We all bear witness to our times and ourselves, both in the present and the past.
Karachi, where I was born and raised, bore witness to the bloodshed of the partition of the subcontinent into the modern nation states of India and Pakistan in 1947. Despite continuing episodes of turmoil, the city of migrants resiliently grows and thrives. This is especially true in the arts. In 1971, Ali Imam opened the Indus Gallery and it became a focal point for many of our Modernists. Today the gallery scene flourishes and contemporary artists come from all over the country to display their work here. Commercial galleries, however, are not enough. More museums and public spaces to show art are needed in Karachi. It is imperative to establish a Biennale in Pakistan’s largest city to engage not only international art audiences but also the people of this diverse metropolis.
It is an honor for me to be selected by the Karachi Biennale Trust as Chief Curator for the first ever Biennale. My curatorial team consists of three dynamic Assistant Curators, who, like me, not only call this maddening, inspiring city home, but have their own art practices: Zeerak Ahmed; Humayun Memon; and Sara Paganwala, all of whom bring a young perspective and energy to our endeavor. My Curator-at- Large, Zarmeene Shah has operated in an invaluable advisory capacity, and the final member of the Karachi Biennale Curatorial Team is Adam Fahy-Majeed, who has brought another fresh generational outlook to our curatorial process
When confronted with the theme for Karachi Biennale 2017—Witness—the much quoted Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, comes to mind. These are indisputably interesting times not only for my city but also for the world around us. We are often told as artists that our duty is to question the times we live in. If so, even this seemingly familiar “Chinese” proverb demands scrutiny. Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, noted, “No authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found.” The British politician Sir Austen Chamberlain first conjured up this expression in a speech in 1936 as reported by the Yorkshire Evening Post.
As Chief Curator it has been an experiential venture for me to approach artists from both Pakistan and abroad to bear witness to this perplexing era. This has been an opportunity to learn and absorb very diverse artists’ idiosyncratic vocabularies from several continents. Visual artists are not the only ones invited into this discourse: architects; filmmakers; photographers; and professionals engaged with fashion and theatre have also been included. This cross- disciplinary approach reflects the ethos of Karachi in which there is a great deal of interaction and collaboration among creative communities.
The works commissioned and selected for the Biennale are both political and personal. The issues addressed by artists based whether here or abroad have a resonance for my city. Some are a commentary on the times, whilst others explore the artists’ own internal dialogues. They are acts of defiance and celebration that will take viewers to places unexpected and unexplainable. The aim is to ponder not only our times, but also the narratives surrounding them.
I do not have answers, only questions.
“There must be something sacred about salt. It is in our tears and in our sea,”stated Khalil Gibran. Now, I feel, is the time for us to come together as artists, and more importantly as human beings, to bear witness to our shared salt.
Amin Gulgee (b. 1965, Karachi) received a BA in Art History and Economics from Yale University, USA in 1987 and won the Conger B. Goodyear Fine Arts Award for his senior thesis on Moghul gardens. The sculptor has worked from his studio in Karachi for more than two decades and has exhibited extensively both at home and abroad. His international group shows include “Open: Esposizione Internazionale di Sculture ed Installazioni” in Venice, Italy in 1998 and 2017; “Pakistan: Another Vision,” Brunei Gallery, London, UK in 2000; the Beijing Biennial in 2003; “Beyond Borders,” National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, India in 2005; “Paradise Lost,” WAH Center, Brooklyn, NY, USA in 2008; “Rites of Passage,” Ostrale, Dresden, Germany in 2010 and “New Pathways: Contemporary Art from Pakistan,” UN Headquarters, New York, NY, USA. His work has also been shown at Art Dubai 2009, Art Taipei 2012 and Art Stage Singapore 2016. Gulgee has had more than 30 solo exhibitions in Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, the UAE, India, the UK, Portugal and the US. His most recent solos were “Walking on the Moon” at Wei-Ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and “Washed Upon the Shore” at Canvas Gallery in Karachi, Pakistan, both in 2015.
Gulgee is also known for his performance works, an emerging field in Pakistan. Over the past decade, he has staged over a dozen performance works in Karachi and Lahore, Dubai and Nagoya, as well at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In addition, the artist launched Amin Gulgee Gallery in Karachi in 2000. He sees the need to provide a space for non-commercial, thematic exhibitions of both Pakistani and foreign artists. He has curated or co-curated 14 shows at the gallery and elsewhere, including exhibitions of new media, installation and performance. Gulgee was also Chief Curator of the first Karachi Biennale, 2017. He has received numerous awards, including the President’s Pride of Performance in 2005, and was named as one of the Power Pakistan 100 in 2012.
