Editor in Chief Mehvash Amin talks to Qudsia Rahim, co-founder of the Lahore Biennale Foundation that has already held two biennales, using Lahore as a canvas to mount exhibits that have encompassed the layered history of this ancient city, as well as drawn on the energies of artists from the nexus of regions that it is historically interconnected with.
Mehvash Amin: Why art?
Qudsia Rahim: When you are born, you are surrounded by art all around. Design really… sometimes we compartmentalize things into art, sculpture etc. But when you look around there is design in everything. Nothing is pure, everything is a complexity of various forms and dimensions. Just looking at a tree, the proportion, the size, the colour…
MA: The Golden Ratio…
QR: Precisely. We all express ourselves through various forms of mark-making, some people express themselves through text, others through music and forms of visual expression.
There is an artist in everyone; sometimes people envy artists, thinking their own work is prosaic or boring. This can’t be further from the truth, such is my fascination with big-data collectors. If you look at their matrix, it makes beautiful assemblages of line, colour, pattern and texture… a pure visual treat. Mark Lombardi’s work began as a bubble diagram connecting various funding sources and ended up on the walls of the Whitney Museum.
All this is in pursuit of understanding the divine matrix. If you see the geometry in an acorn, it’s mind-blowing… basically, we are all trying to understand nature through various mediums.
MA: So tell me a bit about your background in art.
QR: Throughout my life, I had a very strong and close relationship with my father. One of my favourite past times was watching him for hours, composing his layouts with blocks and letters on the letter-press – amongst his other interests he was also one of the pioneers in the publishing and printing businesses in the country. He loved his work. I was fascinated by that, and would be told: “Don’t touch it, you will ruin my composition!”
I was not the only one influenced by him since two of my sisters are artists and the extended family includes more family members from National College of the Arts and Punjab University. Naturally, growing up in a family of artists makes you think and feel differently.
This affinity with the arts extended further under incredible teachers such as Salima Hashmi and Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq at NCA. While studying drawing at the Alhamra Art Centre, Colin David, Ahmed Khan, Anna Molka Ahmed (at Punjab University) all advised me to think critically. I feel incredibly blessed to have such personalities in my life.
At NCA, I had taken up sculpture under Saeed Akhtar. Since he took some time off due to his health issues, I had time to explore to look for the right medium to work with. I ended up with glass, an unusual choice, since it had no presence in our art world. It has been around for centuries but is a fairly recent addition on the contemporary art horizon.
Armed with my new ambition, I had to find a place where I could learn and work with glass. We found a factory in the neighboring city of Sheikhupura, run by an acquaintance of my father (who was unaware of my project) and supported by one of my artist sisters.
We were the first two women to walk into that glass-making factory. The MD was a man called Rana, who told me that I could watch but that he wouldn’t allow me to work, as it was a dangerous process. But I told him that I wouldn’t leave till he let me work. I fell in love with what was going on inside the factory.
But clearly something had to happen, and my sister burnt her hand badly—thank God her wound healed perfectly, eventually.
At that point Rana uncle put her hand in ice and asked: “Ok, now are you done?”
But I refused to leave that chair till he allowed me to come back. I was totally fascinated by the whole place and made a connection with glass immediately. I knew this was my medium. We went home and I told my father this. He, of course, had all the logistical concerns that a parent has. But perhaps he saw the sparkle in my eye, or it was the fact that I was the youngest daughter… finally he acquiesced and said: “Ok, I will take you.”
He took me back the following day, and every single day for a year, making sure a chunk of time was available. Only this time the roles were reversed and he would watch me compose my stuff, proudly.
MA: Did you go abroad for glass-blowing subsequently?
QR: At the time of my BFA thesis I was on cloud nine. I had worked hard, some of my teachers loved that I had dedicated myself to learn a new craft with very basic, local tools. My craft was too new and different for some faculty who practiced in more traditional crafts but non of this mattered – I was on a roll to go abroad and pursue glass-blowing further.
I was only focused on two schools with glass departments, Alfred University and Rhode Island School of Design. Rejected the first time around, I kept working hard and reapplied the following year, this time to my first choice, Alfred University, who took only two students each year. To my astonishment, the head of the department called: “I wanted to find out who this very eager girl is?”
These were by far my most absorbing years. I was learning the craft from the get-go in a place were there were many like myself, passionate about working in glass as their medium of expression.
My husband Raza Ali Dada and I lived in NYC for 11 years before coming back to Lahore, as we had never gone there to settle down, our love for our families being too strong.
