DUBAI: The 2019 Venice Biennale marked the first time that Pakistan has had a national pavilion at the world’s oldest and most prestigious contemporary art show.
The Pakistan pavilion presented a solo exhibition of the conceptual, multi-disciplinary artist Naiza Khan, who works between London and Karachi. Her experimental oeuvre reflects her thoughtful depiction and analysis of landscapes — her “disrupted geography” as she once called it — of her home country in the post-colonial era.
“When I came to Venice two years ago, I was very disappointed to see that Pakistan was not officially represented, so I went about changing that,” the pavilion’s curator and Foundation Art Divvy co-director Zahra Khan told Arab News. “I am not in any way trying to showcase all the art of the country or even showcase all of Pakistan’s multicultural current status. What we are trying to do is immerse the viewer in an island off the coast of Karachi called Manora and have the viewer see it through the lens of the artist. So, a very particular viewpoint is what we’re focusing on, then we’re using that as a jumping off point from which to consider the larger region of the global South.”
“Manora Field Notes” — on view until November 24 — is the title of Naira’s exhibition; a new body of work that reveals her research-driven artistry through a variety of mediums, including watercolors, sculpture, and film.
It is both historical and contemporary, presenting Khan’s subtle interpretation of Manora’s inevitable transformation — the “slow erasure of the island’s architectural history and natural ecology.” In addition, the exhibition draws interesting parallels between Venice and Manora. Both were, historically, major port cities situated on lucrative trade routes.
Manora — roughly 20 minutes by boat from the port of Karachi — is steeped in history. According to the curator, the island was written about by generals in Alexander the Great’s army. Encompassing a seemingly harmonious ecosystem, the island is home to several sites of worship, including Saint Paul’s Church, the Shrine of Yousuf Shah Ghazi, and a Hindu temple known as the Shri Varun Dev Mandir.
“I worked and lived in Karachi for about 25 years,” says Naiza to Arab News. “The context of Karachi, of course, being the city that it is — of 21 million people — full of interesting problems and conflicts, civil and social strife, and a sense of exploding urbanity — it’s a very restless kind of space. I think one of the reasons for being in Manora was that it offered a space to reflect and to think. I found that it was a place that was interesting, in terms of the community, the lived history, and its architecture. As an artist, I found it a generative space; a space with possibilities and ideas going beyond the island.”
In the first space of the exhibition, Khan creates a sensory experience entitled “Hundreds of Birds Killed” — a recording of a woman reading out the names of 11 cities, as observed through a 1939 copy of the “India Weather Review,” in which the British documented storms and cyclones in the Indian Ocean, and their effects on nature.
“The sense of hundreds of birds killed or two cattle dead was almost humorous and ironic,” said Naiza. “Because, right now when we think of climate change, we don’t think about hundreds of birds or a few cattle, we think about mass migration and starvation.”
Accompanying the soundscape is a selection of detailed sculptures (or “brass maps”) of the 11 cities, which today are no longer part of a unified India, but spread across three nations — reminding the viewer of the complexity of post-colonial geopolitics.
In another space, Khan’s four-channel film installation “Sticky Rice and Other Stories” reveals footage of life on the island today — particularly its various artisanal communities. One of the film’s stories introduces a caretaker of vintage telescopes, who talks of his relationship to the local community, the landscape, the ocean, and politics through this instrument that represents a historical apparatus of power and warfare, which has now become a tool for tourists on the beach of Manora.
Visitors are also invited to look through a telescope in the pavilion’s courtyard, where one sees a film of the artist walking through the landscape of Manora.
“Walking has been a really important part of how I put my mark on that landscape,” she said. “If you tie a string to my leg and follow that string across the 10 years I’ve spent filming there, there’s a whole web of connections. I’ve been to many places and photographed them over and over again — there is a sense of the body, the artist, and my presence in the work.”