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Ecology, power and art at the Karachi Biennale

The Karachi Biennale 2019, with its focus on ecology, raised questions of whether art can spark change, and also showcased how a proximity to power can undermine that effort, writes Umme Hani Imani
<p>Qinza Najam&#8217;s installation &#8220;Don&#8217;t Grow Up, It&#8217;s a Trap&#8221; at the Karachi Zoo [image by: Umme Hani Imani]</p>

Qinza Najam’s installation “Don’t Grow Up, It’s a Trap” at the Karachi Zoo [image by: Umme Hani Imani]

Perched in a coastal – mostly reclaimed – neighbourhood in Karachi, the Jehangir Kothari Promenade stretches over a recently constructed, shortly abandoned, nearly occupied, and narrowly ‘recovered’ Bagh Ibne Qasim. The sprawling park is a microcosm of the city’s political ecology. Its history is coloured by intrusive development and privations issuing from alleged collaborations between corporate, political, and bureaucratic bosses.

On 26th October, after nearly half a decade of disuse and ungreening, Karachi’s mayor reopened the bagh (park) for the public during the inauguration of Karachi Biennale 2019 (KB19). Ambitious in scale, this second iteration of “Pakistan’s largest international contemporary art event” boasted 89 projects by 98 artists. Curator, Muhammad Zeeshan and co-curators, Rabia Ali and Noor Ahmed, used the bagh and six other venues – IVS Gallery, Alliance Française, Frere Hall, VM Gallery, NED University City Campus, and Karachi Zoo – as spaces to create a visual narrative around their thematic lament, “Flight Interrupted: Eco-Leaks from the Invasion Desk.”

Ali Kazim’s “The Conference of the Birds” [image by: Umme Hani Imani]
The curators of this second instalment invited artists to tap into the “cultural roots” of the “contemporary crisis of unsustainability,” in turn promising to construct an “eco-archive of personal and national memory.” Comprehensive, impassioned, and poetic, KB19’s official thematic statement was also mystifying. The thematic framework – shortened to “Ecology and the Environment” – is, nonetheless, of immense importance due to its association with global imperatives of sustainability, environmental protection, and climate action.

The CEO, Niilofur Farrukh, acknowledged that critiques of relevance and accessibility drawn by the previous biennale shaped the trust’s affinity for Zeeshan and his proposed theme. “Issues of Climate Change have,” she said, “been important to global discourse for several years.” With their new curator and theme, KBT thus hoped to establish a “proximity to the city and its people” and to stir discourse about how “their cultural ethos and sociological and socioeconomic realities” relate to global contexts.

The utility of ‘eco-art’ is, nonetheless, debatable. Some, like art historian, T.J. Demos, are optimistic that contemporary art can, with its “potential to both rethink politics and politicise art’s relation to ecology,” furnish to environmentalism  Eschewing an “environmentalism of affluence” and a decolonising of lens and methodology are, however, important first steps. Sceptics like the ecologist Martin Spray, draw attention to the limitations of contemporary art. Spray, among others, posits that environmental art is largely “tenuous” and “embarrassingly hyped.” Oblique in its expression, unorthodox in its aesthetic, and irregular in its materiality and form, contemporary art is too alienating to successfully communicate the urgency of environmentalism.

Their dissent is an important reminder of factors that limit contemporary art’s ability to position itself as a vehicle of public discourse, leave alone change. This is especially true in Pakistan where ‘fine art’ has been infamously confined to elite galleries and opulent drawing rooms.

“The Mangrove Project”, an immersive group show by Noorjehan Bilgrami, Tariq Qaiser, Marvi Mazhar, Sadia Salim, Zarmeene Shah, and Sohail Zuberi [image by: Umme Hani Imani]
The Mangrove Project, an immersive group show by Noorjehan Bilgrami, Tariq Qaiser, Marvi Mazhar, Sadia Salim, Zarmeene Shah, and Sohail Zuberi at the IVS Gallery, was among KB19’s most credible responses to Spray’s line of criticism. Approaching Karachi’s fragile mangrove ecosystem from different standpoints, the artists’ carefully researched challenge to invasive development and expansive reclamation was urgent but optimistic, and at once scientific but aesthetic.

A sprawling line-map marked Karachi’s mangrove forests, high-definition photos and videos showcased their majestic dynamism, and a video series documented how their destruction impacts local communities and ecosystems. A passage constructed from found bark, detailed drawings of economically viable species, delicate porcelain plant studies, and fabric dyed in pigments obtained from mangrove trees testified to the legion of aesthetic possibilities that these endangered ecosystems contain.

An exhibit of “The Mangrove Project” by Noorjehan Bilgrami [image by: Umme Hani Imani]
At the exhibit, a first-year medical student generously explained some finer scientific points of mangrove systems, all while musing on the fear of “mankind taking over nature.” The encounter was a gentle reminder that attributing credence to scientific awareness critically fosters urgent responses to the ecological hazards we face. Art that hopes to contribute to this effort must, in Greta Thunberg’s words,both “listen to the scientists” and motivate its audience to do so.

A part of “The Mangrove Project” by Zarmeene Shah and Sohail Zuberi [image by: Umme Hani Imani]
Granted its status as a group show, The Mangrove Project nonetheless highlighted the need for a comparable coherence, immersiveness, and fidelity to the theme’s demands at other sites.

Abdullah Syed’s layering of currency on ‘money’ plant leaves was provocative but arguably simplistic [image by: Umme Hani Imani]
Despite housing intricately crafted works, Alliance Francaise stood out as passive. Abdullah Syed’s layering of currency on ‘money’ plant leaves was provocative but arguably simplistic. The process behind Alice Kettle’s textile sculpture, Forest, was culturally optimistic, sociologically progressive, and ecologically sensitive. Even so, I wondered if Kettle’s message could successfully translate without the accompanying didactic. And though works by Ali Kazim and Meher Afroz carried direct literary, historical, or political references to ecological annihilation, neither demanded the proactiveness or the close moral and intellectual considerations that our relationship with the biosphere requires.

