and bonafide Karachiite Yusra Askari takes in the scene at the city’s first international contemporary art event – the Karachi Biennale 2017. Showcasing a wide range of expressions through paintings, sculptures, mix-media, multi-media, installations, performances, videos, readings and talks, at 12 clustered venues around town, the free public exhibition has managed to connect people and communities to the city through art.

It was a balmy late summer evening. October the 21st to be precise. The sun had set and the chaotic weekend traffic of Old Karachi was at its very maddening best. As I manoeuvered my way, inch by inch by inch, the warm flush of yellow halogen lights illuminated bright in the distance the splendour of old Gizri Stone. And in all its glory, the Narayan Jagannath Vaidya Government Higher Secondary School stood tall amidst much fanfare, playing host to the inaugural edition of the much-anticipated Karachi Biennale.

The first government school established in Sindh that once housed the country’s inaugural National Assembly, NJV as it is more popularly known, opened its doors almost 167 years to the date in the October of 1855 with a modest roll call of just 68 male pupils. “The history of NJV School is intrinsically linked to the history of Karachi and Pakistan. Located in the heart and historical core of city, where better to start a movement to take art to the people and the world,” Niilofur Farrukh, Managing Trustee of the Karachi Biennale, says it like it is.

Bringing forth to the present echoes of the past in a bid to shape the narrative of the future, the Karachi Biennale “is a visionary platform that focuses on innovation, excellence and criticality.” KB17, as it has come to be known, showcased the works of a diverse cross-section of Pakistani and international artists “invited to respond to the theme, ‘Witness’, chosen for its strong relevance to politics of representation, erasure and selective documentation.”

“The term ‘Witness’ is synonymous with seeing, observing, watching and looking on. Also, to view, note, notice, and spot evidence, indication, proof or a testimony. As a noun, it means to be an observer, onlooker, eyewitness, spectator, viewer or watcher. That’s what we as artists are,” says artist Nurayah Sheikh Nabi. The medium of expression: a mix of paintings, sculptures, mix-media, multi-media, installations, performances, videos, readings, talks – the list endless.

Karachi boasts a rich and diverse art scene that has for many decades regretfully remained limited to private galleries and collectors’ homes. The need for taking its vibrancy into the public realm has long been evident. Two years ago, a handful of committed art-lovers decided to do just that. What began as the dream of a few, soon took on the shape of an initiative of the people by the people – a citizens conglomerate so to say, keen to address the growing need of connecting art to the city and its people. The two-week long KB17 was designed to instrumentalize art to bring a fractured and polarized city together by means of a collective cultural experience.

As a pre-cursor to the KB17, an extensive year-long programme under the banner of ‘Reel On Hai’ was initiated in June 2016. With Pakistan Cables as its main activity partner, the initiative involved the artistic transformation of empty cable reels into works of art. Spearheaded by the Outreach Committee, the ambitious project was designed to rescue the mundane industrial waste product seen as a symbol of subterranean connectivity.

“The reels were placed throughout Karachi – from Orangi Town to the DHA Cricket Stadium, from Gulshan-e-Maymar to the Karachi Zoo, you name it. These artworks were installed in schools, public parks, hospitals and universities among a host of other venues across the city. Artists, designers and architects worked on site to involve the local community in the process, thereby imbuing in them a sense of ownership. The project has helped engage the communities with activities designed around the work to sensitize them to the works and the role art can play to project the dynamism of a people. ‘Reel On Hai’ has not only helped create a buzz about the biennale but has also brought communities and the stakeholders of the city closer together,” Masuma Halai Khwaja, Chairperson of Karachi Biennale’s Outreach Committee, elaborates.

Artist and sculptor Amin Gulgee headed the curatorial team for KB17, ably assisted by Zarmeene Shah, Zeerak Ahmed, Humayun Memon, Sara Paganwala and Adam Fahy-Majeed. The line-up also included international curators: Paolo De Grande from Venice, representing SPARCK, Dominique Malaquais from Paris and Kadiatou Diallo from Cape Town as well as Carlos Acero Ruiz from Santo Domingo. The mix of local and foreign curators coupled with the combination of experienced and upcoming artists specializing in a variety of mediums is what gave the exhibits an edge.

