‘Everyone is so afraid to visit Pakistan’: Sharjah’s curator Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi on how the Lahore Biennale can help Pakistan overcome international isolation


In Lahore, art and cricket are helping to overcome Pakistan’s relative isolation, but in a last-minute clash of dates there was only going to be one winner. With a fortnight to go before the opening of the 2020 Lahore Biennale, its artistic director learned that the venue for the opening day’s performances would be off limits due to increased security for an international cricket match.

  • Al Qasimi is credited for transforming Sharjah into an international art capital
  • With her, she has brought a plethora of international artists to the historic city of Lahore

“The world has to understand what the history of Lahore is,” curator Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi said, as she explained how the Lahore Biennale could illuminate the richness and culture of the region and simultaneously foster international dialogues.
Themed “Between the Sun and the Moon,” the 2020 Lahore Biennale is now on view at various venues around the eastern Pakistani city. It is the first time that such a significant number of contemporary artists from all over the world have flocked to Lahore to display their work at historical sites across the city.

In 2018, the inaugural Lahore Biennale attracted 1.5 million visitors according to its organisers– an extraordinary number for an exhibition that only ran for a fortnight.
But it was Sharjah’s renowned Sheikha Al-Qasimi, considered one of the foremost authorities in the contemporary art world, who proposed the second edition, which launched over the weekend and will run through the end of February.

At the inauguration ceremony on Sunday evening, set against the backdrop of the majestic Lahore Fort, the audience comprised not just a spectacular line-up of local and international artists and politicians, but also eminent Middle Eastern personalities ranging from members of the Sharjah royal family to cultural authoritative figures such as Noura Al Kaabi, UAE’s Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development– all of them in attendance simply because of their trust in Al Qasimi’s vision.

Basir Mahmood. Film still from Monument of Arrival and Return (2016). Copyright the artist. Courtesy Lahore Biennale.

Basir Mahmood, film still from Monument of Arrival and Return (2016). Copyright the artist. Courtesy Lahore Biennale.

“I have blind faith in her curatorial skills. I am here because I know she will deliver a spectacular show,” said Mia Eldib, Sotheby’s Middle East consultant on Contemporary Arab Art, on her first visit to Lahore.
Some of the most popular contemporary artists recognised in the West belong to Pakistan, such as Shazia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid and Huma Mulji to name a few.
But, Al Qasimi’s mission is quite the opposite.

“Art is not just for the art elites,’ she said and added that it was not enough to offer international recognition to brilliant artists from the region, but instead to also bring foreign artists to engage with local artists and the community; a herculean task, which could only be accomplished by someone of Al Qasimi’s stature.

Al Qasimi’s list of job titles, accolades, and collaborations is so long that it is hard to keep track of them all. The President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, she is renowned for transforming Sharjah into an international art capital. She curated the UAE National Pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 2015 and is President of the International Bienniale Association. She also serves on the board of directors for the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in New York, Kunst-Werke in Berlin, Ashkal Alwan in Beirut and Sharjah Architecture Triennial as well as advisory boards for Khoj, New Delhi and Darat al Funun, Amman.

Her vision has led to the formation of the Sharjah Art foundation and other side projects, including the Africa Institute and the new Africa Hall. The Sharjah Biennale is consistently rated as one of the top 10 biennales in the world, which is quite the tribute when there are hundreds of art exhibitions taking place around the globe every year.

Yet, Al Qasimi said many artists were initially hesitant to travel to Pakistan, mindful of warnings that foreigners may be targeted and the threat of terrorist attacks. She managed to convince them otherwise. Now, works by around 80 artists, including 20 new commissions, will go on display in different venues across Lahore. British artist Barbara Walker will also be crafting a large wall mural in the city’s historic Tollington Market.

Lahore is new to the curator, which is one of the reasons she accepted the invitation to organise it from Qudsia Rahim, co-founder and director of the Lahore Biennale Foundation.
“I initially stated I will do it if I have the time, but I didn’t have the time, yet here I am,” Al Qasimi said with a mischievous smile.
“I was very interested because there is a long history between Pakistan and the UAE,” she said.

Over a series of speedy visits, she discovered Lahore— a city with an abundance of historic sites, colonial-era markets as well as interesting modern buildings.
“Originally, I wanted the event to span the whole city, but then I had to cut it down due to practicality,” she said of selecting her venues.
The chosen sites include Lahore’s cricket ground, the Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore Fort and various other heritage sites. However, securing the city’s planetarium, which is run by Pakistan International Airlines, was her biggest achievement. It is a place many from the current generation have never heard of.

With Rahim’s help and countless negotiations, Al Qasimi persuaded the national carrier to open the planetarium’s doors to a new commission– an immersive multimedia installation created by Berlin-based, Kazakhstan-born artist Almagul Menlibayeva, that was inspired by the astronomical discoveries made by Islamic astronomers in ancient Samarkand.
It will include site-specific performances by the Amsterdam-based sound artist German Popov and Russian artist Inna Artemova.

This work befits the title of the biennale: ‘Between the Sun and the Moon,’ although the exhibition’s main focus will be on earth, and in particular, on the ‘Global South,’ which is the curator’s longstanding area of interest.
Commenting on the theme, Al Qasimi said: “For centuries, inhabitants of these regions oriented themselves with reference to the sun, the moon and the constellations. How do we reflect on our place within the universe today, at this junction of climate crisis and polarities between societies?”

“I wanted to do something about identities and connecting cultures because of the diaspora of British Asians and South Asians in the Middle East,” she said. Slavs and Tatars, Friendship of Nations (2011). Copyright Slavs and Tatars.

Slavs and Tatars, Friendship of Nations (2011) installation. Copyright Slavs and Tatars.

Given the relative scarcity of regional dialogues within South Asia, the Biennale aims to foster a deeper and multifaceted exchange within Asia and the rest of the world; where physical boundaries are blurred to initiate conversations and to embark on a global mission to carve out a sustainable future.
At the same time, the city of Lahore becomes a wonderful catalyst for engaging local audiences with contemporary art and incorporating regional artists into the global art scene.
“It is time to celebrate the opening up of this rich country,” Al Qasimi said. “With its plethora of artists, institutions and cultural heritage.”

Remembering Okwui Enwezor 

Another work close to the curator’s heart touches on Pakistan and India’s fraught political relationship, which dates back to the bloody birth of both nations as the British pulled out in 1947, leaving the subcontinent partitioned. The biennale takes place against a backdrop of renewed tension along long-disputed border. A new film by the Kuwaiti-Puerto Rican artist Alia Farid considers the legacy of partition. She focuses on the Indus river and its tributaries in the province of Punjab. After partition exploiting its water became one of many flashpoints between Pakistan and India.

Amar Kanwar, film still from A Season Outside (1997). Copyright the artist. Courtesy Lahore Biennale.

Amar Kanwar, film still from A Season Outside (1997). Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Lahore Biennale.

“I have an older film by Amar Kanwar,” Al-Qasimi says. Showing the Indian artist’s poetic meditation on cross border links between the two countries, A Season Outside (1997) is also a tribute to her friend, the late curator Okwui Enwezor. “I was telling him about my project for Lahore and he said you must show this film. So I asked Amar and he said, ‘Of course.’

She will be paying bigger tribute to Enwezor next year when she helps realize the Nigerian curator’s vision for the 2021 Sharjah Biennial, which he agreed to organize before his untimely death in 2019. Including [Kanwar’s] film is so special because of the conversation behind it,” Al-Qasimi says.


*In lead from Arab News & artnet news


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