HAMRA ABBAS, Trees: Gardens of Paradise, 2019, marble, 7 × 2.4 × 2.4 m, at Qasim Park, Karachi, 2019. Commissioned for the 2019 Karachi Biennale. Photo by Jamal Ashiqain. Courtesy the artist. 


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Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, has now served more than one year in office. His criticisms of India’s annexation of the contested Kashmir region resonated with many Pakistanis. The country remains in the midst of an economic crisis, with growing unemployment, but with the new government pushing for change, Khan has embraced environmental concerns and is focused on boosting tourism.

With the advent of biennials in Karachi and Lahore, in 2017 and 2018, respectively, cities are increasingly supportive of public art events. In the capital, Islamabad, Jamal Shah, the former head of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA), in collaboration with Hunerkada College of Visual and Performing Arts, organized the Islamabad Arts Festival (11/18–30), bringing together artists and performers across Pakistan and from 34 other countries. 

For the Islamabad Arts Festival, Tanzara Gallery organized three exhibitions, including one of vintage studio photography by Zaidis Photographers in “Dastak” (11/18–30). A two-person show of Mohsin Shaikh and Aliya Hussain Ahmad, “Hidden in Plain Sight” (10/28–11/24), was held at Satrang Gallery. Shaikh’s large-scale, detailed paintings draw upon the artist’s interest in history, politics, and the environment, and were flanked by Hussain’s delicate ceramic pieces. Earlier in the year, Gallery 6 celebrated its 11th anniversary with an exhibition of works by artists including Sadequain, AS Rind, Mughees Riaz, and Ali Kazim (3/8–15).

Also in Islamabad, the World Bank in Pakistan invited curator Zara Sajid to organize “Pakistan@100: I Showcase My Vision for the Future” (8/8–31) at its newly built Islamabad headquarters. Sajid placed works by 60 artists imagining the country in 2047 throughout the building. 

Pakistan’s largest city and bustling financial hub is the port city of Karachi, home to a strong and independent art scene. The second edition of the Karachi Biennale (KB19) (10/26–11/12), with the theme of “Ecology and the Environment,” was curated by artist Muhammad Zeeshan across seven venues—from the Karachi Zoo to Qasim park, where Hamra Abbas’s paneled cube of marble inlay, titled Trees: Gardens of Paradise (2019), was installed. However, KB19 was steeped in controversy after prominent artist Adeela Suleman’s multimedia installation at Frère Hall, Killing Fields of Karachi (2019), composed of 444 concrete plinths embedded with metal roses referring to the 444 extrajudicial killings committed under a former police superintendent, was partially destroyed by the police and then closed off from viewing. The Biennale’s own statement saying the artwork was “not compatible with the ethos of KB19 whose theme is ‘Ecology and the Environment’” and objecting to the artist’s “politicising the platform [that] will go against our efforts to bring art into the public,” was considered by many in the art community even more damaging than the act of censorship itself. Nevertheless, KB19 curator Zeeshan publicly supported Suleman’s work and condemned its attack and censorship. 

Since its founding in 1989, the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture has become one of the most important universities in the country. The school’s own IVS Gallery held “Is It Possible to Live Outside of Language?” (8/22–9/24), curated by Aziz Sohail and exploring themes of queerness and gender through language’s confines. Also at IVS Gallery was one of the more noteworthy exhibitions of the Karachi Biennale, “The Mangrove Project” (10/26–11/12), an exhibition exploring the devastation of the swiftly depleting mangrove forests.

The curators behind the first edition of the Karachi Biennale in 2017, Amin Gulgee, Zarmeene Shah, and Sara Pagganwala, joined forces again for the International Public Arts Festival (IPAF). Titled “The Quantum City: Territory, Space, Place” (3/14–16), the three-day exhibition of more than 60 artists was held at the historic Karachi Port Trust Building and among the containers outside the building.

Among other civil initiatives, the AAN Foundation operates Gandhara Art Space, where artist Adeel uz Zafar curated “Microcosm III” (8/22–9/29), the third installment in a series, this one a survey featuring 20 female artists as they reinterpret and examine identity, sexuality, environment, and other contemporary concerns through a range of media. 

The Vasl Artists’ Association holds talks and workshops in their space, runs residencies for Pakistani artists, and hosts international artists on residencies through the Gasworks International Fellowship Programme, supported by Triangle Network. As part of its “Loud Speaker” public art project with Open Society Foundation, at the IVS Sculpture Garden, Noman Siddiqui transformed a disused taxi into a gigantic planter. Vasl collaborated with Canvas Gallery on a solo exhibition of previous resident Mujtaba Asif, “Time to Navigate” (4/9–18). 