“The last year has been a surreal and intense experience. The curators have all dedicated 20 to 30 hours a week for the past year to the Karachi Biennale, pro-bono. Months of plotting and planning at my kitchen table have gone into putting the exhibits together,” narrates Amin. “I also travelled from one biennale to the other – La Biennale di Venezia, Colombo Art Biennale, Berlin Biennale and also the Whitney Biennale in New York. My attendance was aimed at not only putting out the word about KB17 but also at inviting artists whose work I felt spoke to my city to exhibit in Karachi. In no way did I sugar-coat the situation in the city or the country. In fact, I asked the artists to come and experience the crazy city of Karachi just the way it is and they agreed. We had some 60 international artists from 30 different countries showcasing their works at KB17,” he adds.

Among the exhibiting artists was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. A Pakistani artist living abroad, Zulfiqar believes the biennale has clearly set the ball rolling: “It spotlights a lot of Pakistani artists and the diversity of their experiences in relation to artists from across the globe. KB17 has brought to Pakistan an art world that always remained curious but with little to no access to the country. The non-commercial nature of the biennale has also allowed artists to take risks and invest in practices that do not pander to a market as can often be the case in Pakistan. I hope that all this attention will also allow for the availability of more grants and funding opportunities for performance artists and those whose practices are not marketable. After all artists, cannot live on exposure alone.”

From artists to a host of patrons, institutional partners, donors and sponsors, support came Karachi Biennale’s way from many quarters. “The Karachi City District Government has been generous and given us permission to install works in various public parks. They also lent us the Sadequain Gallery at Frere Hall for a month, free of charge. This is an important contribution on their part as the space generates revenue for them,” Niilofur Farrukh explained.

The landscape of Karachi was thoughtfully interwoven to tell a story. Twelve venues across the length and breadth of the city showcased the works of 180 artists in four separate clusters.

The journey began with Cluster A. It comprised of Karachi School of Art which is the first private academic art institution in the country, the VM Art Gallery and ZVMG Rangoonwala Trust. Each one of these three institutions are well acclaimed for their invaluable contributions to art and to the city.

Progressing onward, Cluster B brought together Capri Cinema, 63 Commissariat Lines, Narayan Jagannath Vaidya Government Higher Secondary School, as well as Jamshed Memorial Hall which is a tribute to Jamshed Nusserwanjee known as ‘the builder of modern Karachi’, and the city’s first ever book house, Pioneer. The idea behind locating five venues near and around M.A. Jinnah Road was to highlight this area’s historical relevance.

Moving on, Cluster C consisted of the Sadequain Gallery, Frere Hall, the recently restored colonial Claremont House and the Alliance Francaise.

And Cluster D was made up of FOMMA DHA Art Centre, the IVS Gallery housed in the age-old Nusserwanjee Building moved brick by brick from its original home in Kharadar and the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.

The feedback has been tremendous. The city has engaged with the exhibits and the exhibition venues as have its citizens. The foot fall has been impressive to say the least. The exhibits, discursive interventions and extensive visitor programmes during the KB17 combined creative energies and spark new ones. As Canvas Gallery’s Director Sameera Raja says, “KB 17 certainly created more awareness for the arts than anything done before. It is truly the largest public art project.”

She elaborates: “The Karachi Biennale has served to put Karachi and Pakistan on the international art community’s radar. This, in essence, promotes art tourism and also presents Pakistan through a different and positive prism rather than what it is generally shown as. It also opens the doors for local and indigenous creative fields to be recognized and known internationally. As a first step, with a shoe string budget, limited resources, surviving on the goodwill of the names associated with the biennale, KB17 has achieved its aim. This is the start of a new beginning, not just for the arts, but for emerging Pakistan.”

Having successfully rolled out the first edition of the Karachi Biennale, the team responsible for putting up the show will soon be back at the drafting table. The team tells us: “We hope to uphold the tradition of hosting a biennale every two years, so it’s back to the grind for us very soon.”

Here’s looking forward to KB19.

Ali Kazim won the Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation Juried Art Prize.
Shahzia Sikandar won the Shahneela and Farhan Faruqui Popular Art Prize at KB17.