My biggest surprise at Karachi Biennale

“I’m feeling kind of low and don’t want to stay at home today. Do you want to check out Biennale?” My very old friend/sister from Riyadh asked. She was leaving for the US in a few days after living in Karachi for over six months.

As a fellow TCK, it wasn’t always easy to constantly keep packing your bags after every few months. As one final serenade to the city, we decided to head to Frere Hall, where she still hadn’t been.

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The entrance of the iconic Frere Hall, a colonial-era town hall and library built in 1865.

Truth be told, I had never heard of biennale before and found out that the contemporary art event was being held in Karachi for the first time at 12 different locations across the city. The works were being presented by 140 artists from Pakistan and globally.

I found the theme of the exhibition, WITNESS, to be particularly interesting. Karachi as we know has witnessed sectarian violence, bomb blasts and countless deaths by na maloom afrad (anonymous criminals) who are often not held accountable.

Through their work, the artists have shown how society is being misrepresented on a larger scale and have created a visual space of defiance. It created a platform for artists to engage with social and political scenarios of the country through presenting their work. I think it also reflected the importance of public spaces and how we engage with them.

If it wasn’t for biennale, I probably would never have been to these specific areas in Saddar, let alone knew that they existed. Seeing the elite class of Karachi in locations scattered around the original downtown of the city wasn’t something you would see everyday.

It reminded me how art was a medium to connect everyone in the public sphere, despite their class differences. Sociologist Jürgen Habermas referred to the public sphere as a “product of democracy”. In an ideal world without feudalism, the public sphere is a space where opinions are formed and is accessible to all classes.

The engagement and critique that is shared through discourse in matters of public interest is welcome to all. It made me hope that such art platforms would be a stepping stone in Pakistan to build awareness and a fresh perspective on things amidst our deeply rooted divisions.

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There wasn’t too much to see at the limited displays at Frere Hall.

As we walked through the expansive halls and observed a huge collection of dusty children’s backpacks with an audio clip playing on a loop of a classroom conversation, we felt utterly lost.

There were names of artists and the title of their works, but no context for the exhibits. Given that this was the first biennale held in the city, it would have been a blessing had there been details about each display for visitors to fully comprehend the concept.

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More art work was displayed in the balcony area of the hall – the perfect place for photography!
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Black and white photography has always been my first love – these particular photographs seemed to be focused on the industrial activities of the city.

As we explored the space, we were greeted by a group of young men who were getting their videos taken and were rapping to a song that seemed to be written by them. It was incredibly funny to have this spontaneous “live entertainment” as part of the biennale!

There were so many more locations to cover, but we had limited time that day. Both of us were dying to see the calligraffti at Jamshed Memorial Hall, which was only around 10 minutes away. We quickly called a Careem and set out on our next adventure.

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We had a laughing fit and moment of shock to see cockroaches painted on the entire facade of the school building – those poor children!

It felt as though I had stepped back in time when we walked into the school. From the musty smell to the vintage doors and furniture, the school building was definitely from the pre-partition era.

There was something growingly eerie about the space as we made our way to the rooftop.

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An atomic bomb explosion made of books, boxes and miscellaneous plastic items!

The hall is the only memorial in the city to Mr. Jamshed Nusserwanjee, the great philanthropist and humanitarian who was Karachi’s first Mayor and popularly given the title, “The Builder of Modern Karachi”.

What is also interesting is that the oldest auditorium of theatre performance in the city is within the building, which was popularly known to hold sessions held by the theosophical society in its’ glory days.

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Cartons stacked with what seemed like African inspired tribal carvings.
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My friend and I both loved this because it was so fitting of our present situation – she was leaving in the next few days and we both smiled at each other as these flashing lights blinked.

Finally, the moment we had been waiting for had arrived!

As we climbed the stairs to the rooftop, I let out a loud gasp when I looked outside the door leading to the roof. The splash of colors and beautiful calligraffiti done by Pakistan’s first self-taught graffiti artist, Sanki King, was truly a sight to see and a visually pleasing treat for the eyes.

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Initially, I was in awe of not only the contrasting colors that somehow blended in so well together, but I was trying to decipher the graffiti. I felt a sense of familiarity and comfort while walking through the space, with a slightly cool breeze blowing and hearing the Asr azaan in the distance.

I was once again disappointed that there wasn’t any description of this piece of work or what the concept was behind this magnificent calligraffiti.

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When I reached home, I hurriedly went online and discovered that the calligraffiti display, named “Mind Palace”, was a visual journey through the artists’ mind.

The inscriptions, tones and beautiful splash of colors takes you on a ride through his many emotions. The concept was based on one of Sanki King’s writings, “Freedom of Thought”, where he wanted the viewer to take a ride through his mind.

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The surroundings of this rooftop were dilapidated apartment buildings with children peering out of their balconies as we were excitedly taking photographs.

It seemed as though this space was speaking to me and reminding me to have peace of mind amidst the chaos of the city. This sanctuary was our only ounce of hope and peace left in the flurry and constant rat race of the city.

The familial feeling that I experienced while walking through the space led my curiosity to discover what Sanki King’s story is. The BIGGEST and most pleasant surprise I learnt while watching his TED talk about his life was…*drumroll*

He was from my second home, Saudi Arabia! His father used to work at the Ministry of Interior, which I would pass by so many times when I was growing up. It is an unexplainable feeling when I hear of or meet someone from Saudi Arabia because it automatically creates this invisible bond.

Strangely enough, my experiences in the city are repeatedly connected towards being a TCK. Even if I don’t interact with many, there are so many instances throughout most of my days which link back to it, either through a conversation, reading something, and now – observing art!

Living outside of the Gulf region for the first time in my life since childhood, it feels as though I need that sense of comfort and familiarity around me to feel like myself.

Sometimes, it can be through artwork like Sanki’s “Mind Palace”, or it can be as simple as seeing the Omani man in his thobe walking across the park infront of my house to the mosque for Maghrib prayer, or biting into a cheesy fatair with falafel.

These hints and little pieces of “home” are what make me whole again and bring me peace at the end of the day.

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2 thoughts on “My biggest surprise at Karachi Biennale

Add yours

  1. Thank you so much for always taking out the time and reading my posts with your thoughtful comments! I would love to read about how Karachi has changed your life – I believe everyone has a story to share about this unique city 🙂

    Like

  2. Great to read a fresh piece of writing. I believe Pakistan still needs a lot to attain in terms of promoting and presenting art and culture to the world.
    The last part of your article is really amusing. Like always it spread smile on my face. Perhaps through your articles I feel connected to Karachi, the city that has changed my life forever.

    Liked by 1 person

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