MA: So my next question was going to be, how did the biennale come about?
QR: When I revived the Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery at the NCA as its curator, I started forming international partnerships to create a more active space for exchange. There was so much to learn and share. We made incredible connections with Art institutions worldwide, including Centro Cultural Borges (Buenos Aires) Instituto Superior de Arte (Havana) amongst others, and created residencies and exchange programs. I must admit that all this traffic of ‘foreign’ artists and dignitaries attracted attention from security agencies but I made sure I’d send tea and snacks to diligent officers who would follow me home to keep an eye on me!
These interchanges led to the experience of valuing the public space and we realized that we had to create our own opportunity and take art out of institutions into the public domain.
What may have been a challenge, not having purpose-built spaces for exhibitions, became our strength. We were able to see the city as canvas
MA: So at what time exactly did you think of the biennale? Because that is a huge undertaking.
QR: What beautiful memories come to mind! I remember the first few meetings that took place at my house. I would invite friends over for brainstorming sessions. I spent over a year researching the various structures of foundations, looking at what would make sense for us in our local context, a structure that would grow with the changing needs of our times, that would learn from its surroundings to stay relevant, emphasize the public’s inclusivity while bringing art into public spaces, develop and work with partners and create opportunities and collective mobility for both the arts and the artists in the local and global context.
MA: When you wanted to start a foundation, did you think of a biennale foundation in particular?
QR: During this time, the director of the Goethe Institution had brought my attention to the biennale model. Frankly speaking, I was hesitant initially. I could see a lot of work and I didn’t know if I was able to follow up on the scale and commitment expected. But as I researched, I realized how important a biennale was for the local/global context, so in 2013 we applied for registration of the Lahore Biennale Foundation: a foundation that would have a year-round calendar and host the biennale event every two years.
MA: How long did it take you from this point to the point when you actually put up the first biennale?
QR: The first biennale happened quite organically; it was like I had the force of the arts community behind me. The LBF built deeper and more structural bonds with some people, most importantly Iftikar Dadi, who advised me on various aspects of curatorial practice. Ayesha Jatoi was the strength behind the publications and there were many people connected informally, such as Imran Qureshi and Farida Batool, amongst others. I want to mention Osman Khalid Waheed who helped me with the formal structure of the foundation and my husband Raza Ali Dada, who is a constant source of guidance, managing the exhibition design and overseeing artwork production.
The first biennale was important in order to establish ourselves. What may have been a challenge, not having purpose-built spaces for exhibitions, became our strength. We were able to see the city as canvas; the Lahore Biennale is not location-bound, it works with all kinds of locations throughout the city. This allows us to engage with some of the most spectacular sites and historic buildings, therefore we are able to experiment with scale and the public profile. we take great care in selecting sites already frequented by people— parks, museums, forts. This way we able to bring art to a greater cross-section of people. It is also important to for us to re-engage or re-purpose locations now no longer in public use.
MA: For the first biennale, what percentage of artists came from abroad?
QR: As the inaugural event and program, LB01 chose to contextualize Lahore with reference to developments in the region. Many local artists were invited to create new site-specific projects on a scale and an orientation towards publicness that is still emergent in Lahore.
Another objective was to recognize work being done with reference to South Asia and West Asia, with works by artists based in or engaged with Mumbai, Colombo, Dhaka, Istanbul, and Tehran. This was for building regional communication, to learn from each other and because these artists were unknown to the art public in Lahore.
I was cautious, not taking any risks, so I planned on a size and scale according to our capacity. The biennale was on for two weeks. Eleven countries were invited to be part of the biennale, with a total of 75 artists showcased, over a 100 works of art and an estimated 1.5 million people being able to see some or all aspects of the biennale.
MA: How many sites were there?
QR: Seven. We had divided the locations into three eras: Mughal, Colonial and Modern: Mubarak Haveli, the Shahi Hamam, the Lahore Fort (Summer Palace), the Bagh e Jinnah previously known as Lawrence Gardens, the Lahore Museum, the Alhamra Arts Centre and the Canal.
MA: So when you look at it, the scale of the second biennale was much bigger, quite apart from the fact that you had a professional curator over from the Sharjah Biennale, Hoor al-Qasimi.
QR: Yes, it was much bigger. When we invited Hoor al Qasimi to visit Lahore, she was moved by our rich and beautiful cultural and architectural history. Lahore is very unique in the way that in one day, you drive by different eras and time periods without even realizing.
