Is it possible to pick under a dozen works from a city-wide art exhibition featuring over 140 artists and call them the 'best' of the crop?

No, which is why I haven't.

Instead, this is a selection of work that's meant to whet the appetite if you're venturing out to explore the Karachi Biennale this weekend.

Spread out over 12 venues across the city ranging from landmarks like Frere Hall to little-known spots like pre-partition bookstore Pioneer Book House, the biennale can appear daunting to tackle. If you're pressed for time I suggest you isolate the art you're especially interested in seeing, figure out where it's housed, and go there first.

To get you started on your journey the following selection mixes art that is critically acclaimed with art that uses its site intelligently, or has sparked debate... or is simply something I fell in love with.

1) Shahzia Sikander's video installation 'Disruption as Rapture' at the Alliance Francaise

Head to the Alliance Francaise to experience this haunting video by Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and on permanent display at its South Asian Galleries, Sikander's animated drawings move to music by Du Yun featuring Ali Sethi.

Have you seen #ShahziaSikander's installation at the #KarachiBiennale yet? If not... why? 🏃🏽👀

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According to Niilofur Farrukh, this is the first time Sikander's video installations have been shown in Pakistan. Given that Sikander is one of South Asia's most widely celebrated artists (her work was recently featured at Times Square in New York City, no small feat for any artist), 'Rapture' is a rare treat which should be savoured as such.

Difficult to capture on film and even harder to describe, this is one work you'll just have to see for yourself to understand what the hype is about.

2) Sanki King's 'Mind Palace' at Jamshed Memorial Hall

The rooftop of Jamshed Memorial Hall on MA Jinnah Road is a fitting space for Sanki King's vibrant graffiti. A largely self-taught graffiti artist and a burgeoning cult icon, King's personal story of resilience is as inspiring as his work.

Of 'Mind Palace,' he says: "Being a lone-wolf and an introvert, I have presented the rooftop as my mind which I have deliberately exposed and made public. The passage walls, the floor in between, the courtyard and the walls surrounding it; I have painted all of them based on one of my own writings called Freedom of Thought, which I composed especially for this work... When the audience enters the rooftop, they will be taking a stroll inside my mind, surrounded by my thoughts, composing their own thoughts in the process. They would be walking inside my mind and my mind would be walking inside theirs."

King's graffiti transforms this unexpected rooftop sanctuary into something like a meditative chamber, albeit one insulated by stained, crumbling apartment buildings rather than fashionably padded walls.

Authentically interacting with its chosen arena to bring both the art and the site to life, 'Mind Palace' will give you a sense of what it's like to find a kernel of peace within an increasingly chaotic city -- or psyche.

Try to visit it after 5pm if you can, hearing the azaan on the rooftop is a special experience.

3) Ayaz Jokhio's installation at the NJV School

Upon entering a classroom on the top floor of the NJV School you're greeted by rows of students sitting at their desks.

Favourite work! Ayaz Jokhio at the NJV for #kb17 #karachibiennale

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No, these aren't regular schoolchildren — they're actually puppets created by Ayaz Jokhio. The puppets are cleverly rigged to the classroom's door so that when you open it to enter the room they turn their heads to look at you, rising up in unison. Creepy? Yes. Impactful? Definitely.

"This work is so direct, I can't say there's any idea behind it," says the artist. "My approach is almost like that of a cartoonist. It's about education, it's about the conditioning that education forces upon us. As if everyone is made from one mould."

4) Ali Kazim's installation at the IVS Gallery

Kazim's art installation at the IVS Gallery won him the Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation Juried Art Prize, which he was very excited to receive.

"There was going to be only one 'first award' of the first biennale in Pakistan's history, and it went to me so it feels great," he says.

As you enter the IVS Gallery, Kazim's art installation enters your peripheral vision on the right: a dark structure that appears to be floating in the air. As you begin to observe the piece, you realise it is made entirely of human hair.

"Human hair has a fascinating history and as an art medium, it is loaded with meaning," Kazim says. "You must've heard how the Holy Prophet's hair has been preserved... hair is something that carries our DNA, in history, lovers used to make jewellery out of their hair and give it to each other."

A question comes to mind: where did the artist acquire the hair from?

