April 08, 2018


Lover’s Temple Ruins (2018), Ali Kazim
Lover’s Temple Ruins (2018), Ali Kazim

After two weeks packed with art, history, innovation and reflection, the inaugural Lahore Biennale drew to a close on March 31, 2018. The Lahore Biennale Foundation had been tirelessly working towards the launch of its biennial for the past few years, initiating public art projects and conducting curatorial and academic workshops and symposiums in Lahore — in short, striving to encourage connections between artists, the public and the city. This year, the foundation realised its goal by organising a sprawling and multifaceted exhibition that interspersed contemporary art with Mughal, colonial and post-independence architectures. Concurrently, platforms for discussions and critiques on art and culture were also provided by the foundation’s Academic Forum and ArtSPEAK programmes.

The biennale effectively integrated new media artworks (such as Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s chilling video ‘Turbulent’) into the 17th century caverns of the Summer Palace in the Lahore Fort. It brought installations (such as Ali Kazim’s stirring and poetic ‘Lover’s Temple Ruins’) smoothly together with the Raj-era layout of Lawrence Gardens. Through an exhibit in the Lahore Museum, furtively buried pasts were dug up and revealed to the world by way of sound art (Bani Abidi’s ‘Memorial to Lost Words’), and the reclusive, semi-religious space of the mambargah Mubarak Begum Saheba was made to host various expressions of minimalism. In other words, audiences were prompted to walk the historic routes of Lahore to encounter newfangled creativity.

The home-grown and universally lauded talents of Imran Qureshi and Shahzia Sikander were showcased at multiple venues, giving the local community a chance to finally engage with the art that has become the pride of many an international institution. Qureshi, in conjunction with the Aga Khan Museum, also orchestrated a re-enactment of a Mughal atelier through the Maktab project. There were 24 young miniature painters working for the entire duration of the biennale in a portion of the Lahore Fort that was originally built as clerks’ quarters under Jahangir’s reign. It was another instance of Lahore’s grand past being invoked and revisited through the biennale.

The inaugural Lahore Biennale mobilised an age-old city and offered the public a chance to witness contemporary art in historic surroundings

In the volatile sociopolitical situation of present-day Pakistan, successfully organising an ambitious event like a city-wide biennale is a remarkable achievement. It was also commendable how heritage sites like the Lahore Fort were reinvigorated through the activities and how various stations inside the walled city of Lahore were made locations of artistic energy. Art was brought to the public as promised. Glimpses of visitors to the fort or the Shahi Hammam halting in their tracks to peer intently at a video or examine (or frenziedly take photographs with their phones) the contents of a display case prophesy a time when the distance between contemporary art and the public will perhaps not be such a distinct one. Introductory texts to the works in both Urdu and English were another wonderful move on the part of the organising body.

The Dead Tigers Of British India (2018), Fazal Rizvi
The Dead Tigers Of British India (2018), Fazal Rizvi

One hopes that the biennales remain inclusive and represent visual artists from an even broader spectrum of artistic backgrounds and specialities (the painterly tradition, for example, was underrepresented this year). And one hopes that, through the biennales, attention and resources are brought to the tasks of restoration and preservation of our cultural landmarks.

“The Lahore Biennale (LB01)” opened on March 16 and ended on March 31

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 8th, 2018