Zarmeene Shah (b. 1980, Karachi) is an independent curator and critic
currently based in Karachi, Pakistan. With a BFA from the Indus Valley School of Art &; Architecture (IVS) in Karachi in 2003, and an MA in Critical & Curatorial Studies from Columbia University as a Fulbright Scholar in 2010, she became one of the first professionally qualified curators in the country. Since then, she has curated and been involved in the production of several notable and often large- scale exhibitions, both institutionally and independently, including the video program for ‘The Rising Tide’ at the Mohatta Palace Museum, 2010, curator for the Pakistan pavilion at the 4th Cairo Video Festival, 2011, and several other significant group and solo artist projects, including the politically focused ‘Parrhesia’ I & II shows (2011 & 2015), ‘Dreamscape’, an exhibition of contemporary performance and installation art (co-curated with Amin Gulgee, 2015), and ‘Taqseem’, marking 70 years of partition in 2017. Shah is often invited to lead talks, lectures and workshops, such as 4A Center for Contemporary Asian Art’s biannual Curators’ Intensive in 2015 in Sydney. She is also Assistant Professor and Head of the Liberal Arts program at the IVS, where she has previously been Chief Curator of the IVS Gallery. She has also served as Independent Consultant for South Asian Art for the CCA Derry-Londonderry (Northern Ireland), and Assistant Director at the Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi. Most recently, Shah was the Curator at Large of the inaugural Karachi Biennale 2017.
With a background in studio art, she is able to fluidly navigate between artistic and critical practices, in order to build more complex narratives and intersections between the two. Focusing on contemporary art and continental and semiotic theory, she is particularly interested in new media, the body, and the urban political in art. As a writer, she contributes to academic journals and catalogues, as well as several print and online publications, including The Herald Pakistan, Art Asia Pacific, Art Review and Art Review Asia magazines.
Sara Vaqar Pagganwala (b. 1986, Karachi) received her BFA (hons) from Central St. Martins, University of the Arts, London. She is a multidisciplinary artist and has been part of several group shows in Karachi, Islamabad and London. Her first show in Karachi was ‘Fresh!’ at Amin Gulgee Gallery, Karachi, where she made an edible body cast of herself. She also participated in ‘70’s: the Radioactive Decade’ at Amin Gulgee Gallery. She was also selected for the ‘Women of the World’ show by London Southbank in Karachi for food sculptures. She lately collaborated with performance artist, Sarah Revoltella, for her performance ‘Io Combatto’ for Venice Biennale 2017. She was awarded the Ladies Fund Award of Commendation in Art in 2015.
Her trajectory is highly experimental, combining science and art; from food sculpture to performance art to growing crystals. She was also part of ‘Recorded Time’, the first Open Studio in Pakistan at Koel Gallery, Karachi, where she investigated theories of quantum science and crystal growth. Pagganwala currently lives and works in Karachi, where she is an Adjunct Faculty Professor at the Indus Valley School Art and Architecture in the Liberal Arts Department and one of the Assistant Curators of the first Karachi Biennale 2017.
Humayun Memon (b. 1986, Karachi) graduated in 2008 with a Bachelors Degree in Design from the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture. After a short stint in advertising, Humayun has been shooting commercially at "18% Grey" for the past 6 years while participating in a number of group shows, in Pakistan and in Germany. His fashion, editorial and photojournalism work has been published in a number of local and international magazines / newspapers such as Vogue India, Libas, Express Tribune and Dawn to name a few.
Apart from photography, Memon has been part time faculty at Habib University, Indus Valley School of Art and at Karachi Grammar School. He has co-curated shows that have taken place at Al-Hamra Arts Council in Lahore and at the Alliance Francaise Gallery in Karachi. In addition, Memon was also one of the Assistant Curators for the first Karachi Biennale 2017.
Zeerak Ahmed (b. 1990, Lahore) a.k.a Slowspin is a multidisciplinary conceptual artist. In 2012, Ahmed received her B.A in Studio Art and Political Science from Hiram College, U.S.A, after which she returned to Karachi, where she grew up. Ahmed was then exploring and exhibiting mixed-media installations with her collective, TBP (DEL/SER), and was teaching art at the Karachi Grammar School. She has since exhibited and performed at a number of local and international spaces and residencies. In August of 2017 she received her MFA degree in Creative Practice with the Transart Institute (Plymouth University). Ahmed was also one of the Assistant Curators of the inaugural Karachi Biennale 2017. She continues to move between Karachi, Cleveland, Berlin and New York.
Ahmed is interested in curating visual-sensory experiences that interact with, intersect or interrupt architectural spaces. As a producer of ambient and experimental electronic sounds, she is currently investigating the elusive, through sound sculptures and sound performance works.
Adam Fahy-Majeed (b. 1996, Sydney) is based in Leeds, United Kingdom. Although he is currently on his year abroad at the Università degli Studi di Padova, Majeed is in the process of completing his Joint Honours BA in History of Art and Italian at the University of Leeds. Born and raised in Sydney, he left Australia to live in England in 2014. His involvement in the KB17 Curatorial Team came through an essay on the topic of the Karachi Biennale 2017, written for one of his professors, Dr Mingyuan Hu.