Culture
February 17, 2020

Connecting Cultures Through Contemporary Art

Aisha Zaman

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Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi

After almost single-handedly putting the city of Sharjah on the international art map, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi set her sights on curating the second edition of Lahore Biennale. One of the art world’s most influential players, Al Qasimi is the President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation and Director of the Sharjah Biennial, and now brings her rich experience in curating and promoting contemporary art to the vibrant city of Lahore.

The Biennale, which opened its doors to the public on 26 January, is significantly larger in scale and ambition than the previous edition, spanning 13 major sites – and is forecasted to attract over three million visitors over five weeks. Al Qasimi brings together more than 80 artists from over 40 countries, 20 of whom have debuted new commissions, accentuating Lahore’s architectural texture with subtle interventions — and helping restore Lahore’s historic role as a regional hub for arts and culture in the process.

This year’s show, entitled Between the Sun and the Moon, explores one’s identity within the universe today, amongst a conjuncture of climate crisis and heightened polarities between societies. Al Qasimi says: “It fosters imaginations of the future that encompass the full breadth of its material and virtual possibilities, growing from a practice of intra-regional mobility of ideas and people.”

Aisha Zaman caught up with Al Qasimi during the opening of the Lahore Biennale.

Basir Mahmood. Film still from Monument of Arrival and Return (2016). Image courtesy of the artist.

Aisha Zaman: What are your motivations for championing biennials?

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi: Biennales aim to promote a deeper, multi-faceted exchange between specific regions and the rest of the world. Arts and culture are one of the few ways through which we can overcome the boundaries of class, status, race, and gender to initiate conversations, and to embark on a global mission to carve out a sustainable future.

I’ve had first-hand experience in developing the Sharjah Biennial into an event of global significance. Even though the Sharjah Biennale existed way before me, the vision was to transform it into a model for public discourse in the region, and worldwide. We achieved this by flipping the conversation so that it was not just an exhibition that looked like an art fair; instead, it has become an immersive space for cross-cultural dialogue, which we achieved by opening it up to the international community.

Therefore, I have a strong affinity for the potential of international expositions, and for open-ended engagements that allow for critical questioning of existing structures. It’s a way to bring people together - an investment for future generations. And I see the changes already; more and more people are now interested in art and there are so many young people who come to see the Biennale.

'Remain' by Hoda Afshar

How has the second edition of the Lahore Biennale built upon the last one? And what is the significance of utilising heritage sites for installations?

In 2018, the inaugural Lahore Biennale attracted 1.5 million visitors, which is an extraordinary number for an exhibition that only ran for a fortnight. I wanted to build upon that success and bridge the gap between the local community and contemporary art, since the first edition was largely based upon Pakistani artists’ installations.

It is not enough to offer international coverage and recognition to brilliant artists from Pakistan, but instead, also to bring artists from abroad to engage with the local community. This was a colossal task, which I had very little time to enact, yet managed to achieve due to my good relations with the international artist community.

My curatorial strategy of staging art within heritage sites is not only to create an effective public discourse for the local community, but also to open up Pakistan to the world. The aim is to break down cultural and geographical barriers and put shared human stories at the heart of a wider dialogue spanning the region, and the world. To have meaningful conversations and be part of the city. People might understand their city, but they forget about important landmarks or buildings around them.

For example, I was very keen to use the Pak Tea House, but I was met with reservations. I was adamant on using this important landmark that has a history of literary gatherings. These are the spaces to highlight through a biennale, so that people react to their history, and not simply pass it by in the hum of everyday life. I felt the same with Bradlaugh Hall (an important site during the partition times), and the Planetarium. The local audience has connections with the city, and dialogues initiated through art can focus on new perspectives. Highlighting the rich culture and history of Lahore was equally as important as the international artists’ installations.

Mohammad Younus Nomani | An Orange Leaf in a green tree, Kashmir

What are your thoughts on the development of contemporary art in Pakistan, and what are the biggest myths that you were looking to dispel with this edition of the Biennale?

