Why must events like the Lahore Biennale be open to the public and yet somewhat removed? Fayes T Kantawala puts it all in context

I went to the opening of the second incarnation of the Lahore Biennale – LB02 runs through to February 29th - held at the Lahore Fort the other morning. The main preamble was outdoors and used the facade of the entrance of the Fort as its dramatic backdrop. Blessedly timed in the three days between Lahore’s bone-chilling water haze and soul-searing summer sweat, I was thrilled at an opportunity to sun myself outside without too much respiratory damage. As I did, presidents and princesses spoke about the importance of art and culture, and about the the legacy of Lahore as a cultural hub centuries ago. Amid the well-intentioned speeches was an unexpected moment of unvarnished truth: a speaker drew attention not only to the value of art, but to how specifically difficult it is to create art inside the state of Pakistan, how the country’s politics, policies and its very state machinery so often go out of their way to make it difficult, and therefore what an achievement it is to have arranged this biennale despite that fact. That he said this in front of most of the government representatives and their bodyguards was a deeply vindicating moment, because so often these events can get highjacked as PR stunts for the “softer image” of Pakistan with vague references to difficulties without actually naming them.
I know that the fact that the Biennale’s works are relatively closeted in public isn’t a defeat. It is a acknowledgment of the kind of place Pakistan is, and especially public Pakistan

The message stayed with me as I walked through the LB02 main group show in the subterranean catacombs of the Summer Palace. If I am honest, it stayed with me for days afterwards. The Biennale literature boasts that it is free and open to the public, and held at ostensibly public places all around Lahore. This is true. It is also true that all of those public spaces are self-enclosed, in that most are gated and you have to make a plan to visit the sites intentionally to see them, as opposed to encountering them while going about your day or waiting in traffic for instance. Public-lite, if you will. Open enough to be accessible, but also hidden enough to be protected.

Fair enough really, because they need protection. The truth is that there is a very real concern that if any kind of thoughtful art was put in a “public space” without crowd control, then it would also risk the kind of mob mentality morality that polices the rest of our cultural discourse. An art work made too public here risks angering people who thinks that anything not on or around a prayer mat is offensive (or else just wants to create some havoc).

The most relevant example of that is the censoring of the Karachi Biennale earlier this year, but the public treatment of Sarmad Khoosat’s film Zindagi Tamasha just this week is as clear a sign as any. The film cleared repeated rounds at the censor boards (twice) and has already been released internationally to great acclaim. By all accounts it is a thoughtful, nuanced work in a landscape of weepy martial dramas, but in the weeks before its domestic release a band of right-wing nuts essentially threatened a national showdown for no other reason than because they could. It did not matter that the filmmaker had done everything by the book. You see, the book can be changed overnight, but only if you have a long enough beard and a thin enough skin.

The authorities caved, as they always do, and now the right-wing nuts have a place on the actual censor board in perpetuity. Of course there were the usual impotent posts of outrage (like this one), another tired round of essays and tweets dissecting the minutiae of the laws that favor the filmmakers case and moral high ground, articles defending art against tyrants who have not even seen it. But while I read them I could help but wonder: what is the point? Why is this act of censorship a surprise? How is it not the norm?

Khoosat himself wrote an impassioned open letter to the country, detailing all the precautions he took while making the film, and the despair he feels at it being hijacked now, so close to its release. What was more interesting to me was that his essay essentially read as a defense of his own “Pakistani-ness”. He talks about winning national awards given by the President himself, about giving the prize money to his father, about traveling with a Pakistani passport and being proudly green, as if any of this precluded him from being hurt by the same cancer that corrupts so much else.

The surprise here isn’t that his film was hijacked by right-wing moralists with no official post but lots of time and power. No, the surprise would have been a release without such problems. In a place where extreme self-censorship is the rule of artistic creation, the attack on Khooosat’s film is anything but a surprise.

And so as I walked through a sound-piece that brought together different protest songs from around the world, I know that the fact that the Biennale’s works are relatively closeted in public isn’t a defeat. It is a acknowledgment of the kind of place Pakistan is, and especially public Pakistan. We do not have freedom of expression as a country and the list of things we are not meant to mention grows everyday. It difficult to project “soft images” when so much around you is hard.

For this reason alone I would encourage you to visit or look up the art works that are part of LB02. They can’t save us, but they do remind us that this country is as much our as it is theirs. At least until February 29th.

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