Lahore Biennale’s depiction of the global south engages the viewer to create modern cultural visuals

There are visual echoes that can be seen throughout the Lahore Biennale’s 13 sites, locally curated collateral exhibitions with over 70 artists. The length and breadth of this art event highlights historical buildings of Lahore including the Lahore Fort, Bradlaugh Hall, PIA Planetarium, Tollinton Market, Lahore Museum and Mubarak Haveli. These have been activated to showcase installation art, performances, film screenings and digital interactive art projects. It has been a treat to rediscover Lahore both as an artist and a viewer.

The new age-modernists exhibiting in the Punjab University placed purposely close to the larger than life public art installations seen in Tollington Market are curated by Hoor Al Qasimi to showcase what she called the Global South discourse. A layering of history, culture, identity, freedom fighting and liberation. These are the integral core values of the Lahore Biennale’s meaningful art walk experience. Qasimi has placed two iconic modernists, Anwar Saeed and Rasheed Araeen in the National College of Arts. On entering the Zahoorul Akhlaq Gallery, one sees the men in Saeed’s paintings. They feel pensive and contemplative, the poses of intimate embrace are contrasted with those of combat and violence. The background surroundings have a deep sense of dread and suspense, a society struggling for equilibrium.

The 2011 painting titled Habits of Being II stands next to its successor painted in 2017 and titled Flying Fish. Both are painted in bright cadmium yellow acrylic paint. The bright colour is anchored in crisp linework and forms on both canvas and board. Elements of collage work showing street posters, architecture, gatherings of men standing on street corners echo the figures in the foreground. The figuration feels like an exterior, while symbols of the flying fish and other objects and calligraphy, an interior psychological state of the protagonist. The nine-foot wide painting titled A Casual State of Being In a Soul Hunting Haven painted in 2017 remains as a relevant and poignant depiction of the self in a state of paradoxical change. The protagonist seen across the gallery in each of these paintings is familiar to our local streets, seen on street corners and neighbourhoods. As viewers, we have seen these men through our car windows and now through the painted windows of Saeed’s inner psychological world, they are a reflection of our identity.

Among the larger than life installations of the Biennale, the crowds of visitors seen walking these exhibits, the diverse narratives of the film screening submissions, Rasheed Araeen’s works are an essential part of the Global South discourse. If Saeed is seen as the local artist choosing to represent the struggle and dichotomy of his existential self and society than Araeen is the other end of the spectrum. The roof of the gallery has structural geometrical elements of windows and panels of wood and aluminium that centrally hover over the minimalist installation. The iconic work, known as Zero to Infinity is 64 individual cubes that viewers are invited to rearrange into infinite configurations encouraging autonomy and creativity. Shamiyaana – Food for Thought is similar to this iconic piece, symmetrically placed at the centre of the room. The paintings are hung opposite the red cubes, in a tense face-off pushing and pulling each other. The viewer is reflected back in the paintings through mirror collages cut in geometric shapes along the red cubes seen within the painting frame. In a way, the viewer finishes the composition by entering in the artworks through the mirror collage.

Those who with Zahoorul Akhlaq’s visual vocabulary will immediately notice Araeen’s ominous clouds, grid and linework as a part of that era of painters. These artists are veterans and prominent contributors to contemporary Pakistani art history. Their unique understanding of culture and identity feels compassionate towards the general public viewing their work. These artists are descendants of an era of Pakistan where censorship and lack of exposure made it impossible to exhibit contemporary works. Such an exhibit feels like a homecoming when seen in the light of Lahore Biennale.

National College of Arts is located on The Mall that is less than a twenty-minute drive from Queen’s Road. The collateral exhibition announced as The Colony’s final public event titled Sagar Theatre on Queens Road is curated by Zahra Khan. These historical buildings that are only 2.2 km away from each other hold the collective witnessing of art and culture of Lahore. Their presence in the city feels bureaucratic, clerical and institutionalized, save for the efforts Khan and a collective of contemporary emerging Pakistani artists. The walk through the exhibition feels surreal, a bending of time and space as each artist is carefully placed in various rooms and levels of the cinema. Khan is showcasing various mediums in a seamless transition, we are greeted by an Ali Baba sculpture titled Erosion I lying in the landing above the stairs. There is a continuous drip of water creating a ‘third eye’ hole on the forehead of the body. The entire exhibit can be seen as an immersive installation, as the viewer enters individual rooms dedicated to works by Amra Khan, Abdullah Qureshi, Aroosa Rana, Mohsin Shafi and Komail Aijazuddin. Each artist presents a complex understanding of the human condition, layered with self-reflection and cross-cultural explorations that confront the viewer at every moment.

The painters Amra Khan and Aijazuddin present two sides of the self, one an externalised and the other internalised. The theatrical depiction of a Parisian salon style dressing room Khan’s paintings are hung in could be read as the environment inside her figurative paintings. The sound of the running shower emanating from the attached but sealed bathroom, and bright vanity lights allow the viewer to take the place of the protagonists in the paintings. A powerful gathering of her subjects is amplified by the red walls and dressing room paraphernalia. Visitors walk through the Ballroom Dancing Hall showcasing sculptures, tapestries and photographs to reach Aijazuddin’s immersive installation room. Automatically the parallel between their red rooms shows how the artists create a mood and emotion by projecting their paintings using light and mirror. A transmission of emotion and memory can be traced to each painting embedded into the walls of the room.

Having met Saeed and Araeen earlier at the NCA, the immersive rooms by Khan and Aijazuddin offer a new perspective on painting as installation in Pakistan. The Lahore Biennale highlights the idea of historical and present, inside and outside by creating a seamless walking transition from the bustling city streets into public art installations and exhibitions. Time is experienced with artistic sensibilities, when we the viewers are able to rediscover spaces and become part of the artwork.