Turns out, there is a whole industry that works in hair trade in Pakistan. "A lot of salons in Karachi sell it. Businesses that deal with making wigs and weaves sell it in bulk as well," Kazim explains. "Also, a lot of working class women here chop off, let's say six inches of their hair, and sell it to earn an extra income," the artist says. "It's common," he adds.

5) Aamir Habib's 'Already Eaten' at the NJV School

Already Eaten by Aamir Habib features a taxidermied donkey saddled with two television screens.

Already eaten #aamirhabib #kb17 #karachi

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Although popular among attendees old and young, the work speaks of a sombre subject: the plight of Pakistan's working poor — workhorses who are burdened with the "broken promises", as Habib calls it, of the ruling elite who keep them slaving with the lure of a better tomorrow. The TV screens play applause on a tragically endless loop.

6) Richard Humann's 'A Tide of Credence' at NJV School

In A Tide of Credence, New York-based artist Richard Humann has fashioned a mini-replica of the River Indus and filled it with thoughts scribbled in Urdu by Pakistani immigrants in America.

As Pakistan's most major tributary that stretches down the length of the country, the River Indus is metaphorically apt as a carrier of the country's lifeblood. Despite their geographical separation from their birthplace, the experiences of Pakistanis in other lands contribute to new chapters in the country's history — thereby, seeping into the roots of Pakistan, like the water of River Indus would.

The biennale's managing trustee Niilofur Farrukh believes that 'A Tide of Credence' also "points to the difficult relationship the Pakistani diaspora have with America and the new scenario that's built up there. It's a quiet, reflective work."

7) Unver Shafi Khan's 'Holy Shit!' at the Alliance Française

At first glance this may seem an ordinary painting of an ordinary pig -- a very large, very smug pig, that is.

But spend some time with Shafi's portrait and you'll appreciate not only his skill (the pig is exceptionally luminous, dewy and enchanting) but also the work's latent and overt commentary. A humourous, tongue-in-cheek take on the biennale's theme 'Witness,' the pig is the outsider whose perspective we all ought to inhabit in order to see ourselves better.

8) Noman Siddiqi's 'Mounds' at VM Art Gallery

A work that activates a sense you wouldn't normally rely on when you enter a gallery: smell.

Niilofur Farrukh calls Siddiqi's installation an "interesting intervention," one that arrests you not just with its solid, bright physical presence but also its olfactory impact (it is comprised of flower petals). It's also a meditation on death, which leads us to our next...

9) Mahbub Jokhio's 'Museum of Wasted Loves' at 63 Commissariat Lines

An incredibly sombre setting is re-imagined as a playful space in Mahbub Jokhio's installation at Claremont House.

The artist created a graveyard populated by small, child-sized graves painted bright, happy colours; the conflicted visual and emotional impact of the work ultimately resolves itself into hopefulness. Not convinced? Pay the site a visit and see for yourself.

Though this work was originally intended for the NJV School rather than Claremont House it appears perfectly content in its new home, with visitors often confusing the temporary installation for a real graveyard.

10) Huma Mulji's 'An Ode to a Lamppost That...' at Pioneer Book House

Visit pre-partition bookstore Pioneer Book House on MA Jinnah Road not just because Huma Mulji is a well-known sculptor who has shown widely abroad and in Pakistan -- but also because her installation for the biennale has sparked much debate.

Mulji's 'An Ode to a Lamppost That Got Accidentally Destroyed in the Enthusiastic Widening of Canal Bank Road,' twists its way through the cramped bookstore, bolted here and there to its walls for support. The bookstore's owner and patron have claimed the installation damaged the store, some commentators have rubbished the artwork as being vandalism and/ or fakery.

The artist herself says of the controversy and her work: "This is a complex issue, and not so easy to unpack in one comment. The scale of the lamppost, its unexpected entanglement with the mezzanine floor along with the un-rhythmic flickering neon light intentionally amplify a sense of trepidation and unease. Each a representative of a different time, but entwined and implicated collectively in the present. But the flickering of the light, and the happy survival, that is, the restoration of the bookstore, are both signifiers of a resilience, of the city and its desires, and it is ultimately an optimistic work."

So which is it... incisive commentary or mediocre art? The fairest way to determine this is to see it for yourself.


Additional reporting by Yusra Jabeen. The Karachi Biennale is open to the public until Sunday, November 5th. More information can be found here.

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