Muhammad Zeeshan has been appointed curator for the Karachi Biennale’s second edition scheduled to take place in 2019.
Art Radar sits down with the Pakistani artist to gain insights on his curatorial project and his take on the contemporary Pakistani art scene.
Muhammad Zeeshan has already collected a lot of feathers in his hat, but that has barely slowed him down. Belonging to the small town of Mirpurkhas in Sindh, he started honing his artistic talents as a cinema board painter, before moving on to the prestigious National College of Arts to earn his BFA in Miniature Painting in 2003. The essence of his cinema painter days still hangs over his work, with the provocative for him being just another mode of communication, which allows him to instigate a heightened level of curiosity in the viewer.
Muhammad Zeeshan has constantly pushed the envelope, not only in terms of techniques but also his identity. He has brilliantly applied the use of laser scoring in his works, allowing it to take on a new definition and depth. He is not only an artist, but also an academic, he has curated residencies, and continues to mentor emerging artists in various forms. This mentorship again seems to stem from his personal background and understanding of the difficulties in Pakistan for young artists.
However, curating a biennale is a whole different ball game, one for which Zeeshan seems equal parts excited and overwhelmed. Having responded to an Open Call by the Karachi Biennale Trust, it is a responsibility that he is ready to take on.
Art Radar sat down with Muhammad Zeeshan in Karachi to better understand his vision and how he is going to take on this daunting challenge of curating the next Karachi Biennale.
The Gasworks residency had an immense impact on me, both on an artistic level and a human level. For me the residency started two months earlier, since my family had these particular notions about it. They weren’t able to understand why someone would go to London for only two months. For them going to London was a big deal, and the idea always is that once you get there, you find a job and stay on. My mother still thinks that an Open Day is equivalent to an exam, and of course I am also coming from the same culture. And while there was a transformation in me because of my time in NCA, the residency opened a totally different world for me, because I was now in a first world country. For example, just the experience of a pedestrian crossing, or how and where to ride a bicycle, all this isn’t directly related to art, but it impacts you.
During my time at the residency, a question popped up in a presentation during the residency. I was telling them how my work sold out, what a great response I received, etc. But I was hit back with the assertion that I am a commercial artist since I have never shown in public spaces, which felt like a slap on my face, because here I am thinking that I am doing such great solos and group shows. It was a response to this that I made a not-for-sale work based on this idea of mass production. This was the first time that I experienced what public art or a non-commercial space is. I do think myself at fault here too, since I didn’t have enough knowledge, but the context is so different, we have never been through these debates. For us showing in galleries means that you are an established artist. But through the Gasworks experience, I was introduced to museum shows, and public art. The whole process was unique to me. It was only then that I dived into the non-commercial side of things.
The first edition of Karachi Biennale, KB17, was also led by an Artist-Curator, Amin Gulgee, and the same will be the case for KB19, with you at the helm. How do you think that affects the curatorial project?
This is not a justification, but because we lack resources here in Pakistan, we don’t have curatorial studies. The curatorial for us is based on experience, very similar to artists that lived 500 years ago, who were self-taught and developed their techniques through experience. They stand on a pedestal today despite their educational background. Did Newton realise the force behind the falling apple due to his degree or knowledge?
The artists and curators here are experienced in the environment of Pakistani art, whether it is on a commercial level or an institution level. As an artist, I am linked to galleries, academia, I have curated shows and residencies and I have been part of them also. I have been on their selection committees, I have taken a lot of juries. For my curation, I think I am well aware of the life of the artist here, in my own society, which is very important in my view.
The second key factor is that while one side is curation, the other is public! The curator creates something for the public, but I would like to come through to the public – how they look or think about art or will be thinking. Maybe they won’t think at all! I am not focusing on what I should be giving to them, instead I want to be standing amongst the public and then look at curating to understand what they are looking for from me.
How would you define your curatorial focus so far in your career? And do you think that we would see a continuation of that in the Karachi Biennale?
My previous curation was mostly based on mentorship for young artists, on creating a bridge between artist and gallery, or the market, collector, writer. I think when I started curation, one thing I knew was what it was. I have gained my curatorial knowledge by having worked with a lot of curators – from museums to biennales, institutions to residencies – both as an artist and a juror. All of these experiences I have tried to apply here. For me, the curator is not simply a middle man. Conceptually, the percentage of what he is and what his role demands changes. Sometimes due to the conversation between the artist and the space, and the curator, or the negotiation of ideas, he has to meet several ends.
For the current project of KB19, I am focusing on Karachi. The focus will be not one space, it’s the entire city. When I talk about Karachi, it comes on different levels, from diversity in lifestyles, to problems, geographically how it has changed, demographically or climatically. The scale is entirely different!
