Tuesday, 31 October 2017


By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

October may not be the best month to launch events in Karachi, a city described as "maddening” by Amin Gulgee, the chief curator of the Karachi Art Biennale 2017 (KB17). But neither the sizzling heat nor the crazy Karachi traffic seems to have deterred artists or art lovers from doing the rounds at the 12 venues selected for this two-week event.

Touted as Pakistan’s "largest contemporary art event", the Biennale has artwork strewn across the city of 20 million and runs until Nov. 5. The prime location is the architecturally striking NJV High School, but other venues include an old bookstore, a cinema, the building of the Alliance Française, and the Karachi School of Art.

At the Biennale: Mussalmaan Musclemen by Z. A. Bhutto,
2016. Archival inkjet print on cotton fabric, hand-sewn
printed polyester and blue embroidery thread.
The theme of the biennale - "Witness" - aims to take visitors through the city’s history (with the opening up of old colonial buildings), to question the present, and to imagine what the future might be.

In the absence of a museum of modern art where the organisers could have set up the event under one roof, Amra Ali, a Karachi-based curator and art critic, is happy the biennial has opened "art that has been confined to galleries, to a larger audience".

"Public art interventions in 'non-art' spaces such as the ones selected by the organisers bring about a negotiation of art to its social and cultural histories," she said.

For their part, the organisers say they made a very "conscious effort" to let the public traverse the city and its historical precincts. 

Amin Gulgee, chief curator of KB17.
According to Ali, with people visiting one venue or the other, there is a greater "sense of discovery in revisiting, and in some cases visiting for the first time, spaces that have existed in our memory".

Additionally, such an event not only speaks of the "power of art to transform and bring people to view and be inspired," but it shows that art “belongs to us, as a city, collectively", she said.

The works by some 140 artists from more 30 countries include installations, videos, photographs, dance, performances and other art forms, most of it conceptual.

"It's been a labour of love, passion and a lot of hard work," said Niilofur Farrukh, the CEO of KB17, while Gulgee has reminded observers that the surreal journey he embarked upon more than a year ago was done on a shoestring budget.

For many visitors, however, some of the installations need decoding since most messages are not always obvious. "What I find amiss is a short guide with explanations of the art works," said Ingo Arend, an art critic and art editor from Germany. "If you want to reach out for a wider public, not that familiar with contemporary art, one should give them some advice."

A parallel south-south critical dialogue is equally taking place at the Biennale. "As a theme we want to explore how thinkers/artists/art from Latin America are bearing testimony to their times," said Farrukh.

Daalaan, 2017 by Salman Jawed,
Faiza Adamjee, Ali S Husain, Mustafa
Mehdi, Hina Fancy and Zaid Hameed.
"The project also aims to strengthen intellectual exchange directly between south-south independently and not via the north." she emphasized.

Cuban art curator Dannys Montes de Oca (who was reminded of Havana's road "chaos” by the tsunami of traffic on Karachi’s main thoroughfare) says that the voices from the South are usually missing at these so-called "international" art shows. This is because these shows are costly, so most artists from developing countries cannot afford to showcase themselves.

She thus favours "alternative" biennales. She said she was happy the art on display was not "passive" and seemed to engage the audience.

Arend, who was among the three jury members for the KB17 art prize, has, like de Oca, attended biennales in the North and had specially come to Karachi to see "something else". He expressed satisfaction that the event promotes a counter-narrative to the so-called modernist obsession with the white cube.

"They [KB17] should try and stay on the experimental ground and avoid the sterile white cubeism," he said, noting that had it not been for the venues, the event could very well have fallen into the Venice Biennale-like model.

For him, it was uplifting to see how the artists had reclaimed "amazing public locations" that had been relegated to the inner recesses of people's memories and had revived them, through the Biennale, to provide a platform "for collective discourse".

Untitled, 2017, by Ayaz Jhokio,
Mixed media installation.
Karachi curator Ali (who has attended Germany’s huge art fair Documenta), fails however to see why people should even think that KB17 needs to be compared with the European or "Euro-centric" model.

