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The Biennale’s Elite Ethos

By Jahanzeb Hussain 2019-11-03
The state’s habit of quashing citizens’ attempts at meaningful and critical engagement with the city has been written on extensively. But it has taken on further immediacy in the wake of recent events. Two years after its inception, the Karachi Biennale (KB) has connected Karachi (with art) by actually keeping a distance from the city’s pressing issues — mainly its urban questions.

After Adeela Suleman’s installation ‘The Killing Fields of Karachi’, which was about the 444 extrajudicial killings allegedly carried out by policeman Rao Anwar, was sealed, vandalised and forcibly removed by law enforcement agencies, the KB organisers issued a statement distancing itself from Suleman’s piece for “not [being] compatible with the ethos of KB19 whose theme is ‘Ecology and the Environment’.” Furthermore, it stated that the “theme this year did not warrant political statement on an unrelated issue.”

However, the fact is: there’s no apolitical ecology. For the environment to remain untouched by politics, civilisation would have to cease to exist. Karachi’s ecology is in crisis precisely due to the country’s predatory political economy, which manifests itself in all its evil in the shape of land-grabbing and the development of housing societies. And Karachi’s Bahria Town and DHA City on the Super Highway, to cite two examples, have caused irreversible environmental damage. These projects were only made possible through brazen land-grabbing; and much of the land was taken from the poor at the barrel of Anwar’s gun. The KB’s theme, therefore, does warrant a political statement on this related issue.

If the Biennale team doesn’t want to own Suleman’s work, it may as well entirely disown its stated theme of “challeng[ing] mythologies of development cast in concrete, measured in extinct species, wasted bodies, sterile lands and poisoned waters.” Because you cannot, for example, really talk about the disappearing mangroves and the dangers of reclaiming the sea without talking about the DHA. You cannot really talk about “the toxins of industrial might and greed-based urban planning” by not talking about who is responsible.

The poor don’t hesitate to name the culprits behind the environmental catastrophe. It’s because they have nothing more to lose. The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) takes names knowing full well the price for it. However, the elite of this city are burdened by their privileges. In refusing to support an installation that named Rao Anwar, the KB has shown as much.

The organisers of the biennale should know that taking distance from a protest against state excesses isn’t benign. It betrays privilege, for the privileged aren’t only unaffected by land-grabbing but actually benefit from it. It betrays privilege since refusing to resist state pressure is a way to maintain privilege.

The KB also stated that “politicising the [biennale] platform will go against our efforts to bring art into the public and drawing artists from the fringe to the mainstream cultural discourse.” But refusing to politicise has an entirely different effect here.

Privilege requires ignorance of it, its material basis and how it is perpetuated. By thinking that ecology and politics are two separate spheres, and that the materiality of class privilege under capitalism isn’t rooted in the destruction of the environment, and that to talk about it is undue politicisation, KB is engaging in that erasure. Privilege is maintained by not talking about it in public. In an unequal system, when you refuse to talk about who is suffering and why, you are refusing to talk about who is benefitting from the suffering and how. And in doing so, the mainstream remains the mainstream, and those on the fringe are kept on the fringe.

This is the ethos of the elite, and the biggest political statement made so far in the biennale has been in its favour — and the statement has been made both by the state and the KB.

The urban is always political. The only way for the KB to be truly apolitical would be to fold its operations.