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Curating Pakistan: Interdisciplinary Exhibition Making, Noor Ahmed

Noor Ahmed is an art curator, artist, and writer. After pursuing History of Art and Fine Art at the Pratt Institute, New York, USA, she returned to Karachi, where she lives and works today. Her research-based curatorial practice focuses on creating platforms for interdisciplinary connections and exchange, and merging the public/private areas of art-making and consuming. Her investigations are rooted in the cultural heritage and political pulse of the communities surrounding her.

Most recently, Ahmed was part of the team curating her country’s national Pavilion, the Pakistan Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020. During lockdown in 2020, she curated ‘Open Studios at 73’, a program that provided studio space and exhibiting opportunities to artists at a time of total lockdown. She was Assistant Curator for Karachi Biennale 2019, Pakistan's largest contemporary art event. Her work and writings have been published in international and local publications.

We talked to Noor about her approach to exhibition making, building relationships with artists, the fast changing art scene in Pakistan and her thoughts on the future of Islamic art.

Can you tell us about your background in the arts, and how you ended up working as an independent curator?

I fell into it! I was studying History of Art and Fine Art at the Pratt Institute, with the intention of becoming a painter of academic sensibilities. During this time in 2015, I had the opportunity to curate a series of monographs on Pakistani artists for the Metropolitan Museum’s Watson library. The dearth of literary material and awareness of Pakistani contemporary art in these circles was in total contrast to the flourishing contemporary art scene in my country. At the time curation seemed like the right medium to bridge this gap, but I remain open to the possibilities of where my practice takes me.

The role of the curator is continuously in development. According to you, what does it mean to be a curator today?

At its most fundamental, I see curation as the engineering of an idea or mode, conceptual and/or physical, that becomes the medium for interdisciplinary exchange between a variety of cultural practitioners. Personally, the idea of unfixed geographies and the merging of the public/private areas of art-making and consuming heavily influence my practice.

What aspects of the role excites you most? How would you define your curatorial process?

The process often varies depending on the nature of the project, and I look for multidimensional areas of investigation. My recent work on the Pakistan Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 had me interacting with craftspeople in remote parts of Pakistan, to Federal Ministers in the Capital, to analysing Pakistan’s exports and natural resources – something that my background in Fine Art didn’t strictly prepare me for.

Open Studios at Cinema 73 (2020) was a program with yet a different process, that converted an inactive community cinema, Cinema 73 in Seaview Township Karachi, into a studio space and exhibiting space for artists at a time of total lockdown. This versatility and the professionals from various disciplines that I’m privileged to work with and learn from, make curation constantly exciting, new and challenging.

Can you tell us a bit about how you build relationships with artists?

Because I strive for an interdisciplinary approach to exhibition-making, I gravitate towards not just artists, but writers, researchers, craftspeople, architects, curators, filmmakers businesspeople, etc. Because the nature of what is being curated exists in the public realm, my vision has been to include diverse voices and practitioners so that the exhibit in question can resonate with as varied an audience as possible.

Once an idea has germinated, my next step is usually research. This stage is crucial in connecting me to individuals who have a similar area of interest, thus creating connections. For example, for Open Studios my area of focus was the creatives’ relationship to Karachi during unprecedented times of lockdown. This led me to engaging with 3 fantastic artists, Ammara Jabbar, Asad Kamran, and Haider Ali Naqvi, each of whose practices investigated their unique relationship with the city. Jabbar’s work dealt with traversing the city through the female experience, Kamran delved into the physical and spiritual notions of a ‘home’, whereas Naqvi’s work was a haunting tryst of collected memories, re-inscriptions and documentations surrounding encroachments and evictions in Karachi. Those that have given their time to participate in projects that I have curated will always have my support.

Which artists, writers, academics, curators, and other creative thinkers have influenced your curatorial practice? What is the best exhibition you have seen?

I am indebted to development practitioners and social scientists who have contextualised Pakistan’s journey. I am also heavily influenced by indigenous forms of recording and investigating knowledge, like the aural and Sufi traditions that have thrived in South Asia for centuries, and I am ever fascinated by the artists working outside the white cube.

