Pakistan at the Venice Biennale: “This is not just a factual weather report from 1939 – it was a cultural text”
Artist Naiza Khan discussed the country’s inaugural national pavilion at the international art event, which uses historic documents and contemporary craft to explore issues of urban development, territory and colonialism
Just off the coast of the rapidly expanding metropolis of Karachi – Pakistan’s largest city, home to nearly 15 million people – lies Manora Island. Artist Naiza Khan has spent the past decade researching this island, and has worked with curator Zahra Khan to present the results of her at the 58th Venice Art Biennale.
This is the first time that Pakistan has had a national pavilion at the international art exhibition. Presented by contemporary art platform Foundation Art Divvy and the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, the display – Manora Field Notes – responds to this year’s overall theme, “May You Live in Interesting Times”.
Khan’s examination bears witness to the removal of many elements of Manora Island’s history, both ecological and human – charting its transformation over the decades from a colonial weather observation point to a beach destination for tourists.
The exhibition, which is on display in Venice until November, begins with a British colonial weather report from 1939, which Khan found at the ruins of Observatory of Manora. The report is narrated in an audio piece, which the viewer listens to while walking through an exhibition space filled with brass sculptures, which were laser-cut into plexiglass and then cast by hand by craftsmen in Karachi.
Each of these sculptures is a map of one of 12 different cities mentioned in the weather report, illustrating present-day settlements and transportation routes. Together, the physical works and the weather report playing over them hints at continuities between then and now and encourages the viewer to engage with multiple bodies of knowledge to explore shifting geographies, memory, and the impact of colonial power and industrialisation.
Khan’s dedication to Manora Island over a period of time allows her to create a new observation point, from which the viewer can witness the disjointed evolution of the island, a microcosm for Pakistan’s critical themes of urban development, history, colonialism, and how the interaction with the local community.
CLOVE: Your project draws connections between ecology, material culture, and oral history. How does Manora Island provide a lens on Pakistan, specifically relating to the biennale’s theme “May You Live in Interesting Times”?
NAIZA KHAN: Karachi has a restless pace, which needs to be harnessed. The temporality of Manora Island is very different to that of the city, which means it was a counterpoint. Walking across the island gave me a sense of freedom to explore, to talk to people, to engage more personally. It released a new subjectivity to look at the terrain and the ecology of the land. Hopefully my work will open a small window into a field of questions, which will make the audience curious about Pakistan, its contemporary art scene, its history, and the narratives that come out of there, beyond what is reported by the global media.
CLOVE: What does the 1939 India Weather Review report tell us about the ongoing impact of colonialism? What was the process of discovering this record and the decision process behind using it as a starting point for the project?
NK: I found the 1939 India Weather Review in the ruins of the Manora Observatory. This is not just a factual weather report from 1939 – it was a cultural text, in the relationship it sets up between the invisible presence of colonial powers and the subjects and geography it was reporting. These were inextricably linked and the report points to the ways in which geography and terrain were ordered, classified and even produced within British India. I was fascinated by the visual spatialisation of weather data tabulated across the page. It was specific and engineered, it carried a rhythm which I realised only after it became a sound recording (narrated by TV/stage actor Nimra Bucha). It created a sensory analogue of the weather data, and revealed the dichotomy between imperial mapping and everyday reality.
CLOVE: Manora Field Notes maps the history, geography, and community of Manora through brass objects and archival work in a multimedia presentation. Collaborations between artisans and artists are common in contemporary art. How does this project ensure the artisans receive adequate credit, as well as honour their agency? Does this collaboration with brass artisans attempt to subvert the categorisation of crafts in the subcontinent by the British?
NK: Part of my ongoing research has been about thinking of the role of the people I work with and what forms of knowledge are produced in that encounter. My relationship with the four brothers who work in Golimar, Karachi goes back a decade. Their grandfather came from Moradabad, India, which, like Golimar has a thriving community of artisans who work with brass and copper engraving and casting today. I tried to ensure that the artisans I work with are acknowledged, not just by name in the brochure and catalogue that is under production, but also by the way they work through their specific form of craft and workmanship.
CLOVE: As the artist of the very first Pakistan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, what are some of the key guiding factors you took into account in commencing this project, which will inevitably provide a perspective of Pakistan for many viewers who have never visited the country?
NK: Between the curator, Zahra Khan and myself, we wanted the work to be immersive, so there would be a strong, tangible element of a specific locale, visually and in terms of ideas. With a country pavilion, it’s not the best idea to begin with an overriding ideological premise that tries to encompass everything. If viewers are engaged with the work, they will be curious to ask questions about the place and inevitably that work offers a particular insight into that country, rather than being a generalised view. Venice is an art market, but I see it also as the market of ideas. It is a space that we can benefit from, while our Pavilion at Venice can contribute to the rich dialogue that needs to emerge to make this event a more representative and level playing field.