Art, Lahore and Much More:

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Visual artist and writer Komail Aijazuddin on Rashid Rana’s recent talk at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in midtown New York City is meant to be an imposing building. Cavernous and minimalist, the soaring ceilings cover a maze of galleries that boast some of the most famous pieces in modern Art History. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ is barely twenty feet from Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, which is enough to give most art nerds goose bumps. That is only one of the delightful rewards that the permanent collection offers a visitor; The MoMA’s ongoing catalogue of exhibitions and retrospectives, which range from academic to experimental to seminal, are exciting, relevant and very often considered the final word on discourse in Contemporary Art. It is, in short, a really important building.

So, it was with pride and curiosity that I went to The MoMA on a rainy day last week to hear the legendary Pakistani artist Rashid Rana talk about his role in the Lahore Biennale Foundation. The talk was a conversation between him and Glenn Lowry, who is the director of the museum. It was held in an auditorium just off the main building, which was quickly filled to capacity. While the guests where shuffling in (as per any desi-heavy event, there was lots of air kissing, side-shade and loud whispers), a projector showed a slide show of pictures of Lahore. After a short but generous introduction, Lowry began asking Rana to explain his role in the Lahore Biannual Foundation, along with its goals and aspiration.

Much press has already been given to the fact that the LBF, as the Foundation is known, is planning on hosting a major art event in Lahore somewhere towards the end of 2017. The term “Biennials” (or “Biennale” if you’re feeling Euro) is one with a history. The most famous is the Venice Biennale, which started way back in 1893 and, and happens every other year. It is by far the most glittering art event in the world – think of it as the Art Olympics, in that different countries fill their pavilions with their own roster of artists and curatorial projects. Although Pakistan does not yet have its own pavilion, Rana himself was part of the last Venice show in which he had a simultaneous projection of a room constructed in Lahore’s Liberty Market with a room in a Palazzo in Venice’s Grand Canal. Other cities around the world have begun to use the model of biennale to brand themselves and their art worlds. Istanbul, Kochi, Dhaka, Sharjah and Hong Kong have all hosted one (Dhakka and Kochi have been particularly big hits) and considering the increasingly prominent role Pakistani contemporary art is claiming not only in our region but the world, it’s logical that the country should aspire to it’s own.

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Art Biennales have one main curator who often provides a central theme and then selects works, organizations and artists to be included in the event, and Rana will serve as the Artistic Director for the first Lahore Biennale. So, you may ask, why do we need one? The answer is – you know exactly why. The main difference between biennales, and say an art fair like in Dubai or New York, is that at a biennale the art isn’t encumbered with market forces but hopefully aims to engage, in a very tangible way, with the city and the ideas relevant to that country’s (or regions) people. Rana explained this when he spoke lucidly about how while contemporary art is seen historically, it was his aim to make the viewers in Lahore see the art works as a function of history, meaning that history and social movement can be as valid an impulse for the creation of art as anything else. This is important for our country. I would argue that any overt reclamation of public space is important, but particularly when that is done through art, a language unique in its universality and access.

The foundation intends to encourage artists and participants to use the city itself as a canvas to create work, and the event will demonstrably rely heavily on Public Art projects, an idea both admirable and risky. State sponsored public art in Pakistan is underfunded, underappreciated and by and large, unambitious (really, how many horse sculptures does one need?). The LBF has begun changing this with their wonderful work, the most visible projects of which includes Rana’s own installation in Liberty Market as well as Atif Khan’s spectacular birdhouse tree in the middle of Istanbul Chawk. But there are so many fertile ideas that the LBF has been working on quietly and without fanfare, like their project for artists to make and donate benches to the Lahore Railway Station or when they redid the Mayo hospital Children’s Ward, where the before and after pictures were enough to melt even the most jaded art hearts.

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Part of the conversation around the LBF and its efforts will inevitably focus on the question of location. Why a biennial? Why in Lahore? Where in Lahore? Is it sustainable? Who will take part? The term requires, as Lowry pointed out, that the event happen on a regular basis. A biennial that happens only once is merely a large exhibition. Given the public space that the country has surrendered over the last few decades, events like this may seem difficult to arrange, and the truth is they are. There are reasons why Pakistan no longer has International Cricket matches, puppet festivals, free plays or large concerts anymore. And that’s exactly why the LBF’s efforts are so very important. Art, particularly public art, can by its very existence change places, cities and people. The effects maybe delicate but they are vital. A sculpture, a mural, a projection, really anything that exists merely for the sake of your consideration, can automatically activate a major space and in its small way can reclaim the bit of our minds that violence and fear snatched away from us. A major artistic event that would physically change the public spaces of Lahore, one that offers art freely and without agenda to any who would want to experience it, is seminal and necessary, both to the city of Lahore and to Pakistan.

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While answering questions, Rana emphasized that the event is open to submissions from anyone: from artists, yes, but also from writers, scientists, students, academics, teacher, corporations, shops, government agencies, utilities, and really anyone who has a project and wants to be part of it. Every time there is an attack in Pakistan that makes ordinary citizens feel powerless, hunted and unheard, I usually hear the (sincere) sentiment “Well, what can we possibly do?” The answer is simple: This is what we can do. When you really think about it, the question isn’t whether or not we should have a biennale or even where it should be; the question is how we can, all of us, help to make ensure it happens again, and again and again.

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