Khadim Ali, Invisible Border, 2020, tapestry. Installation view, Summer Palace.

Khadim Ali, Invisible Border, 2020, tapestry. Installation view, Summer Palace.

Lahore Biennale 02

Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi with assistance from Zarmina Rafi, Fatima Imran, and Ali Nobil Ahmad

Khadim Ali, Invisible Border, 2020, tapestry. Installation view, Summer Palace.

EMPEROR HUMAYUN was a keen astrologer. This most whimsical of the Great Mughals thought of his throne as the sun and of his courtiers as planets, and he chose his clothes according to his horoscope. So enamored with the heavens was he that one fine night in 1556, as he gazed at the stars from his observatory tower, he missed a step and tumbled to his death. Historians argue about the details of Humayun’s demise, but what is indisputable is this: For the Mughals, the planets exerted a powerful pull.

Fittingly, the second edition of the Lahore Biennale, “between the sun and the moon,” also found inspiration in the celestial. After all, Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province, makes much of its Mughal past: From 1584 to 1598, it was the empire’s capital, and it remains home to some of its most glamorous monuments. One of them, the Lahore Fort—which assumed its current majestic form under Emperor Akbar sometime around 1566—boasted the biennial’s most dramatic artworks. My favorites were Khadim Ali’s tapestries, which revel in the pleasures and perils of colliding cultural contexts, gleaning their motifs from newspapers, Persian miniatures, Mughal frescoes, and Islamic mosaics (some of which echo the ornamentation of the fort’s Summer Palace, where the works were installed). Born in Quetta, Pakistan, and now based in Sydney, Ali hails from a family of Hazara migrants from Afghanistan, and his tapestries are woven by women from the Hazara community who have lost loved ones to war. These are no nostalgic paeans to bygone glories. In the gigantic textile Invisible Border, 2020, blue elephants, slender-winged angels, and richly garbed cavalry engage in a perennial dance of gilt-edged gore. Vibrantly colored demons menace from on high as one of the finely dressed warriors aims his spear at a purple-rimmed dragon spewing golden fire. Meanwhile, over these vividly hued mythical motifs, delicate white threads trace the silhouettes of fighter jets, combat drones, and human figures who seem to be rappelling down the surface of the fabric. Reminiscent of military troops on a raid, these phantom forms evoke modern-day carnage, while, hovering at the edge of the mammoth textile, men dressed in contemporary attire wave a Pakistani flag modified to symbolically exclude ethnic, sectarian, and religious minorities.

Anwar Saeed, Temporary Situations II, 2012, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 78 × 36".

Invisible Border’s interlocking references served as a metaphor for the biennial, which boasted artworks by more than eighty artists, from South Asian luminaries Nalini Malani and Rasheed Araeen to international superstars John Akomfrah, Farideh Lashai, and Wael Shawky. While underscoring Lahore’s international connections, chief curator Hoor Al Qasimi also made valiant attempts to forge beyond pan-Islamic ties and acknowledge Lahore’s multireligious inheritance. As the capital of Punjab, the city was an ancient melting pot for pre-Islamic cultures, as evidenced by the Gandhara Buddhas in the Lahore Museum. Usually mired in dust, the carved stone sculptures were spruced up for the biennial along with a selection of seventeenth-century Pahari paintings, in which Hindu gods and goddesses frolic in Punjab’s hills. In their midst were seven silk banners contributed by the Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi, The Ancestors Linked to the Stars, 2005–2008, whose semiabstract embroidered motifs resemble ancient hieroglyphics or astrological charts.

On view at Bradlaugh Hall, a nineteenth-century colonial-era building falling to rack and ruin—such architecture does not dovetail with the current governmental agenda to spotlight the city’s Islamic heritage—were films that riff on the death of the Raj. Here, Zarina Bhimji’s Yellow Patch, 2011, juxtaposed Bombay’s decomposing port trust office (another relic of colonialism) with a cream-colored statue of Queen Victoria, crumbling like an oversize cake. Bhimji’s film underscored Bradlaugh Hall’s decrepitude, with the on-screen scenes of the battered port office echoing the venue’s perilously rotten beams. Yellow Patch’s placement was a reminder that India’s Bombay (renamed Mumbai by Hindu nationalists) and Pakistan’s Lahore share something after all: Politicians on both sides have disavowed the imperial past. At the National College of Arts—once called the Mayo School of Industrial Arts and founded by John Lockwood Kipling, the father of the “poet of Empire,” Rudyard Kipling—Lahori artist and art professor Anwar Saeed’s figurative paintings explored the nuances of male bonding. In Temporary Situations II, 2012, two mustachioed men meet the viewer’s gaze. One decked in traditional garb holds the other firmly by the arm and waist as a ghostly gun hovers over them. Is the first man’s gesture a threat? A protective embrace?

Younus Nomani, An Orange Leaf in a Green Tree, Kashmir, 2018, ink-jet print, 18 × 24".

For an Indian, like me, the biennial was a place of ambiguity, of familiarity mixed with otherness. In Vivan Sundaram’s black-and-white photomontages “Re-take of Amrita,” 2001–2002, the artist injects the bewitching visage of his aunt—the painter Amrita Sher-Gil—onto photographs taken by Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, Amrita’s father and Vivan’s grandfather. Amrita gazes out at us like a phantom, inhabiting images in which she had no “original” presence. Sundaram’s “re-takes” were especially poignant seen in Lahore, where his aunt once lived. In this sense, his work brought her home. Yet the return was an uneasy one. If in Pakistan she is celebrated as a Lahori, in India she is claimed as an Indian modernist. “Re-take” underscores this double identity.

For an Indian, like me, the biennial was a place of ambiguity, of familiarity mixed with otherness.

Elsewhere, too, the specter of India loomed. Younus Nomani’s monochrome photograph An Orange Leaf in a Green Tree, 2018, was shot in Kashmir. As Nomani’s male protagonists laugh at us from verdant vistas, we feel prickles of apprehension: Kashmir is the site of a bloody battle between India and Pakistan, one that dates to 1947, the year of their dual independence from the British Empire and of the violent rift it would leave between the two countries. As the moon is the dark double of the sun, so the two nations shadow each other, leaving Nomani’s Kashmiris suspended in between. 

Zehra Jumabhoy is an associate lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, where she completed her doctorate on Indian art and nationalism in 2017.