BROWSING the ambitious exhibits that comprised the Karachi Biennale recently, I often caught myself observing those who turned up to examine the art. The biennale’s audience was as varied as the artwork it displayed; its main venue, NJV High School on Karachi’s M.A. Jinnah Road, saw college students, young schoolchildren and the elderly flock to it in equal measure.
But the NJV School was one of the biennale’s gated locations, and so every person who walked through its doors arrived with the specific intention of experiencing art, no doubt bringing with them certain notions about what being a consumer of the arts means.
More interesting to witness were the reactions of those who simply happened upon the biennale’s few art installations located in public spaces: sculptures in the garden at Frere Hall, for example, or stickers decorating the façade of Jamshed Memorial Hall. It was here that the public’s most organic interactions with art took place: families out for a weekly picnic or pedestrians walking to work were suddenly apprehended with unusual sights and encouraged to form opinions about them without prior knowledge or context.
My own (unscientific) poll of these opinions revealed an attitude of apprehension — not directed at the art, but rather at an individual’s own understanding of it. More than one person I questioned sheepishly admitted that they ‘didn’t understand’ the art, or that they liked or disliked it but lacked the words to explain why. Is this such a bad thing? No. But it is unfortunate that the public seems to believe so.
Art should not stir feelings of inadequacy.
To me, this latent guilt at not being equipped to interpret artwork pointed to two truths; one is encouraging, the other is an indictment.
On the positive side, I believe most observers I questioned felt embarrassed by their inability to articulate their responses because they still have faith in art’s inherent value to humanity. The biennale-witnessing public have not yet written off the arts — after all, they felt compelled to engage with artwork, they understood it signified a greater message, they aspired to grasp what that message was even if they couldn’t quite fathom how to receive it.
On the negative side, this attitude revealed how much work is yet to be done to bring creativity’s fruits to the public at large. Art displayed in a public venue shouldn’t stir feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment in its observers; if this happens we must admit a massive breakdown in communication has taken place.
Of course, in organising the biennale its curators and patrons are perhaps admitting just as much and hoping for a course correction.
In conversation with me KB17’s trustee and curator acknowledged how Pakistan’s art scene has retreated behind the frosted doors of expensive private galleries and the barbed-wire topped walls of a select few art institutions. Pakistan’s deep socioeconomic and linguistic stratification hasn’t helped; we are now in a situation where artists, critics and consumers often lack a common language with which to explain themselves to each other.
It’s important to note that this gap also manifests itself in intangible ways, in the aesthetic preferences and tastes of our art-starved population. Specifically geared toward showcasing contemporary art, the Karachi Biennale featured New Media very prominently. Video installations and sculpture that relied heavily on allegory and metaphor to give it weight were perhaps not terribly accessible to a public that still conceives of ‘art’ being a product of traditional forms of expression — portraiture, painting and calligraphy, for example.
Does this mean we ought to scale back innovation in the arts? No, not at all. It means we ought to become better at expanding the limits of our imagination. The Karachi Biennale was a step in the right direction; a larger budget and more vigorous public outreach might allow it to make more gains next time around.
For now, despite its flaws, it might be worthwhile to appreciate the relative innocence and optimism of Pakistan’s art scene. It was camaraderie and a faith in the future that made the biennale possible: KB17’s curators worked round the clock on a voluntary basis and artists created artwork mostly free of cost, a rarity in the art world’s increasingly mercenary landscape. The few tussles the biennale caused, like a debate on the alleged elitism of artwork housed at Pioneer Book House, were necessary conversations that arose organically and were addressed with respect.
And what of the art itself? Some artists will take their work to private galleries, where they hope it will be bought so that they may recoup their costs. Site-specific installations will be dismantled, not to be seen in that iteration again. If nothing else about the artwork displayed made sense, perhaps we might at least receive a message in the biennale’s precious transience.
The writer is an editor at Dawn.com
Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2017