Hoor is a very important person doing very important work. So I think it was meant to happen through her hands, that she would open up these borders. We know so many people who go to the UAE, half our Pashtun population speaks Arabic. It was the right time for this to happen.
She was also very conscientious about inviting women artists too, with their deep, complex thoughts.
Titled Between the sun and the moon, the second biennale questioned identity in the Global South, colonial legacies and the rise of modern identities that have hardened differences across ethnic, religious, linguistic, and national lines.
MA: For the third biennale, are you getting another curator?
QR: Of course! I am always looking ahead. We hope the third edition will be self-reflective and thought provoking.
MA: When will that be?
QR: So far we are skipping a year due to the pandemic and the hardships it has caused. We hope we can have a schedule finalized soon.
MA: Now for a very important question. How did you perceive the biennale events seeping down to the common man? Any anecdotes or reactions that you would like to talk about?
QR: Lots of anecdotes, of course! Thank you for asking me this question—this is one of my favourite parts of the Biennale.
Firstly, we choose our locations very carefully, and throughout the year I visit these places many times to get a better understanding of a site’s realities, and whether or how to bring in the artwork there. I spend time with the artworks on-site and watch how people respond to them, their comments and feedback are very important to me, sometimes I even talk to them.
In one instance Amar Kanwal’s film Such a Morning, on Partition, was playing during the biennale… he’s a really amazing Indian artist… and in the film there is a scene with a cupboard, which is empty. A mother and daughter were behind me and the little girl asks: “Ama, when father left us our cupboards were also bare… do you think that something like this happened here too?” It left me in tears.
Another such incident was with Bani Abdi’s work Memorial to Lost Words on the South Asian martyrs of WW1, their letters recited back in song to the statue of Queen Elizabeth in Lahore Museum—there were not many who left the room without tears.
There are no absolute narratives in arts, so we want people to make their own narratives or connection with the artworks.
MA: Tell me some interesting things that I wouldn’t know except through the biennales.
QR: Sharing one example from LB02—did you know our region is famous for astrological research and contributions? For example, Al Biruni measured the circumference of the earth from a place called Nandna near Rawalpindi. He was only off by abut 30 kilometers. Lahore was the astrolabe capital of the world and more than 80 percent of the world’s astrolabes were made in Lahore. So if you feel connected to the moon and stars, it’s your DNA talking!
Also, these jantar mantars were made, which are strange configurations of stairs going skywards, or a spiral going up in the middle of nowhere—astrological parks made in the 15th or 16th centuries. There are seven major jantar mantars in Pakistan and India.
A Persian astronomer and mathematician, Ulugh Beg, travelled through South Asia to Afghanistan in pursuit of astrological knowledge. Based on his data, in LB02, Almagiul Menlibayeva, along with sound artist German Popov and Inna Artemova, created a beautifully researched and visually stimulating installation at the planetarium.
And from LB01, Mehreen Murtaza, in How to Conduct in the Company of Trees, connected a tree at the Lawrence Garden with a sound mixing and modification technique in a way that it could measure our communication with the tree and render it audible. Sounds were generated when it was touched, and the sound changed as multiple people touched or moved through this energy field. it shows what a living thing a tree is, and in an era when we are cannibalizing nature, this is so important.
MA: Some of our artists come from places like Baluchistan, Sind, South Punjab, maybe with raw talent but not the thought process that changes art from pretty pictures to the visceral stuff these artists end up producing. What are your thoughts on this?
QR: You know, I taught at the NCA. The most beautiful thing at this school is that there is a quota system, with each province getting a certain number of seats allocated to it. If someone feels there are not enough seats for a province, you can nominate someone and create a seat.
As for the artists and how their work progresses, we need to consider their journey involving art institutions, interactions, apprenticeships etc. Some evolve their own trajectory based on their life events. It is never simple and makes for so many stories.
MA: Going back to your biennale, do you think that people who are not generally into art get intrigued by what you are putting forth and see ‘Art’ through a new prism?
QR: So let me tell you about the pigeon house project, City within the City, in front of the NCA. Several years ago, Arif Khan’s design was chosen by a jury through an open call. I was so scared! Wondering what people will say about it… but overnight, the magic of people accepting that artwork was amazing. Everyone may not have liked it, but it started a dialogue and art came back into the mainstream, which is all I wanted. That marked the end of my fears about what people would say. So we did all kinds of impromptu sessions: music in the parks, sessions at the radio station, sessions on the roadside, inviting people to talk…
MA: And did they?
