The concept of an art biennale, or mega art event that takes place every two years, goes back to the late 19th century. The most significant of these is the Venice Biennale which was established in 1895, where art from various nations was displayed in the Giardini (The Garden) which had various pavilions allocated to the participating nations.
Ever since, the biennale has reached various cities: Sao Paulo, Kassel, Sidney, Havana, Istanbul, Lyon, Dakar, Sharjah, Berlin, Shanghai, Yokohama and Singapore, to name a few.
Joining them soon in the list is our own Lahore, with the first Lahore Biennale having been scheduled for 2016.
The biennale is being organised by the Lahore Biennale Foundation (LBF), a nonprofit organisation founded in March 2014 that “seeks to provide critical sites for experimentation in visual expression and experience, hoping to challenge and expand the scope of both”.
Their socio-political thrust is also evident in the mission statement which highlights “the potential of art as an important social critique.”
The aforementioned intent was particularly prominent in a recent two-day event organised in connection with biennale preparations by the LBF at the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore. In collaboration with The Gujral Foundation and 56 Espozione Internationale d’Arte, the event included a series of public programmes, at different venues under the common title — “Ancestors: Architecture of Memory”.
Curated by Natasha Ginwala to mark the closing of the installation ‘The Viewing, The Viewer and The Viewed’, it involved a series of lectures by various artists and writers at the NCA, including Naazish Ataullah, Urvashi Butalia, Leela Gandhi, Shilpa Gupta, Salima Hashmi, Abdellah Karroum, Quddus Mirza, Rashid Rana, Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam and Syma Tariq.
Another programme, “A thousand Channels” initiated a series of radio episodes tracing the journey of the travelling public programme curated by Ginwala within the framework of Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta’s “My East is Your West” exhibit that took place in Venice and Lahore simultaneously. It was a unique idea that built a sonic schema through conversations, field recordings, sound walks, films, music, etc.
Then there was “The Gandi (dirty) Engine Commission” that explored the destruction of the River Ravi through waste material and toxicity, through a site specific workshop. This too was an out-of-the-box and much needed discourse.
In the final analyses, the most important aspect was the questions pertaining to geographic connectivity, colonial history as well as shared experiences, similarities and pressing concerns between India and Pakistan that were explored both from the perspective of art practitioners, viewers of art, as well as the common public.
The most intriguing contributor in the aforementioned discourse was Leela Gandhi, who addressed the audience through Skype, as she was unable to attend in person because of health reasons. The grand-daughter of the late Indian political and spiritual leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, her narrative was deep and philosophical, but perhaps painfully obscure for the audience.
Nonetheless, the most significant idea she floated was that of having effective means of communication between practitioners of art, literature and other creative fields and those in governance, whose decisions impact the destinies of nations and the lives of the people inhabiting them.
Indeed one would second this proposition because often cross-border overtures of peace and friendship through intellectuals invariably fall flat in real terms because of the grim realities of real politics and governance. Artists are merchants of dreams; ideals, beauty and even sombre truths, but they need reality checks every now and then. Conversely, those responsible for governance can also benefit by opening their hearts and minds to the finer concepts of life that artists’ present as a balm to this suffering world.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 4th, 2015