‘Killing Fields’ issue: Karachi Biennale and police chief on same page

October 29, 2019

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Victorine Muller’s inflated sculpture.—White Star
Victorine Muller’s inflated sculpture.—White Star

KARACHI: After the plainclothes men forced the organisers on Sunday to shut down an artwork by Adeela Suleman titled Killing Fields of Karachi at Frere Hall that was part of the ongoing Karachi Biennale, social activists were expecting that the installation would be restored. But in an interesting turn of events on Monday, the issue reached a bit of an anticlimax after Karachi police chief Ghulam Nabi Memon gave a statement, as did the biennale’s organisers.

The chief said: “This effort on the part of the organiser seems to be motivated to question efforts of LEAs in restoring peace in Karachi. I don’t defend Rao Anwar for his any act which is not legal but efforts to demean him are not restricted to his person but something which sounds beyond him. I think we be very careful in defending any effort which is being sponsored with the intention to show our LEAs as villain.”

The statement that the KB19 team released seemed to have settled the issue. It read: “The Karachi Biennale is a platform for artists both emerging and established. We are against censorship of art and believe that expression is very subjective to the viewers interpretation of the artwork. With regards to the exhibit in question, we feel that despite the artist’s perspective, it is not compatible with the ethos of KB19 whose theme is ‘Ecology and the Environment’, and feel that politicising the platform will go against our efforts to bring art into the public and drawing artists from the fringe to the mainstream cultural discourse.

‘Any public event has to work within certain agreed with boundaries’

“The city government has been part of the entire process and has placed trust in our platform by facilitating the use of public spaces to install artworks and use the city as a canvas. We have painted with freedom on this canvas, and while art is self-expression, the theme this year did not warrant political statement on an unrelated issue, as all artists have agreed to focus on ‘Ecology & the Environment’ within the framework of cultural sensitivities.

“We hope the artists community will understand that our platform, as has been illustrated through our projects, is purely to promote art to build a large public audience and any public event has to work within certain agreed with boundaries. To ensure a sustainable future of Karachi Biennale it is imperative that we focus on its mandate to connect art, the city and its people.”

Art and the sea

The second edition of the Karachi Biennale (KB19) in its attempt to take art to the common man has chosen three public spaces out of the seven venues –– Bagh Ibn Qasim, the zoo and Frere Hall. The uniqueness of the former (park) is its proximity to the sea; and that has made all the difference.

The installations erected in different parts of the Bagh may not have been originally envisioned as a reference point to the choppy waters of the Arabian Sea, but against its backdrop, though most of it is blocked by the countless buildings that have been constructed in recent years, the exhibition gains multiplicity of meaning.

Amin Gulgee’s artwork ‘Impossible Growth’ (copper, iron, steel and mirror) underscores the importance of the setting by “tracking the movement of the sun in the day acting as a sundial”. Now we all know how the diurnal and nocturnal motions of the earth in relation to the solar system influence our moods. Here, it is the mood of the city (of Karachi) that is being alluded to. So Amin has personified his hometown by way of pointing to the growth that it has experienced.

The one piece which attracted, arguably, the most attention at the Bagh when the biennale commenced on Saturday (and has now been shifted to the zoo where it was originally meant to be) is the inflated sculpture, ‘Timeline’, by Swiss artist Victorine Muller. It is a striking work of imagination, a giant elephant, which plays with the viewer’s ocular beliefs. The person inside the animal heightens the illusory nature of the otherwise non-illusory powerful species. One doesn’t know whether one of the reasons for Muller’s bringing the installation to Karachi was the significance of the elephant in the political history of the subcontinent (because the artist has been displaying it for some time); what one does know is that the sea, city and the animal combine to create a story where forgetfulness becomes its theme –– the phrase ‘a memory like an elephant’ springs to mind.

British artist Sinta Tantra’s mural ‘Bright Dawn’ reinforces the idea of looking back by “drawing upon the work of Rudyard Kipling reimagining the complex colonial histories between Great Britain and its empire where ‘the sun never sets’”. Though the artist lends a touch of positivity to the exhibit by using warm tropical colours, there’s much for the viewer to mull over as well.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2019