Watching John Akomfrah in Lahore


by Chris Moffat

On the second Lahore Biennale, 26 Jan – 29 Feb 2020

The Tollinton Market building casts an unusual shadow on Lahore’s Mall Road. Its sloping, tiled roof and wooden features depart from the brick and concrete that characterizes this old colonial thoroughfare. Opened in 1864 as the Punjab Exhibition Hall, the structure was designed to showcase the products of local craft and artisanal industries – from textiles to jewelry, calligraphy to musical instruments. Like its near neighbour, the Mayo School of Arts, the Exhibition Hall emerged from what Saloni Mathur calls the British empire’s ‘salvage paradigm’: that desire to preserve forms of traditional art and culture, for pleasure and for profit, at a moment when colonial processes of industrialisation were destroying the conditions in which such older occupations flourished.

The Exhibition Hall was transformed into a market space in the 1920s by the great Lahori architect and engineer, Sir Ganga Ram. It housed a maze of stalls selling food and everyday provisions through the partition of India in 1947 and well into Pakistan’s 1990s, before traders were shifted to a new space off Jail Road. The Market building fell into disuse, and has since been subject to various conservation campaigns and attempted repurposings, an ongoing battle with crumbling walls, peeling paint and leaking ceilings. From 26 January to 28 February 2020, this expansive, historic building is opened again to the public as an exhibition hall; this time, to display art selected or commissioned for the second Lahore Biennale.

In one darkened room, a projector screens two of British artist John Akomfrah’s early ‘expeditions’ with the Black Audio Film Collective: Signs of Empire and Images of Nationality (1982-84). These slow, image-driven investigations into colonial fantasy and the palimpsests of identity conjure with their droning soundtrack the spirits of this site of imperial salvage. From Bombay to Cork, the Congo to the Mississippi, this is a ‘decentered autobiography of empire’, extracted from tiger carcasses and stone statues, from anxieties about tropical ‘degeneration’ alongside the cold confidence of conquest. In the central hall, Barbara Walker’s towering charcoal drawings of Black soldiers from First World War Commonwealth armies speak similarly of Europe’s disowned histories. Elsewhere in the building, Hoda Afshan’s film on Australia’s offshore immigrant detention centres evokes a contemporary scene of racialised order; in another room, Bouchra Khalili conjures Fanon, Cabral and others from the black radical tradition to contest a disenchanted present.

Speaking at a Biennale launch event in the aforementioned Mayo School (now Pakistan’s National College of Arts), Akomfrah spoke about his early films and the ethic of bricolage that continues to inform his working method. ‘Proximity’, he said, serves as ‘an organising trope for so much of the world.’ People and things share spaces without being the same. Genealogies can be similar, but identities not; or identities can overlap, even when origin points are different. How does one do work that honours the connections between things, without sacrificing their integrity? For Akomfrah, the answer is in a mixed economy of narratives, brought into a provisional, open-ended conversation – without guarantees.

Biennales, too, are experiments with proximity. They reconfigure spaces with art, sound or bodies, temporarily disrupting the usual rhythms of their host environments. In Lahore, this is certainly the case, with the Biennale injecting life into neglected buildings – the derelict Bradlaugh Hall, the tired PIA Planetarium – or reworking the function of others, from the Punjab Irrigation Department offices to the heritage pathways of the city’s Mughal Fort. This second edition of the Biennale grapples directly with the challenge of acknowledging multiplicity whilst insisting on integrity: its programme is inspired by the city’s historic connections to Central and West Asia, as well as to East Africa and the Indian Ocean World, even as it foregrounds the particularity of Lahore itself.

Conditions of proximity are unstable. At their best, they can animate invention or possibility; at their worst, they can produce convulsions, even violence. Part of the adventure of major art events like the Lahore Biennale is that – in spite of the predictable congregations of wealth, power and security that such spectacles attract and indeed rely upon – the outcomes of installing art in public space are, in many ways, unpredictable.

Entering the Tollinton Market, a banner installed by the art collective Slavs and Tatars greets the visitor with a warning: ‘BEWARE THE ANTI-IMPERIALIST IMPERIALIST’, inscribed in block letters over an ornate floral pattern. The banner’s message radicalizes the sense of dread and uncertainty in Akomfrah’s films – that postcolonial problematisation of easy dichotomies between colonizer and colonized, articulating instead the durability of imperial forms. The banner refers, specifically, to post-revolution practices in Russia and Iran, where after 1917 and 1979 respectively, regimes founded on the expulsion of ‘foreign’ influence began to export their own ideologies to neighbouring countries. But this banner also unfurls in proximity to Pakistan’s political present, the world outside the exhibition hall, and this too demands critical attention.

The Biennale takes place at a time when Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has been escalating his criticism of the Indian government’s occupation of Kashmir. His vocal condemnation of Narendra Modi’s ‘racist, fascist’ administration has spurred domestic support and is designed to buttress Pakistan’s international reputation as a defender of persecuted Muslims. But at this same moment, Khan has been silent on news emerging steadily from Xinjiang concerning the mass incarceration of Uyghur Muslims, his position informed by the 60 billion dollars worth of infrastructural development China is currently funding in Pakistan, part of a new ‘Economic Corridor’ linking Kashgar to Gwadar. But Khan’s anti-imperialism regarding Kashmir also disguises processes of internal colonization, demonstrated recently in the state’s suppression of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a non-violent civil rights campaign demanding an end to extrajudicial killings and an inquiry into mass disappearances in the northwest of Pakistan.

The day before I visited Tollinton Market, security forces arrested the charismatic PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen in a morning raid in Peshawar. He has been charged with sedition, under an old colonial law that survives in both Pakistan and India. I left the Market hall near closing time and took a taxi to Liberty Chowk in Lahore’s Gulberg neighbourhood. There, I joined some friends at a demonstration demanding Pashteen’s release. Earlier that afternoon, a similar protest in Islamabad had ended in the mass arrest of protestors. PTM is often characterized as anti-state, a conspiracy funded by Pakistan’s enemies, even if their demands are simply for constitutional and democratic rights. Riot police with shields and masks also surrounded the Lahore congregation, but ultimately left untouched the anxious protestors huddled together on muddy ground, shouting slogans over the horns and engines of surrounding traffic.

That is, until two days later, when a young activist named Mohsin Abdali, a Masters student at Punjab University, was abducted by plainclothes officers from his parents’ home in Lahore, in the middle of the night. Abdali had attended protests against the recent arrests. His friends hurried around the city as dawn light pierced morning fog, searching for his whereabouts at different police stations, to no avail. Fears that he had been ‘disappeared’ abated when Abdali was returned in the evening, though he bore the marks of the state’s anxiety. The Lahore Biennale unfolds in proximity to these events. The experience it curates buckles in relation to its context. The art on display, in Tollinton and elsewhere, taps into history, follows the intentions of artists, but is also charged by the present, the site of its reception. It skates the palimpsests of Pakistan’s national identity, the distorted afterlives of colonialism, the continued cruelty of the anti-imperialist imperialist. But these conditions of proximity can also produce critical constellations, new ways of knowing, and it is this sense of possibility smuggled into the urban environment that the Biennale  – reliant even as it is on state support and security – must continually defend.

All images copyright of the author.

About the Author:

Chris Moffat is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in History at Queen Mary University of London. He writes on death, politics and the public life of the past. Chris is the author of India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and the Promise of Bhagat Singh, published with Cambridge University Press in 2019.