"There are thousands of biennials all over the world now; every major city has been holding them. In terms of structure, I think that looking closer to this region, to places such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, would bring more parallels and shared concerns,” she said.

“We have to develop our own models, even if the model is an anti-biennial model, and that will come naturally, as we evolve. That will all happen, as we have taken the first step, which is most difficult. We have opened ourselves to the world," she added.   
Art events across the globe have increasingly become a source of local pride, tourism and cultural capital, generating revenue for cities. Paolo De Grandis, an Italian contemporary art curator who works with the Venice Biennale, said that while art carries several messages including a very strong "political message" it provides "a massive business opportunity" too that needs to be tapped.

The grandpa of all these events is of course the Venice Biennale, founded in 1895. Fondly known as the "Olympics" of art, it is also the most prestigious.

This first Karachi Biennale may have taken only baby steps, but it is a big deal for the Pakistan artist community, who may see their work at the next Venice Biennale, in 2019.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

Thursday, 26 October 2017


You can be one of the most famous writers in the world and still face problems at certain airports if you don’t have a “Western” passport.

That’s what best-selling Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discovered on a recent visit to Paris.

“When I arrived at the airport with my Nigerian passport, I had the most humiliating, and annoying, questioning,” she told participants at the 2017 CityLab conference held in the French capital Oct. 22-24.

The event, described by organizers as “a celebration of cities and city life”, brought together mayors from around the world, as well as “urban experts, business leaders, artists and activists”, to discuss sustainability, inclusion and other issues.

Writers Ta-Nehesi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
speak with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg (Photo: SWAN
The main objective was to “explore solutions for the most pressing issues facing city leaders and city dwellers alike”, said the organisers and co-hosts – The Atlantic media group, The Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Adichie, the author of Half of a Yellow Sun and We Should All Be Feminists, participated in a discussion with fellow writer Ta-Nehesi Coates titled “Identity and Belonging: The Souls of a City”, responding to questions from Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic.

“I think we have to be careful not to romanticise cities,” Adichie said, when asked about her favourite town. “They can be alienating as well. People walk past each other.”

She was particularly blunt about Paris, saying that “Black people feel excluded” in certain areas of the city, and she described ways that her acquaintances try to fit in, some by speaking English instead of French because Anglophone foreigners seem to be “more respected”.

Adichie stressed that a city needs “affordable housing and inclusion” to be sustainable – things for which Paris aren’t highly rated  and these were themes that also concerned other artists at the conference.

In an earlier discussion, Ruth Mackenzie, artistic director of the city’s Théâtre du Châtelet, said that to achieve more social inclusion, artists can make a difference in neighbourhoods by engaging with local communities.

“You listen and use their skills,” Mackenzie said. “You can use public spaces where people can see work for free.”

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb. (Photo: SWAN)
She and her colleague Elizabeth Streb, founder and director of dance company Streb Extreme Action, took part in a panel on “setting a more inclusive stage”, which is seen as necessary in most major cities.

“When we talk about the theatre-going public, the issues of class and race are hardly addressed,” Streb said in an interview with SWAN, on the sidelines of the conference. “I think it’s a disgrace and ignorance when you hear some of the things said in the ivory tower about outreach and including people.”

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, co-founders of The Good Chance Theatre which works with refugees, called for cities to do more to support activist cultural initiatives. On a panel with Majid Adin, an Iranian animator, filmmaker and refugee, the two said the arts could help to decrease social tensions and divisions.

“This is a difficult moment in our collective history, with things that are dividing and segregating us,” Murphy said. “We believe that culture should be at the centre of our cities.”

With all the talk from participants, it was left to Adin’s animated film to demonstrate the impact that artists can have. Loud applause followed the partial screening of his video for Elton John’s well-known song “Rocket Man” – interpreted as the journey of a refugee.