QR: Absolutely! Because if the dialogue is exciting, people want to be part of it. Our sessions in the park were always quite popular with the audience. This is also because everyone in parks is relaxed and not in a rush.
MA: Who would initiate the conversation?
QR: These sessions were organized as part of our public outreach program ArtSpeak, a monthly event that we do at different venues throughout the city to attract a wider audience. The structure would vary, based on conversations, sessions and presentations with a Q&A, workshops through participation, open mic, radio shows with audience feedback… just to share a few formats.
MA: Are these sessions in your archives?
QR: Yes, on our website and social media pages. (https://www.lahorebiennale.org/)
MA: Did you feel that when you bring art to places like Tollinton Market or the Fort, where lots of people go after all, they absorb it?
QR: It would be impossible not to. If not today, tomorrow, if not tomorrow then in 20 years, it might come up in a conversation with their kids…
MA: And if you do a biennale every two years, art might become part of the cityscape.
QR: My dream is that at the time of the biennale, the whole city celebrates by means of inclusion in some form or the other. It is long process and we need to take appropriate steps, invite people to create collateral events, business needs to develop along side the biennale, tourism must be engaged. This empowers the soft and informal economies. We have started to see this happen and that is a positive sign. Of course the biennale cannot replace Basant, but it can help people tune into that spirit, help bring its citizens together to celebrate our rich, cultural, historic and artistic legacy with the rest of the world.
MA: Do you involve kids in your programs?
QR: Yes! We made sure that during both the biennale, kids, especially from public schools and colleges, visited. We have a kids’ Youth Forum, through which they were given curated tours, artists’ talks and hands-on workshops. We pay for the bus to bring them from their schools and send them back after the activity. These visits are meticulously planned and have a parallel team working on it.
MA: I believe you also did billboard art recently.
QR: Since the inception of the foundation, billboards have been on my mind– they are like giant canvases calling out to the artists. We had a couple of artworks on billboards for the second edition of the Biennale.
With the pandemic, new conditions, new engagements. We thought, if the world shuts down, what does an art organization do? There was little or no business during the pandemic, so we decided to revisit public spaces and found billboards totally bare, like untouched canvases. Imagine giving an artist such a huge canvas in a public space!
MA: Where did you have these billboards?
QR: The question was: should we have it in one central location or spread them out? For it to be democratic and reach out to different demographics, we obviously went for spread-out billboards. Some of the locations were in Ghari Shahu, in Jauhar Town, Jail Road, Main Boulevard, Muslim Town, Airport Road and Defence Road.
MA: Give me an example of who did what.
QR: So I will give you Imran Qureshi’s example. He took this mask, gilded it in gold, didn’t like it, kept on at it—it took him three weeks to come up with the image that he did— till in the final instance his painting was at the back and he was standing tall in front, looking invincible, yet silenced by the gilded mask on his face.
Naazish Ata Ullah wrote ‘pause’ as a symbol of the hiatus during the pandemic, with a background of thin gauze-like fabric.
MA: Would you like to add anything else to our conversation?
QR: I want to state that as a nation we are a very sophisticated people, art and literature and music are in our DNA, and it is our duty to give something back to the culture that has made us, in whatever capacity. I don’t like white cubes for art, I want to go into public spaces that people will be able to interact in, from the top down but also from the bottom up. Even for the third biennale I am thinking with my curator about the spaces that we will open up!
Also the role of the foundation. What is it? We need to generate a conversation locally. We also need to look at our region, which is Pakistan, obviously, then India, as well as the Middle East, as well as Iran and Afghanistan. We need to take into account the international space as well. We were lucky that all these dialogues were allowed to take place, and we crossed a lot of borders, broke a lot of boundaries, overcame a lot of inhibitions. For example, we had many artists from the Emirates. So this whole region opened up to Pakistan, and vice versa, very strongly.There are so many artists now who want to come to Pakistan and produce work here.
LBF has also engaged in other aspects of the public space such as the environment. Lahore’s diminishing green cover and poor environmental health gave us reason to create the ‘Afforestation Lahore’ initiative which was then taken up by the Punjab Government and is now an active movement to restore the landscape and replenish it with local species of flora.
MA: Thank you for all the effort you have put in and best of luck for the next biennale. I am already looking forward to it!
All photographs courtesy of the Lahore Biennale Foundation.