Performance art by Rehan Bashir
Performance art by Rehan Bashir

River In An Ocean, curated by Abdullah Qureshi and Natasha Malik and advised by Saira Ansari, was one of many collateral events that took place as part of the Lahore Biennale last week. The title was a thought-provoking homage to acclaimed artist and activist Lala Rukh and also the title of one of her series executed in the early ’90s. Twenty seven artists, both local and international, were selected to exhibit after an open call process.

The exhibition focused on identity politics, gender inequalities and institutional critique. The Lahore Biennale’s booklet states that the events in the city are meant to encourage engagement with art as well as “test the parameters of art.”

To simply state that River In An Ocean fulfilled that brief would be an understatement because it did not just storm the parameters but obliterated normative notions of display and gallery space with the most satisfying bang.

An exhibition focuses on identity politics, gender inequalities and institutional critique

The venue, after all, was an abandoned towel factory situated in the midst of shops selling spare car parts and workshops. A shimmering neonflex adorned the façade of the rundown venue — the print was a gaudy mock neoclassical building with statistics on its columns stating the percentages of participation and representation by women in art schools and galleries.

Natasha Jozi performing ‘Static Body’
Natasha Jozi performing ‘Static Body’

Artist Saba Khan elaborated on her institutional critique, “This generic structure is found in many cities of the world that host biennales — these events can become exclusionary and eventually tools of power and control.”

The exhibition space attempted to negate the traditional notion of pristine spaces and hallowed walls. A concrete floor and white walls, with mould and dampness setting in at certain places, completed the description. One of the artists, Zahrah Ehsan, took this irreverence a step further and had her final say by “tracing” the visible world from inside as whimsical doodles on the colonial style windows.

Paintings, videos, prints, installations and performances — the space was awash with dialogues of discontent and engagement. Performance artist Natasha Jozi lay in carefully chosen poses as a “live sculpture” — her face would often remain hidden from view.

Amra Khan’s pink miniature mosques dripped with kitschy razzmatazz, bling and a call for recognition of feminine space on its own terms.

Zahra Asgher and Anushka Rustomji’s video of themselves sitting in public spaces was a call to rebellion, albeit a humorous one that asked a simple question: “Is sitting idle in public a taboo for women?”

The remaining two rooms, left to ruin and coated with grime lent their ambience most appropriately to the content of the videos playing in them. The dimly lit spaces resounded with narratives of post apocalyptical worlds, dark secrets, fragile relationships and disturbing infringements of personal space.

The dialogue on the body and space as a site of discourse was brought full circle by performances by Rehan Bashir, a trained Kathak dancer, and Gilian Rhodes, a contemporary dancer from the US. Their slow synchronicity and union spoke of the unfolding of a momentous event.

Faraz Aamer Khan questioned the notion of taboo and agency as he offered to recite the hopes and desires of the members of the audience which they were to pen down in a notebook in front of the artist.

Sarah Mumtaz entranced with ‘Mend Me One Stitch At A Time’ by offering an object each to the audience from her dressing table in her faux bedroom accompanied by a simple intimate desire — to make her beautiful again. Poetic and tinged with a pensive sadness, this simple act contested the enforced notions of beauty and perfection.

Other artists in the exhibition included Aziz Sohail, Damon Kowarsky, Fiza Khatri, Farsam Zafar and Waleed Zafar, Haider Ali Akmal, Harris Chaudhary and Noor Chowdhury, Hilde Krohn Huse, Imran Nafees Siddiqui, Lali Khalid, Maha Ahmed, Malcolm Hutcheson, Mohsin Shafi, Mustafa Boga, Noor us Sabah Saeed, Rabila Khalid, Seyhr Qayum, Ujala Hayat, Vidha Saumya and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 1st, 2018

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