‘Art is a part of our cultural DNA and we intuitively respond to it’: Niilofer Farrukh on the Karachi Biennale
What does it take to organise a biennale, especially for a city like Karachi? What are you looking for?
Niilofer Farrukh: The Karachi Biennale is the flagship project of the Karachi Biennale Trust and it takes two years to organise, but sometimes even that seems inadequate. Each iteration has its own curator and theme. Once the curator is selected, he or she starts to research and shortlist artists.
The next step is the production of work as, in most cases, artists create new work in response to the theme.
An important part is fundraising. As soon as we finalise the theme we begin to share it with culture-friendly corporates and philanthropists. Engro Corp is KB22’s main partner and we have many other generous sponsors that want to see a tolerant and culturally vibrant country.
Venues are also identified and locked in the first year. We have many magnanimous venue partners that lend us their spaces. Since giving visibility to heritage sites is a part of our mandate, we try to introduce new sites. In 2017 we reintroduced NJV, a landmark of the city and, in 2019, it was Bagh Ibne Qasim and the Karachi Zoo.
This time we are installing art in Hamid Market, a century-old beautiful space near Denso Hall, that will be open to the public for the first time. During this time, we also hold workshops on art and conversations on the theme at schools across Karachi, from Korangi to Saddar and Clifton. In 2021 our workshop in primary schools focused on robotics. With four secondary schools, we did workshops to teach digital video and they made fascinating videos on Karachi’s heritage sites. This outreach is important as it prepares students to understand the KB exhibits when they are invited for school tours during the Biennale.
What has been your main takeaway and the lessons learned, from the previous biennales held in Karachi?
NF: We have learned that art in public spaces is important so a large population can see it.
Also, that the public audience must never be underestimated, they love to engage and interpret art works in different ways. As heirs to Indus Valley and Mehrgarh, art is a part of our cultural DNA and we respond to it intuitively.
Also, that Karachi Biennale, as a contemporary art platform, should continue to present exciting innovative works to the public audiences to spark their imagination so they can embrace the transformative energy of art. The artists and visitors from abroad find Karachi fascinating and so different from media reports, so we should continue to open up the city with art and change perceptions.
What are the exhibits you are most excited to see unfold?
NF: Technology as a medium of art has created a new vocabulary of visual and sensory expression. I find the work of several artists fascinating, like Ben Eaton at Invisible Flock, a sound artist from the UK. He has researched the borindo, the terracotta musical instrument from Sindh and harmonised its sound with technology. Dozens of borindos will play with a live borindo player during a performative piece. Karachi Community Radio, a local collective has experimented with the Chitrali sitar. Rabya’s work at Jamshed Memorial takes you back to the heyday of the video arcades. Virtual Reality used by Shehzad Dawood and pollution data-based work in real-time by Yasir Darya connects us to issues of ecology through a completely new lens. These are just a few of dozens of phenomenal art projects that have pushed the boundaries of technology.
You mentioned in an interview that you’ve grown up in Karachi. The city has changed a lot over the past few decades. What do you miss about the old Karachi that you might be hoping to recapture?
NF: I miss the celebration of Karachi’s multiculturalism the most. We were once comfortable being culturally diverse as individuals and communities, but now people see it as a vulnerability rather than strength. It was a tolerant city, a place that attracted artists, poets and writers who were unbound by traditions in this young port city and created their own canons. With Karachi Biennale we try to reconnect people to the rich history of the city and remind them that Parsis, Hindus and Muslims have collectively built this amazing city. We selected Bagh Ibne Qasim with the legacy of all these communities, so visitors could see art among fragments of Karachi’s past.
What can a biennale give to a city like Karachi?
NF: The Karachi Biennale is spread out from Stadium Road to Saddar and Clifton, at nine different venues. The IBA main campus is a smaller venue for university students. Our particular focus is the youth. It’s an opportunity for them to see stimulating artworks in artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual art, and sensory and creative commuting, among others. We hope it will spark ideas, so the youth can think beyond being mere consumers of technology, to being disruptors and innovators. We want them to think of the future with optimism and new possibilities. To us at the Karachi Biennale Trust, the Biennale is a garden of hope in difficult times, when the country is faced with the aftermath of floods.
The third Karachi Biennale will be held from October 31-November 13, 2022 at different venues across the city
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, October 30, 2022