VM Gallery suffered for a lack of coherence, although Libby Hague’s On the Wondrous Sea delivered an impact. Simple in its motifs, accessible in its form, and urgent in its expression, the mural illustrating the widespread displacement of humans from the very landscape they have annihilated carried the potential to captivate young children and adults alike.

Libby Hague’s “On the Wondrous Sea” illustrated the widespread displacement of humans from the very landscape they have annihilated [image by: Umme Hani Imani]
Naima Dadabhoy’s installation, Karachi Patterns, placed in the single-room exhibition at NED, was charming for its lithe redolence. Tapping into the scents and physicality of preserved natural materials – threads, coffee, spices, and tea – her sculpture appeared like a wind-chime of memory. How far the romanticism of nature can motivate a proactive outlook on the science of its preservation is, of course, debatable. If a grim urgency about futures of scarcity and desolation is indeed eco-art’s imperative, then Larissa Sansour and Soren Lind’s thirty minute film, In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain, roused the needed discomfort. Traversing between genres of poetry and science-fiction, the artists offered a sepulchral lens on the politics of preservation, and the artfulness with which memory, urgency, and identity can be altered.

KB19 organisers seemed aware of their need to forego a passive deference to the power of art and assumptions about the universality of their message. The goal they claimed was: “to go to the people, not make them come to us.” Choosing the Zoo, which is among Karachi’ most frequented public places, with a high footfall of children, was a step in that direction.

Considering the need for a decolonised lens, which KB itself recognises, it is difficult to overlook the zoo’s inherent status as a place of exoticism. It is not simply a matter of their colonial origins as sites where “places, animals, and people were ordered through a Western lens;” zoos perpetuate acceptance for a chauvinism that allows powerful human beings to desecrate ecosystems. No matter how decolonised the language of its marketing or progressive its design, the zoo is inescapably a site through which children are trained to treat animals as ‘objects’ of their ‘gaze’—entertaining, educational, unusual.

Irfan Gul Dahri’s family of goat picnickers in the zoo was a quirky reminder of how we negate animal sentience, and of how strangely humans prioritise their needs over biodiversity [image by: Umme Hani Imani]
Irfan Gul Dahri’s family of goat picnickers in the zoo was a quirky reminder of how we negate animal sentience, and of how strangely humans prioritise their needs over biodiversity. Drawing up extinct birds from vibrant pixels on caged screens, Ranu Mukherjee’s The Dead and the Wild added a layer of irony to this display of eco-art in what Mahera Omar calls Karachi’s “bare Victorian-era concrete pit.” The exhibit was both an ode to animals we have killed and a caricature of our age in which the easiest way of witnessing nature is virtual. Meanwhile, Munawar Ali Syed’s sculpture of a baby elephant entrapped in lined-paper – a symbol of the cruelty of human consumption – might draw young children’s sympathies.

The biennale has made interesting choices that spotlight its position within Karachi’s political ecology. Opening with the “reactivation” of the bagh and placing nearly half of KB19’s works there is such a choice, specifically because of the governmental support it required.

This proximity to power became uncomfortable when they implicitly defended the government’s attempt to quash Adeela Suleman’s politicised interpretation of ecology, which led to the sealing of exhibits at Frere Hall. Events unfolding from Suleman’s indictment of the powers behind “[our] city’s mercurial landscape” revealed that substantive debate about the city, its environment, and its political ecology remains limited by hesitations to challenge its most powerful stakeholders.

Amin Gulgee’s “Impossible Growth” [image by: Umme Hani Imani]
The commentary on power and resistance in works at the bagh was thus interesting. Amin Gulgee’s towering installation, Impossible Growth, with copper leaves bursting through a steel trussing, seemed to play an interesting pun.  It could, from a thematic perspective, represent the myriad ways in which nature endures in urban spaces, and makes an unannounced presence through layered trappings of metal and concrete. Accompanied by ritualistic elements, it also raised questions about the credence we attribute to omens and the ways myths emerge from and enable power.

Offering a sweeping spectacle across the promenade, R.M. Naeem’s Open to the Sky, also elicited multiple interpretations. A row of fibre-glass heads and bodies composed of chillies seemed like a mass grave of scorched bodies. A closer look at differently positioned heads and the varied shapes and sizes of bodies then implied how complicity can differ based on privilege and power. The artist associated his work with symbols, which, in his words, “represent powerful sources that have the capacity to shape our world, our environment, and even our minds.”

R M Naeem’s “Open to Sky” [image by: Umme Hani Imani]
Performances at the bagh also lent to the lure of spectacle. Victorine Mueller occasioned astonishment by enacting her conviction in the possibility of a more meditative and harmonised “relationship with nature.” Mueller, who sat elevated inside a life-sized PVC elephant, hoped to transcend simple statements “demand[ing] common ecological responsibility.” Simply seeing her enclosed in plastic, however, induced instant claustrophobia—reminiscent of the countless creatures that plastic waste asphyxiates.

While concluding my visit to the bagh, which I long lived beside but could not enter, I paused to question whether the professed optimism of its reactivation sufficed to blur the contradictions of Karachi’s ecology, of the park’s contentious grounds, and of KB19 itself. Thunberg’s words while rejecting the Nordic Council’s environmental award propose a possible answer. She reminded the world about the perils of “beautiful words” and the perniciousness of the pretty picture. And, thus reinforced that the climate movement requires recognition of scientific consensus and concerted institutional action, as opposed to self-laudatory celebrations.