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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