Also in Karachi, Sanat Initiative has moved to a new location in the Commune Artist Colony. The spacious warehouse was inaugurated with a solo exhibition by multimedia-artist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, “Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth: Notes from a Guerilla War” (9/24–10/8). A project by Emaan Mahmud titled “Drawing Room Diamonds: Curatorial Debut by Champa” (11/8–28), a biting, astute, and cynical analysis of the art world, was widely lauded. Also questioning art critics, collectors, and established art conventions, Canvas Gallery exhibited a thought-provoking solo exhibition by Ayaz Jokhio of canvases based on renowned historical works, “This Is Not Magritte’s Painting” (11/5–14). 

Responding to KB19’s theme of “Ecology and the Environment,” Koel Gallery held “Beyond the Waters” (10/22–11/21), a group show curated by Amra Ali showcasing works by eight artists, among them Rasheed Araeen and Farrukh Adnan. One of Karachi’s oldest galleries, Chawkandi Art, hosted “Inside Out” (8/22–9/16), an exhibition curated by Sheherbano Hussain and showcasing the work of Aasim Akhtar, Amna Hashmi, and Zoya Alina Currimbhoy. 

Lahore, the city of gardens and the rich heritage of the Mughal dynasties, remains Pakistan’s cultural center. Home to the National College of the Arts and to the newer Beaconhouse National University, Lahore attracts budding artists from across the country. 

Managed by the Lahore Arts Council, the Alhamra Art Gallery held, in collaboration with the Faiz Foundation Trust and UNESCO, “Aad Sach, Jugaad Sach: an Exhibition of Historic and Contemporary Sikh Art” (11/15). At the Research and Publication Centre, “Unmaking History” (10/30–11/12), curated by Natasha Malik, Saher Sohail, and Laila Rahman, offered a critical look at collective pasts, and the creation of history.

The private COMO (Contemporary/Modern) Museum opened on February 23 with the first display of works featuring six well-known artists, including Rashid Rana and Naiza Khan, invited by director Seher Tareen. Salman Toor’s striking ceiling piece, Upside Down Party (2019), is now a permanent feature of the museum.

Toor was also featured in a solo show of new paintings at Lahore’s O Art Space (4/12–22). In the same city, Taseer Art Gallery (TAG) focused on Pakistan’s young talent, and featured emerging artist Ghazi Sikander Mirza’s exhibition investigating the difficulties of urban living, “A story is not the answer” (12/12–20).

In the international arena, amid a contentious year between India and Pakistan, New York-based Salman Toor exhibited at Nature Morte in New Delhi (12/16–1/4/20). Many artists from Pakistan exhibited in the United Arab Emirates. At the Sharjah Art Foundation, an exhibition of video artist Bani Abidi’s works, “Funland” (10/12–1/12/20), featured an exhibition-within-the-exhibition curated by Abidi and Aziz Sohail, “Very Very Sweet Medina,” which gave an important overview of art production in Karachi in the 1990s. Earlier in the year, Gropius Bau in Berlin mounted a midcareer retrospective of Abidi, “They Died Laughing” (6/2–9/22). 

In Dubai, Grey Noise gallery held Fazal Rizvi’s first solo exhibition, “How do we remember?” (9/18–11/2), in which the artist considered his memories of his grandmother. Lawrie Shabibi Gallery held a solo exhibition of Hamra Abbas’s Sol LeWitt-inspired works (11/18–1/14/20). Artist-duo Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajani and Umber Majeed were included in “Body Building” (9/12–12/14) at the newly established Ishara Art Foundation.

In London, the Rangoonwala Foundation held an exhibition at Asia House, “Father Figure” (10/23–30), from Wahab Jaffer’s collection of Pakistani modern masters. Grosvenor Gallery held a solo exhibition of Wardha Shabbir’s miniature-inspired paintings and resin sculptures, “In a Free State” (9/27–10/18). Rasheed Araeen’s latest artistic project is a new restaurant, Shamiyaana, adorned in his colorful geometric style, which opened in October. At Kettle’s Yard, at the University of Cambridge, Bani Abidi, Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi, and Seher Shah participated in “Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan” (11/12–2/2/20), a show curated by Devika Singh. 

At the 58th Venice Biennale, Foundation Art Divvy and the Pakistan National Council of the Arts presented Pakistan’s first official participation with the solo pavilion of Naiza Khan, “Manora Field Notes” (5/11–11/24), curated by Zahra Khan. The artist produced new works spread across the three interconnected spaces of the pavilion. 

Around Europe, Imran Qureshi’s exhibition of works drawing on poetry by famed poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “The Seeming Endless Path of Memory” (5/1–7/27), was on view at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris. 

Looking ahead to 2020, in Lahore, Hoor Al Qasimi is the curator of the second Lahore Biennale, slated to open in late January. That same month, Saad Qureshi will present “Something About Paradise” at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. In New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art will feature Salman Toor’s first museum solo exhibition, “How Will I Know?,” in March.

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