Art

Searching for a City’s Spirit at the Lahore Biennale

Amid works by international artists and local projects focused on other Pakistani cities, I kept wondering where is Lahore?

Khadim Ali’s installation at Summer Palace, Lahore Fort (all images courtesy of the Lahore Biennale)

LAHORE, Pakistan — The theme for the second Lahore Biennale, Between the Sun and the Moon, takes its inspiration from the unique histories of cultural exchange between Central, South, and West Asia, in which  the city of Lahore has played a constitutive connecting role. Such a complex model requires prudent curation in order to capture the lovely (and historical) soul of Lahore, and the biennale hits the mark where it enthusiastically integrates. However, it occasionally falters when the curation provides greater room to prominent international artists rather than local ones, thus creating a disconnect between the works that are displayed across thirteen important venues throughout the city.  

Installation view of Inna Artemova’s “Ulugh Beg: The Intrinsic Futuristic Machine of Central Asia” at PIA Planetarium
Installation view of Diana Al Hadid’s large-scale public sculpture “The Escape of Anarkali” at Lahore Fort

To organize LB 02 (as it is often called), the biennale enlisted acclaimed international curator, Hoor al Qasimi, best known as the President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation. Twenty new artworks have been commissioned especially for the biennale. The majority of the eighty-nine selected artists (including two collectives and a painting club) are internationally based, hailing from the Gulf and UAE regions. The Lahore Fort displays Syrian born-American artist Diana Al-Hadid’s massive site specific steel and wire installation “The Escape of Anarkali” (2020), which, via the legendary fifteenth-century love affair between Mughal crown prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) and his ill-fated mistress Anarkali, alludes to the gigantic urban structures that have been erected in place of once-blooming flora. Pakistan’s oldest state school, Punjab University, houses seventeen artworks including contemporary works by Indian artists Nalini Malini and Vivian Sundaram, and Pakistani artist Ali Kazim. Other prominent venues include Al-Hamra Cultural Complex and Lahore Museum, displaying two and seven works respectively.  

Installation view of 80 lithographs by Rachid Koraichi at the Lahore Museum
Installation view of Munem Wasif’s “Machine Matter” at Summer Palace, Lahore Fort

While the use of these and many other many fascinating locations might appear to align with LB 02’s theme, it is ironically also one of its pitfalls. Here’s why: Works by many international and sadly only a few Pakistani artists are sprawled all over the city. While this pushes visitors to explore Lahore’s urban spaces, the biennale’s actual use of such spaces is occasionally puzzling. Locally renowned and historically significant institutions such as The National College of Arts, which birthed many Pakistani artists and safeguarded genres of South Asian painting, display works by only two artists, Rashed Araeen and Anwar Saeed. The latter, whose prolific, nearly five-decades-long career focuses on homoeroticism, was recognized by the biennale with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In one of his  paintings on view, “Temporary Situations” (2012), a man clad in a vest and pants stands and gazes ahead, his arms rest on the shoulder of another man as they stand huddled under an umbrella. While not specifically created for the biennale, Saeed’s works provide a fresh perspective and align with the biennale’s greater theme of increasing visibility and cultural exchange.  

Installation view of Anwar Saeed’s “Temporary Situations II” at the National College of Arts (NCA) (artwork courtesy Taimur Hassan)
Installation of Rasheed Araeen’s works at the National College of Arts (NCA)

Yet, as the display of works from multiple regions offers complexity, one wonders, where is Lahore? As only the second edition of the biennale in the city, the luminosity behind the basic premise of establishing the city as a global art center decreases as critical and limited local resources are allocated to established (and international) artists at the expense of the local art scene.

That being said, the month-long exhibition and related programming have created opportunities for scholars from participating regions to share their research with new audiences. The Lahore biennale can thus be considered an evolving platform for complex, layered, and historically motivated displays of contemporary art, which I hope will further research and dialogue in Pakistan.

Installation view of Khalil Rabah’s “Common Geographies” at Punjab University
Installation view of Naiza Khan’s “Manora Field Notes” at Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture (PILAC).

Editor’s note: (2/25/20, 9:22am) A previous version of this article misstated Hoor al Qasimi’s relationship to Lahore. She is from the UAE, not Lahore. We regret the error. 

The second Lahore Biennale, between the sun and the moon, continues through February 29 at various locations throughout Lahore, Pakistan. The exhibition was curated by Hoor Al Qasimi.

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