What should we be expecting from KB19? Could you talk a bit about the theme of the next edition?
In broader terms, I am mainly focusing on ecology and the environment. How a person deals with it – whether he is constructing or deconstructing it, how people are affecting it through their actions and by their style, and then what are the effects that come through because of it.
I believe that art is the best way to communicate – theatre, writing, performance, singing! Which is why I want to bring all these forms in to communicate with the public and through that, I want to question the natural processes of our environment, I want to understand that. I am not finding solutions, or criticising or negating it, but I am just bringing forth the point of view of whoever is working with me.
Why did you choose this theme?
In 2011, I started thinking of this idea of how we make connections between a product’s identity and nature. Consider Deer Pencil, Jaguar, Caterpillar, Tiger Balm, Dove soap… Why do we do this? Somehow we humans, through our limitations and lifestyle, have pushed nature away but still somewhere within us, we want these associations. This is a relationship that we want to continue in some form or an other. We as humans, due to our limitations or lifestyle, have pushed these natural things away, but we still have this as part of our DNA, so we take comfort in these symbols around us.
When the Biennale came along, I felt that when we see Karachi, there is a big shift from nature, which was around us. Our fathers and forefathers used to talk about how the sea came till this certain point and what type of trees were here and so forth, but all of that is no more – though an intangible connection remains. I think a discourse of this type needs this platform. We need to be talking about these issues with people who are most likely to [face them] and are facing them.
What do you think were the strengths and weaknesses of the first edition, and how would you be responding to them?
As an artist, I always say there is nothing good or bad in a work, it depends where you stand and see it. For me, right now the biggest thing is that a biennale has started in Karachi. Consider my little baby who is six months old, I can’t start criticising it for not walking right or standing up. Right now, the biggest joy is that it is there! We have to celebrate this thing and let it grow. It is only after the second biennale that it will be proven that it even is a biennale!
What overlaps should we expect to see from your artistic practice into your curatorial practice?
Definitely overlaps! I believe I am a 24/7 artist. I don’t do anything beside that. As an artist, you are constantly engaged in this thought process, which is taking in influences and ideas from everywhere, even if one is stuck in traffic. The brain has brilliant capacity and these two mindsets – of an artist and a curator – both inform each other. The biggest charm for me, whether it’s teaching or this, has always been talking to artists. Talking to them about their ideas and processes and research till the final product, you are with them throughout this.
Do you think the lack of curatorial understanding and academic practice makes it a hard act to follow or practice?
I don’t think there is too much of a misunderstanding but there is no denying it should be there. But till the time we come up with a curatorial degree, it would be nice if the academia can start talking about what is curation.
You seem to place a lot of importance in residencies. Your experience with Sanat Gallery in Karachi also is a testament to that. Is that something we should hope for with this biennale?
Definitely! I am planning that residencies should become a part of KB. Before that the three residencies I curated, the agenda was for the gallery or for one space, but here we are talking about the biennale, the structure of which will be different. The canvas will be larger.
You have been working very closely with young artists, both as an academic and your work with Sanat Residency. What is the sort of work or concerns that these emerging artists have and that is a part of their work?
Talking content wise, I feel that it’s good that today’s artists are engaged with their personal issues while simultaneously dealing with the political. After 100 years, if I see work that is being produced today, I will have a sense of what was happening. We have a fascination with understanding how people lived, and it’s clear when we discuss Moen-jo-Daro, for example. We wonder how these people lived, how many pots they had, their behaviour, living style – all of this you can witness in today’s work.
Generally speaking, the biggest gap for the artist here is that we have institutions and we have galleries, these are the only two things with nothing in between, which actually needs to be filled with residencies, or outreach, different seminars… that is missing a lot! These are equally important because you get inspiration, and you can relate with others. Artist has academia and degree and then a show in a commercial gallery, and that’s all the artist ends up focusing on.
Thirdly and most importantly, visas! Because of it getting residencies, shows or talks becomes very difficult. Travelling provides you a different level of information. Even if you get selected from 700 applications, you find out you can’t go because you can’t get a visa. Filling that application form for visa itself is a Herculean task in Pakistan – for established artists as well. After eight days, if there is a conference happening in Europe, and they want to invite me, I would have to decline, I need certain days to apply, then get an appointment, etc. So I have to let go of these opportunities, like many young artists.
How do you view the contemporary art scene in Pakistan?
Honestly, very energetic, very refreshed and very focused. Working in this environment isn’t easy. Just looking at the preferred employment list, art comes at the very bottom here. But even then if someone is creating art here, negotiating between the public and the personal, it’s not something small!