Photo Essays

Toxic Environments at the Karachi Biennale

In a city where the municipal government has consistently failed to address issues such as land or air pollution, the latest edition of the biennale considers its environmental crisis through various media.

Mohsin Keiany, “Simurgh” (2019), metal, mirror, dimensions variable (photo by Humayun M.)

KARACHI, Pakistan—The Karachi Biennale 2019 is in full bloom with numerous art exhibitions, performances, and interactive projects spread across seven sites in the metropolis since late October. This year’s edition Flight Interrupted: Eco Leaks from the Invasion Desk considers how Karachi’s toxic environmental crisis has stagnated ecological relationships between her land, waters, and citizens. Organizers of the biennale have also focused on growing access to art for the public, choosing outdoor spaces such as the city’s largest public park, Bagh-Ibn-e-Qasim (Bin Qasim Garden), and Karachi’s Zoological Gardens to reflect the biennale’s thematic vision. The biennale features an interesting mix of 98 Pakistani and international artists. Many works in the biennale gravitate toward accessible concepts, though their chosen media varies. 

Khalil Chishtee, “I Am Not Your ***** Anymore” (2019), trash bags, mixed media (photo by Humayun M.)

At the zoo, one can observe many works focused on animal welfare. In Mohsin Keiany’s “Simurgh,” a flock of metal birds are arranged together in front of gigantic mirrors. Mechanical and rigid in formation while thought provoking in concept, “Simurgh” ruminates on industrialization and bird migration due to changes in environmental conditions. Khalil Chishtee’s “I Am Not Your ***** Anymore” also stands out; the slightly unsettling work comprises stylized specter-like human figures created with trash bags inside a cage, suspended by their arms from the ceiling. The placement of the work at the zoo may allude to animal imprisonment, while its title and human-like figures may be understood as a greater commentary on the lack of agency of Karachi’s residents in a city where the municipal government has consistently failed to address issues such as land or air pollution. 

Amin Gulgee, “Impossible Growth” (2019), copper, steel, iron, and mirror 213.8 x 16.9  x 17.72 inches (photo by Nageen Shaikh)

Works in the Bin Qasim Garden express concern over the city’s decaying urban landscape due to extreme industrialization. Amin Gulgee’s “Impossible Growth” opened after sunset during the biennale’s  inauguration, with a performance titled “4Makers.” Acting as a sundial in the day while surrounded with  incense sticks and sand from the city’s beaches, this soaring work of copper, steel, iron and mirror is a stupendous nod at industrial ambitions, along with the cost of deforestation. The park contains the largest number of works of the biennale sites, displaying works of almost fifty artists that use metal, cloth, concrete and scrap material among other media to respond to the exhibition’s theme. 

At IVS gallery, “The Mangrove Project,” a collaboration between six art professionals, documents Karachi’s coastal ecosystem. The installation features a video and sound projection, photographs, cartographic documentation, sketches and wood pieces (the latter are derived from the mangroves and combined with nylon, wire and cotton yarn). 

Noorjehan Bilgrami, Tariq Alexander Qaiser, Marvi Mazhar, Sadia Salim, Zarmeene Shah, and Sohail Zuberi, “The Mangrove Project” (2019) installation view (photo by Humayun M.)

Yet the biennale has not been without controversy. Adeela Suleman’s “Killing Fields of Karachi,” a sculptural and video installation commenting on the alleged 444 murders committed by Karachi law enforcer Rao Anwar was severely vandalized on the morning of  October 29 by plainclothes officers who demanded the work be removed  from public view. Upon resistance, the building where Suleman’s video about a specific murder case was playing was forcibly sealed off while the 444 stone tombstone elements of the installation were destroyed. Further criticism was generated when organizers of the biennale  released a statement disavowing the work as “not compatible with the ethos of KB19” due to its overtly political content. Suleman has expressed dismay at the abandonment of her work and the biennale’s curator Muhammed Zeeshan has expressed solidarity with the artist. 

Abdul Jabbar Gul, “Thoughts from the Celestial Realm” (2019), brass, mild steel, fiberglass, gold leaf, 240.16 x 240.16 x 240.16 inches (photo by Nageen Shaikh)
R.M Naeem, Open to Sky, 2019, Fiberglass, fabric, green and red chillies. (photo by Nageen Shaikh)
Jamil Baloch, Self, 2019. Acrylic on cast fiber, 100 x 77.95 inches (photo by Nageen Shaikh)
Natasha Jozi, I Whispered and Pulsated with the Waves, 2019 (photo by Nageen Shaikh)
Irfan Gul Dahri, “Picnic” (2019), fiberglass, plastic, enamel paint (photo by Humayun M.)

The 2019 Karachi Biennale, Flight Interrupted: Eco-leaks from the Invasion Desk  continues through November 12 at various locations in Karachi, Pakistan. The exhibition was curated by Muhammad Zeeshan with Noor Ahmed and Rabia Ali.

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