Untitled (close-up), Barbara Walker
Untitled (close-up), Barbara Walker

An art biennale is an immersive experience that engages with a city. It is a spectacle that allows cities to show off their cultural values and economic potential by encouraging tourism while building regional contacts. Conversely, it has also been accused of being intensely Eurocentric in nature. It was considered a tool in the past for colonial powers to flex their economic muscle, privilege certain nations, particularly those in the West and marginalise or even misrepresent colonised nations and their culture.

In recent years, the tables have begun to turn. Non-Western countries have responded by holding their own art biennales that aim to showcase art that counters artistic displays and visions rooted in imperialism and cultural domination of non-Western countries. These biennales are attempting to decentre the hegemonic presence of the West to mark a new age that challenges the status quo by giving marginalised and invisible histories a voice.

Many historic sites in Lahore that have a colonial history have been transformed into sites of colonial resistance where artists of non-Western origin are exhibiting works that critique colonisation, and its aftereffects. Barbara Walker’s monumental charcoal drawings of Asian soldiers from the Commonwealth, who fought in World War I, cover the walls of the exhibition hall of Tollington Market. The medium is ephemeral in nature; their gradual erasure with time mirrors the omission of their contribution to the war from history and museums in the West.

Habits of Being II, Anwar Saeed
Habits of Being II, Anwar Saeed

“I is for India, Our land in the East, Where everyone goes to shoot tigers, and feast” read the lines of damning text that have been extracted and then reproduced, as if to resemble document excerpts printed in old letterset printing. John Akomfrah’s video montage presents an incriminating account of colonial subjugation, meticulously researched, and is complemented by music and gruesome images of colonial violence.

The Lahore Biennale transformed colonial spaces in the city with art that examines colonialism

The Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery at the National College of Arts has displayed the work of two stalwarts — Anwar Saeed and Rasheed Araeen. Both reflect on the self in turbulent times. Symbolism, celestial beings and human figures dominate Saeed’s paintings. The gallery seems to be on fire with saturated colours as the ambience teeters between contemplation and violent tension. Saeed’s work ruminates on man’s complex relationship to religion, society, politics and even the self.

Araeen is based in London and he has been actively engaged in challenging institutional racism and domination of white artists in the art world since the 1970s. In one of his paintings in mixed media, titled ‘Black Sheep’, he addresses his post-colonial angst and the dilemma of racial discrimination in a Western country.

Black Sheep, Rasheed Araeen
Black Sheep, Rasheed Araeen

Stateless refugees, dilemmas of nation states and nationhood dominate the narratives of many artists whose artworks are displayed at University College of Art and Design at Punjab University. Halil Altindere’s rap video ‘Homeland’ stands out. It is laced with an acerbic wit and dark humour as refugees somersault, leap and perform gymnastics to music as they dodge bullets, mines and barbed wire or they fly through public spaces in Germany, while packed like sardines on the tops of airplanes. The lyrics are fuelled by the anger of loss and the hypocrisy of the West.

Morrocan-Algerian artist Bouchra Khalili’s video ‘Foreign Office’, displayed at Tollington Market, reflects on the angst of reconciling with a lost glory of the age when Algeria was a magnet for revolutionaries. She bemoans her generation’s conflict when she says, “We would manufacture memory and we would manufacture hope but is it our duty? We have inherited disenchantment and history in pieces. They wanted to change the world and we just want to move away from this world.”

“Lahore Biennale 02” is being displayed across cultural and heritage sites throughout Lahore from January 26 to February 29, 2020

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 23rd, 2020