There is an abundance of talented artists, trailblazing institutions, and a rich cultural heritage in Pakistan. However it’s time to open up the country to the international community, time for Lahore to become a catalyst for engaging local audiences with contemporary art, and to further incorporate regional artists into the global art scene.

Some of the most popular contemporary artists recognised in the West are from Pakistan; Shazia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, and Huma Mulji, to name a few. Yet, many international artists were initially hesitant to travel to Pakistan, mindful of warnings that foreigners may be targeted. However, on having explored every corner of the city on multiple trips to Lahore (in fact, I can now give directions in the city), I convinced them otherwise - this is the biggest myth I have achieved in dispelling. It is the first time that such a significant number of contemporary artists from all over the world have come to Lahore to display their work. Meanwhile, I have an unwavering commitment to the local context; the Lahore Biennale may have established itself in the international arena, but it remains deeply rooted in and committed to the people of Pakistan.

Curating goes beyond the research and selection of works, and deeply involves the viewer’s experience. How do you think local audiences reacted to the international artist’s works?

As they come to Lahore from all over the world, the artists bring with them stories that resonate in different ways. They share their wide-ranging experiences to create means of connecting and sustaining a collective humanity. It has been fascinating to witness the audience reflect on the artists’ works in light of their own cultural histories.

For example, renowned Arab artist Wael Shawky uses his filming of puppet-theater to tell the story of the Crusades. In his film series Cabaret Crusades (2010-15), based on a book by the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, the story of the war is told from an Arab perspective. Puppet Theater is a popular art form in Pakistan as well, but a film made from this art, as opposed to a live theater show, enthralled the audience. In Lahore, the spectators were also commending Cabaret Crusades not only because the theme of an Arab Muslim identity resonated with them, but also the attention to detail in the films which is greatly inspired by historical Indian miniatures, an art form they are accustomed to.

How do you feel regional polarities are affecting the contemporary art scene in the ‘Global South’, and how does the Lahore Biennale address this concern?

Many of the works on view at the Biennale are informed by the multiple layers of history shaping the Global South. Through displays like this, we are working towards a more inclusive future through art. The Global South is one of my longstanding areas of interest; I want to explore the concept of identities and connecting cultures because of the diaspora of British Asians and South Asians in the Middle East.

People tend to look towards the West for validation, and I wanted to make it important for them to see that it is not about the West. It is about us. We have so much shared history and connections. That is why I chose multiple international artists from areas such as Kazakhstan with its links with Central Asia and Pakistan, from West Africa, from Iran, the Gulf, or India. It is important to witness and unite voices within the region, to surpass the political and physical borders.

Amar Kanwar. Film still from A Season Outside (1997). Image courtesy of the artist.

Looking at the current geopolitics of the region, more specifically Pakistan and India’s fraught political relationship, a film by Amar Kanwar, A Season Outside (1997) was included in the list of exhibits. The film is a philosophical journey (based on the physical border line between Pakistan and India) through the shadows of past generations, conflicting positions and borders depicting the Indian artist’s poetic meditation on cross border links between the two countries. The poignant film struck a chord with the local community.

Given the relative scarcity of regional dialogues within South Asia, the Biennale marks a transformative moment for the country.

Lastly, if someone had just two hours to visit the Biennale, what would be your top recommendations?

I can’t have favourites, since every installation has been painstakingly curated! However, if I am to mention an accomplishment - it was securing the PIA Planetarium (which had not been used or open to the public for a few years) as an exhibition space for a unique commission: an immersive multimedia project created by the Berlin-based, Kazakhstan-born artist Almagul Menlibayeva, inspired by the astronomical discoveries made by Islamic scholars in ancient Samarkand. It includes an orchestra of site-specific performances by the Amsterdam-based sound artist German Popov and Russian artist Inna Artemova. The result is a magnificent celestial show.

Between the Sun and the Moon was on view at various venues in Lahore, Pakistan, until 29 February 2020.

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