I write these words on the occasion of the opening of the second Lahore Biennale. All around us, in this beautiful city, are reminders of Lahore’s past. For centuries, Lahore has been known as a city of culture, home to poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, architects, storytellers — to artists of all kinds.

But we should not imagine that Lahore has been an uncomplicatedly open city. Lahore is a city of culture not only because it has welcomed the arts, but also because it has resisted the arts. Here, artists have managed for many, many generations to create powerful works in the face of powerful constraints.

Those of us who are from Lahore, if we believe in the notion of our city as an open city — open to all kinds of people and all kinds of creativity, open to the mixing out of which new ways are born, we must reckon with the idea that Lahore’s identity is a living thing. Lahore is, and always has been, a space to be contested.

To speak of Lahore as a city of culture while avoiding the contest of expanding the openness of this city is to treat Lahore like a mausoleum, a monument to something that has come and gone, something that is no longer, something beautiful, perhaps, but also something dead.

It is therefore incumbent on each generation of Lahore’s residents and visitors to enter into this contest: to participate in the culture of a living city, to assert what we each differently imagine Lahore to be, and to give birth to multiple visions of what is possible for this city to contain.

The soil of Lahore is so fertile because a series of floods have brought layers of sediment from places far away. In much the same way, a series of encounters between people of different backgrounds has fertilised and hybridised the culture of this place.

Right now, artists from all over the world are present here, and artists from all over the country, and from all over the city, and during the coming weeks they are presenting their works to the public, to one hopes millions of people (yes, millions: an estimated one million people saw the artworks of the smaller first Lahore Biennale), and to each other. Such encounters are vital: they are renewal, allowing us to imagine new possibilities for what Lahore can be, for what our world can be, and for what it is to be a human being – as people have come to Lahore in search of, for centuries.

Entitled ‘Between the Sun and the Moon’, the second Lahore Biennale runs until Feb 29. It is curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, involves the work of almost a hundred artists from dozens of countries, and is being exhibited at some 13 sites: from the Lahore Fort and Mubarak Haveli to Tollinton Market and Pak Tea House, from the Lahore Museum and the National College of Arts to the PIA Planetarium and Gaddafi Stadium. In addition, there are numerous collateral events — independent art exhibitions, each with their own curators – happening all over the city at the same time, in cinemas and unfinished commercial building plazas and galleries and sites on rural land at Lahore’s outskirts. All are free and open to the public.

If you are in Lahore, I would encourage you to go see some of the art that is on display. If you are not in Lahore, I would encourage you to come. And if you cannot, at least know that all of this is actually happening, that despite the narrowing of avenues of freedom of expression in our country, efforts are also under way, by thousands of people, all the time and incessantly, to expand them.

The author is a novelist and director of Lahore Biennale

Originally published in Dawn, February 5, 2020