In conversation with the zealous curator of KB’19, Muhammad Zeeshan

By Maheen Aziz

Karachi Biennale 2019 is just around the corner and the KB team, especially the curatorial, is quite busy in managing the work due to which interviewing the curator of KB’19, Muhammad Zeeshan, put me through repeated phone calls, messages, cancellations and apologies from both ends. However, we finally met to have the interview on one fine Sunday at the curator’s house.
In this exclusive interview, Zeeshan talked about the Ecology theme, curatorial process and the measures he has taken to make KB’19 a successful and memorable art event for the art fraternity as well as for the public and how he is uniting the artists from every corner of the world.

FC;How has your journey been from an artist to the curator of the biggest art event KB 19? A quick flashback / recollection of memories.
MZ: It’s a pleasant journey and I am happy that it is still going on (smiles). 26th October is the opening and a few days are left so the journey is still on. Before reaching to this curation, I have been curating quite a few shows in past years. There is no doubt that the spectrum of this event is larger than any other art event. I have carefully selected the venues in Karachi and giving a consideration upon which show should I bring to this city and what should be displayed or installed. So this whole process requires focus, energy and stamina to bring the best to the city.

FC; How did you create the theme of KB’19? Please begin from the first idea that popped up to the final decision of giving it the theme ‘Ecology’.
MZ: I started by talking about relation between birds, animal and human. No matter how urbanized and modern we get, we still keep pets in our houses because we have a connection and this connection is not confined in the houses, but on a larger scale this connection is used by multinational companies that often use pictures or names of animals and birds to sell the product. Although it’s not directly related to the animal but it attracts people.
When I got the news that I was going to be the curator of KB’19, I took this opportunity and started looking at Karachi in a different way and met with artists, urban planners, socialists, architects, OPP and a lot of other people who had been involved in building Karachi, who were familiar with the thick and thin of the city.
During this whole process of meeting and talking to people, I concluded that these people are somehow talking about ecology; how birds stopped migrating because of the climate change, how environment pollution affected the quality of life and other aspects.
This theme is not only related to Karachi but it has become a global issue which people talk about and try to resolve so my focus was not only on the city but everything around us i.e. nature.
Secondly, if I am talking about ecology so who am I talking to? The people who talk about ecology do not have specific audiences so I decided that my audience should be the public. I am not inviting the public but I am going to the public. All my venues are important but Bin Qasim, Karachi Zoo and Frere Hall are the venues where there is a lot of public which I found exciting. I know, for a fact, that not everyone is going to stand and think about an installation or an art work at these places but even if a single person gives attention to the artworks then the connection is made and the art has touched the public.

FC: Why do you think that there is a need for a general public to understand art?
MZ: There is no need to understand art; it’s an aesthetic. New designs, colours etc are a source of sharing aesthetics. We don’t have that much public art as we don’t have enough museums so we have to take the art out of the galleries. I’m trying to make the biennale easier for the public so they don’t have to stress over to understand an art work; it might be a swing that will be an art piece, a bench or maybe the surroundings.

FC: KB’17 opened art for the public and Amin Gulgee did a wonderful job. What is something different that the public is going to experience in KB’19?
MZ: That was KB’17 and this is KB’19 (laughs). Jokes apart, I am not just repeating something which has happened two years ago, I am carrying it as a chain in which I am putting in efforts, information and making it bigger. Before 2017, there was no biennale but then it came to Karachi and now the second iteration is going to complete the word ‘Biennale’- that means an event which happens every two years.
The difference that I can foresee is that when there will be a 7th or 8th iteration of Karachi Biennale, the pillars would be stronger and we would be standing on a stronger foundation of Biennales. Public will be aware that there is an art event coming and even though if they don’t attend it, they will know about it.

FC: How much importance do you see of curatorial study? Can anyone, who is a veteran artist, curate an art show? What is your stance on this?
MZ: This is an interesting question, Curatorial Studies are important and a good thing to start with. The experienced artists need to play this role. There has to be an inspiration to pursue curation as a career. There will be a time when academia in Pakistan will also think and take measures to start these studies. As far as the current scenario is concerned, I believe we have to start from somewhere so let it be the way it is but I assure that curatorial studies will start very soon.
I started working with a master in Mirpur Khas who people called a commercial artist but I believe he is an academia and an institute who not only taught us the work but discipline as well. If I think I cannot learn from him because he doesn’t have a BFA degree or a Master’s Degree in the Arts then that is my loss. Sometimes experience wins and this is the beauty of art.
There are a lot of artists going to study curation abroad, and when they will come back, they will have a place in curation. But for now, we are developing the Biennale with our experience and knowledge.

