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Can a biennial really prosper in Pakistan?

The Lahore Biennale is due to launch next year amid security issues and a meagre art scene

by Gareth Harris  |  16 March 2016
Can a biennial really prosper in Pakistan?
Lahore will get a new biennial © Nashmia Haroon
The global art axis continues to shift from West to East with the inaugural Lahore Biennale scheduled to launch in the Pakistani city in November next year. The established Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, has been tasked with launching the inaugural event as its artistic director.

Rashid Rana © Samid Ali
Rashid Rana © Samid Ali
He says that the main aim is to “create something which generates ideas for a larger discourse in the art world, yet remains relevant to a large number of audiences from Lahore”. The biennial will encompass residencies, talks and workshops across the city, and include new commissions from established and emerging artists. “I don’t wish the curatorial premise to only result in an exhibition. The plan is to generate a larger discourse,” Rana says.

However, security issues in Pakistan may deter international visitors. The culture scene is also lacking; indeed, there are very few state-backed contemporary art institutions in Pakistan, raising the question of appropriate venues for the biennale. There are nonetheless key art colleges such as Beaconhouse National University and the National College of Arts. 

The artist says that the “world has a very limited view of Pakistan which is restricted to news [about security] in the international media”.  Rana adds: “I promise it will be a very different kind of biennial, not simply for the sake of it but by being true to the contexts under which it takes place; it’s bound to be different. In my vision, the city serves not just as a site but is also the medium.”

The biennial is organised by the Lahore Biennale Foundation, which was established in 2014 by the artist Qudsia Rahim and the businessman Osman Khalid Waheed. The non-profit foundation is supported by Amin Jaffer, Christie’s international director of Asian art, and Jessica Morgan, the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York. Jaffer says that he has helped the organisation “build international relations”.

The foundation has funded and helped organise exhibitions and events including My East is Your West, a show at last year’s Venice Biennale which included works by the Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta and Rana. It has backing from both private and public bodies including the Dutch conglomerate Akzonobel and the British Council.

Can the Lahore biennale succeed? “Why not? The Lahore Biennale Foundation has been working for the past two years to forge sustainable models, to work with the various stakeholders that constitute the city,” Rahim says.

The move bolsters the burgeoning South Asia art scene, which already boasts the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, due to open in December, and the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh, which held its third edition last month.

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