The Art We Live and Breathe: Karachi Biennale ‘22 and the case for spatial escapism


The people of Karachi, enthused about exploring artistic and cultural activities, seldom have the chance to immerse in experiences curated by passionate visionaries to transport us to a different world. Traffic, pollution, crime, and shrinking public spaces not only continue to add to the woes of this great city, but also leave its people with little time or energy to engage in our shared humanity.

The Karachi Biennale is one example of the antidote that is severely needed. A multi-venue, multi-artist, and multimedia series of art exhibitions, the third edition of this event started on October 31 and was concluded on November 13. KB ‘22 is a brilliant confluence of creative storytelling, technological innovation, sensory immersion, and imperative advocacy. The themes of the many installations this year address pertinent issues affecting us, while also reminding everyone to embrace the past while staying true to a changing world.

This scribe recently visited the Narayan Jagannath Vaidya (NJV) School in Saddar for a guided tour of the exhibitions. The choice of venue, the historic building which served as the original Sindh Assembly, also reflects the organisers’ wish to bring the heritage of Karachi to the forefront through their platform. The tour was led by the Head of Educational Programming for Karachi Biennale, Varda Nisar. Among other things, she is responsible for engaging schools and students with the platform, inspiring the next generations of artists in the process.

We began with ‘Saaz’, presented by Karachi Community Radio (KCR) Studio. Upon entering the dark room, one is immediately treated to melodious notes of the Chitrali sitar playing as nebulous projections move like a river across the ground and walls. An incredible stripped-down robotic mechanism is seen pressing and strumming the strings of the sitar in a pre-programmed pattern that plays different compositions on a loop. The projections in the room are an AI-generated visualisation of the sitar’s rhythms. This exhibition pays tribute to the sound and origins of the Chitrali sitar, while also showing visitors a world that is coming. The overlap of art and artificial intelligence has already started, and it raises many questions about the future of our musical traditions, performance arts, and audience perceptions. Sitting in the cool air, taking in the masterful installation with its sights and sounds, one feels as if they are somewhere in the Hindu Kush highlands.

The next room we went to was called ‘Air Rider’, by Yasir Darya. As the winter sets in again and smog continues to make South Asian cities like Lahore and Delhi nearly unlivable, this room decided to highlight the issue in a truly modern way. On the end wall there are many screens. One that shows a Google Maps overview of Karachi, another showing the face of a rider on his bike as he makes his way through different parts of the city (recorded in real time), another from the biker’s vantage of the road, and one displaying the air quality index (AQI) of the area he is currently riding in. This project makes an important point that satellite maps (as opposed to certain historical and political ones) present spaces with a certain agnosticism, and many of us that use them regularly fail to see the differences within our cities. As the rider moves from low-income areas to more affluent neighbourhoods, the AQI improves (albeit slightly) with the lights in the room turning orange from red. The city is not the same for everyone. A potent reminder that we should not forget or ignore class and socioeconomic differences when pursuing climate justice.

The third installation is by renowned performance artist, Amin Gulgee, titled ‘Memory Room’. Gulgee, son of legendary painter Ismail Gulgee, created a space filled with aching nostalgia. This room moves on your senses from literally all sides. There are shelves of cumin and chilli powder placed to aromatically induce the feeling of his childhood home, a wall full of pictures and paintings of opposing elements (and of a young Amin with his body under sand), a ceiling draped with his mother’s saris, and in the middle is a bed with mirrors and in the centre of that a projection of Gulgee trying to breathe with his face blanketed with sand. The sound of Gulgee’s laboured breaths fill the room with an ominous presence. All the furniture in the room is from the house that he grew up in and where, quite horrifically, his parents were murdered by strangulation. Gulgee’s legacy and the memories of his life live through this room. He does not shy away from the brutality and senselessness of his loss and pain, while also showing what it means to be an artist in a society that buries free expression and those that stand for it.

The final piece at the venue also incorporated modern technology and olden tales. Presented by German artist Dennis Rudolph, ‘Simurgh App’ is an app-based, augmented reality installation. A survey of the room shows classic indigenous texts such as Mahabharta, Makli Nama, and Baloch Nama, on display from the NJV school library. Inspired by ancient Persian mythology, the downloadable app scans a text installation in the middle of the room and a mythical bird (the Simurgh) appears on the user’s phone and guides them outside the room to the grounds. The classic Ahmed Rushdi pop tune ‘Bandar Road Se Keamari’ also plays as the Simurgh take us to the art pieces facing the historic street (now M.A. Jinnah Road). The three installations outside are 3D paintings over enlarged pages from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, which upon being scanned reveal more augmented creatures. The final piece shows a giant man on the phone screen sitting on Earth, with serpents on his shoulders, as pictures of all contributing artists to KB ‘22 rain down on our screens. The tribute to the collaborative effort of the series is a welcome conclusion to an incredible experience.

Visitors to NJV will be delighted by an additional installation, a two-minute walk away from the school grounds, at Jamshed Memorial Hall. ‘Speaking in Tongues’ is a bi-lingual, interactive, film project by Madhya Leghari. Presented on a large screen, the film shows the artist in many places, especially her home (indoors) and in wild gardens (outdoors). There is an ever-presence of white clouds on the screen, with occasional black ones as a result of some explosives. Insects and plants are shown constantly moving or growing, as the artist’s hands hover around them, covered in petals and flowers. Maybe she is trying to connect with them as part of nature? The monologue voice-over by the artist plays out in a ‘stream-of-conscious’ style prose, putting the audience in a dream-like state. A volunteer conducts a poll of the visitors when choosing the next part of the interactive film. It seems that collective decision making was also deliberately incorporated as part of the presentation.

The exhibitions at the Karachi Biennale this year really showed what it means to transform space. It is a critical part of our imagination that needs more stimulus. As residents of a city where suffocation is the norm, to be able to escape to other worlds is a necessity not a luxury. Art is a necessity, not a luxury. With one week left for KB ‘22, Karachiites of all ages spent time exploring these creations. One will find that children are not only fascinated but also attentive when learning about what they are seeing and hearing.

We cannot allow our creative talents to wither away, and need to continue to make space and time for art and artists in our city. Pay attention to the messaging, the emotionality, and the overall experience at the Biennale. Let it invigorate and inspire you to not only create, but also fight to make our city livable and lovable again.