FC: On what grounds or criteria are the artworks are selected for such a grand scale? Is it just the theme or other aspects are also considered while selecting artists or their works?
MZ: That’s an interesting question. When I chose the theme I did studio visits of 80% of the artists who are residing internationally and, as an artist, I knew a lot of artists and their practices with whom I have worked, shared studios and being in residencies like a Danish artist, Larissa and a Columbian artist Khuwan are coming with who I did residencies.
So, I utilized the bridges that I made 10 to 15 years ago and artists responded in an energetic way and they showed interest in this collaboration.

FC: You must be aware that people faced a lot of problems in finding venues set by KB’17 as there were no proper guidelines or volunteers present and this made the public go back home tired of finding ways to the venues. How are you going to make KB’19 fool-proof?
MZ: We have a team of volunteers; my assistant curators Noor Ahmed and Rabia Ali are well-explained about the artists, works, venues etc. So people can approach them easily without any hassle. The seven venues are already famous sites which, I don’t think, would bother anybody. Every venue has a different audience and public like Alliance Francaise de Karachi is an institutional place, on the contrary, Karachi Zoo will have a different audience, so I approached the venues accordingly. Art plays a pivotal role in daily life even a banker will have a painting in his house so this diverse way of approaching venues was in my mind.

FC: How do you think that the theme you are working on for KB’19 is going to stay and leave an impact as the next KB’21 will have a different theme? The issue related to climate change, environment etc is there and will be there as per the situation. Is it going to be the ‘theme’ of an event only or KB has plans to educate the public through art in the future as well?
MZ: The materials are carefully used, architectures are carefully chosen, but I am not going to teach lessons to people. I have musicians, architects, gardeners, dancers, they are connected to art in different ways. A gardener would not be planting but might be pointing out the difficulties he faces every day in planting, an architect might not show some beautiful structure but point towards an ugly issue that you might have not noticed until you saw his artwork. Sometimes things should be ugly for a debate.

FC: The theme is to meet the conversations of ecological consequences and climate change, what are participating artists or KB doing to aid said situation, be it through guidelines given to the artists on limiting waste that results after the preparation of an art work, or zero waste avenues?
MZ: Yes, we are trying to run the info through an app. Our team is working on it and it will be feasible for everybody. Polythene bags are prohibited, but to provoke a thought an artist might use polythene to indicate the dangers that polythene is producing so he is using the polythene. People started realizing after 5 whales died eating polythene so they showed polythene to evoke humans.

FC: Are we going to see young artists in KB’19 or you are focusing on selecting the artists from a certain generation or age group or are all age groups participating? Like in Berlin Biennale young artists participated whose work approached the theme energetically and differently.
MZ: We called for under 30 artists and those who applied among them ‘Arsalan Nasir’ got selected. He is curating the project and it’s supported by KBT. Mostly artists are above 30 and I believe artists live with constant energy and they never get retired. Maybe some people question why I didn’t select fewer than 30? So my answer to those people is that every year I curate shows and I select fewer than 30 young artists. I am a visual artist and not a curator; when I travel abroad people say that the art circle in Pakistan is small, and I want to change this perception.

FC: You have been involved in organizing residencies. How mandatory do you think are residencies?
MZ: I already did a residency which was a collaboration of OPP and Karachi Biennale in which 4 artists participated and drafted maps etc. They went to the ‘no-go-areas’ and realized that in these no-go-areas, people have issues we all have; not everyone in these areas are standing with guns, they also made tea for them when they started seeing them regularly. So they created a relation with the locals and earning experience is great.

FC; So, are residencies going to be a part of KB in the future?
MZ: It depends on the next curator and what structure he is coming up with; he might do residencies only or maybe he/she has something different to offer. As an artist, I strongly support residencies and I push my students to avail residencies which give them a chance to understand art and culture.

FC: Is the Biennale ready?
MZ: I’m hoping but in reality it’s difficult. Most of the people will know the venues and that an art event is happening. The understanding of the biennale will become stronger for us and for the public.

FC; What is your biggest fear as a curator?
MZ: I just pray to God that no artist, carpenter or anybody who is involved in this biennale gets physically or emotionally hurt during the project.

FC: What is your biggest strength as a curator?
MZ: That’s an interesting question. If I’m at home so my strength is my wife and my 18 months old daughter. When I am at work then my assistant curators, Noor Ahmed and Rabia Ali, keep me going and I should give them the credit.

FC: What impact is KB’19 going to leave?
MZ: There are a lot of international writers and curators and artists coming in this Biennale so in every biennale we are reaching to another level and this process will continue. It will leave a long term impact and I am sure about it.