First ever Pakistan Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale

Pakistan makes its debut at the 58th Venice Biennale with an installation by London-Karachi based artist Naiza Khan. Backed by an all-women team, Khan turns the venue into a map of the Pakistani Island of Manora.

The next six months are an apt time to visit the floating city of Venice, as the mother of all Biennales – the 58th La Biennale di Venezia or Venice Biennale – opened its gate on May 11. Visitors can experience the awe-inspiring creativity of more than 90 countries and 79 individual artists till November 24, 2019. The work of Naiza Khan, an artist based in London and Karachi, has been selected to represent Pakistan’s art and culture for the first time ever at this year’s show. This is nothing less than a historic moment for the nation. Khan’s art depicts Manora Island, an archipelago near the harbour of Karachi city. Titled Manora Field Notes, the Pavilion of Pakistan engages ‘…with multiple bodies of knowledge and narratives including archival material, historical myths and conversations with local communities,’ according to an article on Dawn.

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Team Pakistan Pavilion at 58th Venice Biennale | LtoR: Zahra Khan, Naiza Khan and Asma Rashid (Image Courtesy: Dawn)

Naiza Khan has exhibited previously at international platforms like Shanghai Biennale (2012) and Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2016). In 2013, she had her first solo exhibition at the Broad Museum in Michigan. Her solo show at the Venice Biennale has been backed by an all-women team comprising curator Zahra Khan (no relation to Naiza Khan), an art connoisseur specialising in South Asian contemporary art, and organiser Asma Rashid, Director of Foundation Art Divvy.

There have been frequent occasions when the Venice Biennale has delivered deep thoughts on political issues. This year, Swiss artist Christoph Büchel has installed a ship in which 700 migrants died in April 2015, and Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu have installed a robot that spreads a blood-like liquid around the exhibition site. Naiza Khan’s Manora Field Notes, meanwhile, describes the erasure of the marine past of the Pakistani island of Manora due to rapid development projects. The theme of her installation closely aligns with the Biennale’s title May You Live in Interesting Times, which brings together “…artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the post-war order,” according to the curatorial leader of the Biennale, Ralph Rugoff.

Explaining the relevance of Naiza’s work, Zahra Khan stated for the platform Dawn:

“There are few countries which have experienced the upheaval which Pakistan has in recent times. This, along with a significant number of art schools and a long cultural history, has fostered a vibrant and diverse arts scene. Artists speak clearly and powerfully about issues of identity, migration, violence, community and, of course, contemporary issues like climate change. We chose Naiza’s work partly because it also allows for an insight into the mundane – set against the backdrop of an island with a long history, tiny and yet a microcosm in many ways of Pakistan today.”

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London-Karachi based artist Naiza Khan (Image Courtesy: The Art Newspaper)

Manora Field Notes critiques the slow elimination of the island’s natural ecology and portrays the island’s history through depiction of its material culture, public and social spaces and marine past. The setup invites attendees to look at the venue as a ‘map’. The artwork is spread out across three interrelated but scattered places on the site. In the centre of the installation are archival materials related to surveillance and navigation that have been recovered from a 19th-century observatory abandoned on the island. A report called the 1939 India Weather Review builds context for a series of brass pieces and a sound installation. A multi-screen video setup has been created based on a bank of footages that were shot on the island over a span of ten years. It showcases distinct narratives, perspectives and landscapes of Manora Island. Khan has previously worked intensively on addressing gender concerns in her work, but with this artwork, she shifts her focus to architecture, space and objects.

The show’s curator Zahra Khan feels ecstatic about the multidisciplinary presentation of Khan’s work. The installation draws on a range of mediums, like recordings, photographs, watercolour, drawings, films and metals. In an article on the Dawn, she states, “Pakistan has a remarkable, vibrant art scene and it is extremely important that it is represented on the world stage, particularly at a prestigious forum like the Venice Biennale. This pavilion is an opportunity to present an entirely different side of Pakistan.”

The official website of the Biennale explains the content of the Pakistan pavilion as such – “Khan sensitively attends to the way space is inhabited through materiality and embodiment, as well as to the interplay of bodies, the environment, and the social and political forces. Her work has great relevance to other sites in the Global South that are undergoing similar transformations.”

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The Manora Field Notes (Image Courtesy: Brand Synario)

Asma Rashid explains that the goal of Foundation Art Divvy, which was founded in 2016, is to enable contemporary Pakistani artists, especially emerging artists, to share their stories with broader audiences. “The Pakistani pavilion in Venice is years in the making, and we hope this opens a new window to the diversity of talent and practice of artists and other curators working out of Pakistan,” she said in a Daily Mail report. The debut opportunity was made possible with the support of the Ministry of Information, Government of Pakistan, the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) and the Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that has also been a backbone behind the Karachi Biennale.

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A work by artist Naiza Khan at the Pakistan pavilion (Image Courtesy: Geo TV)

Naiza Khan’s presentation of Pakistan’s art and culture is attracting many eyeballs on the internet. The topic went viral on twitter when British High Commissioner to Pakistan Thomas Drew, journalist Sabena Siddiqi, Pakistani Prime Minister’s media assistant Iftikhar Durrani and English stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard tweeted about it.

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Thomas Drew, British High Commissioner to Pakistan, looking through a telescope at the Pakistan pavilion

This year’s Venice Biennale is bigger than ever with the highest number of participating nations since the show’s inception in 1895. Besides Pakistan, other countries like Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia and the Dominican Republic are also making their debut this year at the mega show. The Biennale is organised across three different segments – a central exhibition, national pavilions featuring various nations, and collateral events with autonomous shows.

With India celebrating 150 Years of Gandhi at its India Pavilion this year, we are eager to see if creative dialogue can take place between the two neighbouring countries’ installations. Can art achieve a dialogue that politics is struggling to? Only time will tell the tale!

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