Not strictly an exhibition, but last year I was fortunate to see Pakistani sculptor Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq’s Tarbela Dam monument in Swabi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Completed in 1982, the sculpture is an homage to Islamic geometry and the approximately 400 workers who passed away constructing one of the world’s largest earth-filled dams. A rare public art commission by the State, the artwork’s genealogy is as striking as its form and execution, poetically highlighting human achievement alongside terrible tragedy.

Pakistan’s seventy-two-year-old art history is multi-faceted: It has been shaped by modernists such as Zubeida Agha and Shakir Ali, traditionalists such as miniature painters, and contemporary artists. What do you think is the most exciting potential for Pakistan’s art scene in the future? What are your thoughts on the perspective of Pakistani art outside of Pakistan?

In recent times there has been a conscious shift away from traditionalist modes of art-making, towards more experimental and transnational forms of expression. Pakistan is uniquely positioned, especially geo-politically; since the Taliban’s assent to power in neighbouring Afghanistan, there is once again a global interest in the arts and culture of this region. In a world increasingly smaller but more divided, art can be an effective means of communicating with the ‘other’ where conventional modes of communication have not been as successful.

With the opening of newer markets, particularly in the East, there is also more efficient outreach for and awareness of artists from Pakistan and the global south.

You were part of the curatorial team for the critically acclaimed Pakistan Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020. What factors did the curatorial team consider when deciding on the content of the Pavilion? What impact did you hope the experience of the Pakistan Pavilion would have on audiences?

Working on the curation of Pakistan’s Pavilion was an incredibly exciting journey. The thematic for our Pavilion was PAKISTAN: THE HIDDEN TREASURE, presenting Pakistan as one of the world’s best kept secrets. In addition to representing every part of the country, we wanted the Pavilion to inspire conversation amongst visitors, leaving a lasting impact. To ignite this response, the Pavilion was curated to be an immersive, multisensory exhibit, revealing the country’s rich and layered history of over 7000 years, a region where people have reveled in their cultural and ethno-religious diversity for millenia. The Pavilion was also a nod to the future, portraying Pakistan’s economic and tourism potential, it’s world-renowned natural resources, and its pioneering steps in sustainability. It has been really humbling to see the response to the Pavilion. I encourage anyone in Dubai to visit the Pakistan Pavilion in the Opportunity district till 31st March 2022.

As an art practitioner, the success of the public/private partnership behind the Pakistan Pavilion, between Pakistan’s government and its cultural and business communities, gives me immense hope for the future. It was certainly unprecedented in Pakistan and I hope it can serve as a model for patronage of the arts in the future.

You were a curator at Karachi Biennale in 2019. With regards to your artistic and curatorial practice, how important do you think it is for Karachi to continue having biennials and events of contemporary art like these that focus on the city’s ecology, social history, and sustainable art practice? What factors did the curatorial team consider when deciding the sites for art installations in KB19?

Immensely important because these are universal concerns and biennales are a great way to engage the public and communicate with stakeholders on a much larger scale than is afforded by the discourse that takes place amongst a few, behind closed doors. This is precisely why we selected public spaces for KB19, places which already drew heavy footfall and would invite the audiences of Karachi to join in on the conversation.

How is Islamic art developing in Pakistan? What does the future of Islamic art look like to you?

In this region, Muslim South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Islamic art developed to become a sublime form of expression. In contemporary times, Islamic art has manifested in many forms, from the geometric art of shrines to its assimilation into popular culture where one could argue that its aesthetics seem to hold more weight for the average consumer than its spiritual significance. However, tradition and modernity are not mutually exclusive categories in South Asian cultural history, so in my opinion Islamic Art shall continue to thrive as a new generation of contemporary practitioners adopts it, albeit with a preference for subjective individuality in artistic expression.

For more information follow Noor Ahmed:

Instagram: @noor.b.ahmed

Twitter: @noor_b_ahmed

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.

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Noor Ahmed's "Curating Pakistan: Interdisciplinary Exhibition Making" showcases the rich cultural heritage of Pakistan through innovative displays. For more information and insights into this unique exhibition, visit Explore how interdisciplinary approaches are reshaping the art and cultural landscape in Pakistan.

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