27 Oct 2019


A panel discussion for Karachi Art Directory. Left to right: Mehr Afroz, Farrukh Shahab, Munawar Ali Syed, Bushra Hussain, Nimra Khan and Tazeen Hussain
A panel discussion for Karachi Art Directory. Left to right: Mehr Afroz, Farrukh Shahab, Munawar Ali Syed, Bushra Hussain, Nimra Khan and Tazeen Hussain

Karachi has regressed from its celebrated status as a city of lights to a city of blights. Its land use and land cover are changing due to the urban explosion, environ­mental disruption and the city pattern transformation. Autonomy, poli­tical conflict and the non-implementation of master plans are the main reasons which accelerate ruthless urbanisation. Irre­parable damage is being caused by the deliberate mutilation of the cityscape and ruination of natural habitat.

With blight staring us in the face, sincere efforts to address issues need to evolve from within the community. Globally, the role of civil society as a key actor and partner in the search for environmental sustainability and, more recently, the role of the artists and cultural workers as catalysts of change in society, has come to be widely discussed in the context of ecological issues. In contemporary art, environmental themes, such as climate change and loss of biodiversity, are occupying significant space in narratives that circulate internationally, particularly through mega public events, such as biennales.

Nowadays, contemporary art platforms such as biennales are being widely utilised to create awareness about ecology issues. Last year, ‘The Taipei Biennial 2018-Post-Nature — A Museum as an Ecosystem’ took its title as a starting point to examine the ever-changing and osmotic nature of an ecosystem. It also explored how this can be reflected in artistic and institutional practice. This year, the climate change-related art at the Venice Biennale is another recent focus on art for change.

The second edition of the Karachi Biennale shines a light on the environmental crisis in Karachi

Unlike the spectacular, widely publicised well-established biennales, some of the newer ones are smaller and have a different and unique atmosphere. They are set in non-museum spaces and give a different perspective and context. These modest exhibitions can offer more intimate and engaging encounters with the artists and their works. They also provide educational significance to the public, since they bring contemporary art to spectators who can’t afford to travel to Venice or Sao Paulo.

The newly instituted Karachi Biennale falls in this category. Committed to a cause and helmed by a competent group of visual art professionals and educators, the Karachi Biennale, founded in 2017, aspires to ‘discover, discuss and respond to Karachi.’ Part of the global network of the International Biennale Foundation, it has a strong partnership with the Goethe Institut, the British Council and the Alliance Francaise. Its network extends to universities and cultural institutions in the country and abroad.

Committed to creating a public audience for art and its projects, Karachi Biennale has confidently returned with a second edition. The title of KB19 is, ‘Flight Interrupted: Eco-Leaks from the Invasion Desk.’ It spotlights issues related to Karachi’s ecosystem, loss of green cover and disruptions caused by climate change, such as heat waves, flash rains and thunderstorms. The KB19’s creative intersections between art and environment will also examine the unchecked and unregulated growth of high-rise buildings that are crowding the cityscape, exhausting its social amenities, interfering with the natural biorhythms of the city and destroying the environment with air, water and noise pollution.

An official poster of Karachi Biennale 2019
An official poster of Karachi Biennale 2019

Karachi Biennale’s curator Muhammad Zeeshan is an artist and educator whose personal art practice is based on radical innovation. A maverick of sorts, he reimagines the conventional and traditional through highly unusual perspectives. Peppered with novel relooks and unfamiliar interpretations through unconventional mediums and venues, KB19 projects are bound to spring some exciting surprises. Audiences should be mentally prepared to rise to the challenge.

While introducing KB19 earlier this year, Zeeshan termed it a Green Biennale which will minimise its carbon footprint by using eco-friendly material. Examining environmental issues in a broader context, he has invited not just artists but also architects, gardeners, engineers, sound technicians, theatre performers and storytellers to present a larger picture of the crisis on hand.

A biennale’s true audience is its visitors, and the publicness of this event is such that, instead of inviting the community, the KB19 plans to take the art to them into the spaces that the public already occupies. The exhibitions, installations and performance pieces will be arranged at historically significant and heavily frequented public venues such as Frere Hall — a communal garden — in the heart of Karachi, Bagh Ibn Qasim — the city’s largest urban park — and the Zoological Garden — Pakistan’s largest zoo and home to some of the oldest trees in the city. Institutions such as the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS), NED University, Alliance Francaise and VM Gallery are other locations where the KB19 discourse will unfold.

Karachi Biennale 2019 titled, “Flight Interrupted: Eco-Leaks from the Invasion Desk” is being held in Karachi from October 26 to November 12, 2019

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 27th, 2019