The Pakistan Pavilion’s inconspicuous entrance, takes one into the shadowy womb of the chronicle of a small isle off the port of Karachi. A profound blue colour canvases the walls, and irregular-shaped podiums that are similar to tiny landmasses disguise a lot of the flooring when one walks in.
For the 58th Venice Biennale, Pakistan has presented for its foundational pavilion a solo project by the multi-disciplinary artist Naiza Khan. This is Pakistan’s first-ever involvement in the prestigious event, supported by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA), and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and organised by Foundation Art Divvy.
Khan’s oeuvre spans three decades and multiplies beyond a laborious studio practice of drawing, painting and sculpting. Her work also encompasses performance and production in the public domain through the method of film, sound and installations assembled on-site. In the trajectory of her works, one can perceive a natural evolution of disputed forms as the theme of the work moves from women to land.
Versatile artist Naiza Khan showcases her work on Manora Island at the Biennale’s first-ever Pakistan Pavilion
The artist has done a radical historicising of the citified era of Karachi narrated through empirical geopolitics. It is from here that her interest in Manora originated.
A tribute to the Manora Island and the city of Karachi where she has worked for over two decades, Khan’s project is titled Manora Field Notes. She has observed the alterations and changes of sites such as the Karachi harbour and Manora Island, focusing on the dimensions of ecology and inhabitation. Her practice is built upon a meticulous process of research, documentation, authentication and investigation of the site.
Curated by Zahra Khan, director of Foundation Art Divvy, Manora Field Notes gives visitors an insight into a nation navigating its way through a changing contemporary culture, lasting colonial influences and shifting infrastructures. It describes the life in Manora Island, according to the artist as an interpreter and facilitator. The exhibition features a soundscape, sculptural works and a multichannel film installation, expanding across three interconnected spaces within the pavilion.
The work comprises a collection of lived experience and reflects the shifting power dynamics of the landscape. It engages multiple bodies of knowledge, material based on history, conversations with local communities and architectonic phenomena, such as ruins and construction sites. Notwithstanding what the theme indicates, Manora: Field Notes is not an exploration or representation of Khan’s earlier undertakings. Instead it embraces mostly new works that portray what the existing Manora represents.
Upon entering the first space, one faces both geography and history in the form of a variety of displayed pieces and sound. Khan records the many components in relation to her commitment to Manora. She was able to save a significant chronicled document from the ruins of the 19th century Manora Weather Observatory, the 1939 India Weather Review. which becomes an opening point for her exhibition.
Naiza Khan’s practice is built upon a meticulous process of research, documentation, authentication and investigation of the site.
The Pavilion evolves across three fundamental spaces comprising two rooms and a courtyard in-between. This is within the main entrance of the Arsenale, where one part of the core exhibition of the Biennale is mounted. The three spaces seem to play an important role in the final layout of the exhibition and the intriguing discourse that it sparks.
The first gallery features ‘Hundreds of Birds Killed’, a soundscape complemented by a mechanism of brass objects. As mentioned, the 1939 India Weather Review is the starting point for the work and the soundscape is a description of this report in a female voice. The reading of reports on storms and the destruction and calamity in their wake is narrated by Nimra Bucha, who has also lent her voice to The Observatory, a 2012 film shot in Manora. Khan then selected several cities listed in the report to excerpt and digitise via imaging software. This involves digital cartography (a process that engages the creation and analyses of maps through the use of computers) of modern-day maps and eventually followed by brass casting of the maps by artisans in Golimar, Karachi.
The visitor then walks through the courtyard which features a steel telescope or doorbeen through which a video shot across the island of Manora can be observed.
The second gallery features the four-channel film installation ‘Sticky Rice and Other Stories.’ This is set-up in two sets, each carrying autonomous stories. The first follows Khan’s journey between the master artisan’s workshops producing miniaturised models of historic and modern-day boats. Although the model boats imitate the popular taste for colourful contraptions, the second part opens in a workshop with a telescope being rinsed and recreated. This telescope, made with antiquated binoculars, is assembled from parts trafficked across the border from Iran into Balochistan. The conversations in these two works reveal local antiquities and modern methods of business, and summarises the struggles between labour and development.
One notices three watercolour pieces by Khan titled ‘Cast of a City’ (2015) when leaving the courtyard and walking back into the first exhibition space. These are the only pieces in the pavilion that are not new.
Khan’s exhibition, as presented at this pavilion, transports viewers to an outstanding maritime, multi-ethnic and multi-religious history of Manora Island. The first Pakistan pavilion has set the bar high for future artists and curators to measure up to.
The 58th edition of the Venice Biennale titled “May You Live in Interesting Times” began on May 11 and continues till November 24, 2019
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 7th, 2019