With support from Murphy and Robertson, Adin had entered “The Cut”, a competition that invited independent filmmakers “to create the first official music videos for three of Elton John’s most famous songs”.

Adin based “Rocket Man” on his own migration to England, via the Calais refugee camp in northern France, and was named one of the contest's three winners. The video premiered last May at the Cannes Film Festival and is a poignant appeal for the inclusion of people who are so easily marginalised in cities.

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday, 22 October 2017


Just two years ago, Elida Almeida burst onto the world scene with her debut album Ora doci Ora margos (Sweet Times Bitter Times), claiming her place as the new voice of Cabo Verde.

That album had a serious message for listeners, alongside the melodies and beats of Santiago - the island where Almeida spent part of her childhood - and it gained the singer a large international following. (See: http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/cape-verdes-newest-voice-sends-message-to-girls/)

Since then, Almeida has been touring and heightening her profile. She has performed in Europe, Africa and North America, where members of the Cabo Verdean Diaspora and other fans have welcomed her in clubs and at music festivals.

Now comes Kebrada, her second album, released Oct. 20.

Named for the village where she grew up, Kebrada asserts Almeida’s African identity. She seasons her Cabo Verdean beats - batuque, funaná, coladera and tabanka - with Latino rhythms, for that traditional musical journey: Africa to the Americas and back.

Almeida has written most of the lyrics and music, with arrangements by guitarist Hernani Almeida, and the album is catchy from the first song “Djam Odja”. As with the best music from Cabo Verde, the themes of joy and sadness intermingle, and the “danceable” tracks don’t undermine the album’s social criticism.

On “Forti Dor”, Almeida tells the story of young man who dies after falling in with a bad crowd, and this ballad is at the heart of the compilation, captivating listeners with the warm, rich voice.

Kebrada is a worthy follow-up to Ora Doci and shows an increased maturity and confidence. With Almeida being only 24 years old, listeners can look forward to a future of great songs from this talented Cabo Verdean artist.

Label: Lusafrica. Produced by José da Silva. Photo by N'Krumah Lawson Daku. 

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Thursday, 5 October 2017


The fast-rising Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop is one of the featured artists in the “Festival Francophonie Mêtissée”, which runs until Oct. 19 in Paris.

One of the photos by Omar Victor Diop on show
at the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles in Paris.
The annual event is hosted by the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles (CWB), a Belgian cultural organization in the French capital that presents cutting-edge dance, cinema, literature, music and photography, mainly by Francophone artists.

Diop’s work comprises 10 photographs that are part of his early “Studio of Vanities” series.

They portray the “fresh faces of the continent's urban culture”, he says, adding that the objective was to showcase the African urban universe and its blossoming art production and exchanges.

Depicting singers, dancers, designers and others in the creative sector, the photos also reveal a new generation of young African talent, and present an “optimistic view of urban Africa, with a modern and pop aesthetic”, according to the CWB.

Photographer Omar Victor Diop. (Photo: SWAN)
At a talk to launch the exhibition, Diop said part of his motivation as an artist is to change how the African continent is represented.

“In most photographs of Africa, you never see a child with his mother, for instance – he’s always alone and barefooted,” he told the audience. “This lack of positive images, and lack even of truthful portrayal, gave me the desire to create my own images.”

Diop left a career in finance to devote himself to photography and has become particularly known for his 2014 “Project Diaspora” series – the staged portraits of himself in a range of ornate historical poses, which are based on actual paintings.

He produced these “metaphorical portraits” working “exclusively alone”, often writing out a kind of script before staging the photos, he said. The idea is not only to question the historical and contemporary representation of identity but to deconstruct stereotypes, he explained.

Diop's work being screened.
The “Diaspora” series has been shown internationally to wide acclaim, making Diop one of the most sought-after photographers of his generation. He has participated in shows in several African cities, as well as in Italy, Belgium and other European countries.

His work will also be on display during the Paris Photo photography fair, taking place Nov. 9 to 12.

For more information:

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