The Lahore Biennale is full-swing in the city, and it really is tremendous. Top-class artists are showing their work in several different locations across the city, all for free—there are exhibits at the Fort, the Shahi Hammam, the Lahore Museum, Lawrence Gardens, Mubarak Haveli and an intersection of the canal. There are many associated, ancillary exhibitions happening parallel to the main exhibits, along with a series of academic lectures that happen every day, three or four a day. It’s astonishing; the scale of the project and the amount of coordination, planning, funding and executing that must have gone into it.

For the unfamiliar, a biennale—bi annual, in Italian—is an art festival that happens every two years in a city. The main objective is the engage the city and its citizens with art, and art practices in an intense and intimate way. The most famous biennale is the one in Venice, which began in 1895, with new ones sprouting up in cities like Kochi or Shanghai in recent years. One of the objectives of a biennale is art; others include urban regeneration, improving international relations and tourism, too. And why ever not? If a city has enough cultural cachet then the world deserves to know, and no city like Lahore for a bit of cultural and historical showing-off. There aren’t too many places in the world that can host neon-light installations inside a seventeenth-century summer palace, after all.

The best part of public art, for a city like Lahore, in a country like Pakistan, is how art speaks a universal language. Clichés aside, a painting or a piece of music (or both, if you’re looking at Shahzia Sikander’s practice) needs no language to explain it, or a translator to tell you how to feel about it. Art is what it means to you, and it’s as simple and as complex as that. After I spent twenty minutes sitting with my toddler, mutually fascinated, in front of Shahzia Sikander’s ‘Parallax’ at the Alhamra—feeling very much like I were in an art gallery or museum abroad instead of on Mall Road—I came to the front door, where a friendly guard helped me wrestle my pram out of the metal detector’s narrow rectangle. “What does that mean?” he asked, a little shy but his curiosity outweighing it, gesturing to the screens he was guarding from vandals. I looked back at it, three panels showing a looping series of eerie, absorbing and startling visuals melting in and out of each other, accompanied by a strange haunting music. “It means anything, it means whatever you understand,” I said. He was puzzled, because most people expect knowledge to be knowable, even art. It’s the way students read poetry and earnestly ask you to tell them what it means. Some things defy explanation, and good art should nimbly escape one pat definition. A poem, a painting, a song—it means everything and it means nothing and that’s just how it goes. To some, this kind of intellectual free-wheeling is terrifying—some people like to be told things, not produce them out of the ether. To some, like the guard, it is liberating to have the freedom to follow wherever the response takes one. He went back inside with a grin on his face—“it really means whatever I think?”—because how else can one define the butterflies in one’s stomach, or a quickening of the blood?

It may sound like a whole lot of liberal-arts hooey, but its something worth putting to the test. In many ways, Lahore is a sophisticated enough audience to understand if an ancient tree has electrodes clamped onto it and is making a beautiful kind of Faraway Tree music. We’re people who have grown up with legends and Hoshrubas and jinns who live on trees. Art that makes sounds come out of them is not daunting at all. One man, listening to Mehreen Murtaza’s piece, was perfectly amiable when he told the aforementioned toddler of mine that a jinn was going to come from the tree (toddler didn’t get it). If a jinn had emerged, leafy-haired and sap-eyed, that man certainly wouldn’t have been surprised. Young men and women have been climbing up one of the hills at Lawrence Gardens to inspect Ali Kazmi’s work, a faux-ruin built of identical, anatomically correct clay hearts. My shameless eavesdropping revealed a great deal of curious interest. Elsewhere in the lawns children have been clambering over Noorali Chagani’s brick wall—not unlike the way the Serpentine pavilion exhibits at Kensington Gardens, as public art that invites engagement, not just looking.

The Biennale is such fun because it is so diverse, and each location’s art has been curated carefully and in a way that maximizes the potential of both with the other. There’s also a sense of renewed wonder for Lahoris, who have been cautiously but with increasing numbers going to see things for themselves. It’s a wonderful start, a really uplifting and positive approach to sharing creative ideas with a public that may not understand most of it, but will be the better for being challenged to do so. Like our other festivals, the Biennale too has given people in Lahore access to things and ideas and images many of us have not the privilege to have seen before, and may never do. And that is a truly special gift, one that speaks of hope and some kind of belief in the greater good, of giving back and above all, the transformative power of art.


The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.