For the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, May You Live in Interesting Times, Pakistan presents its inaugural pavilion, Manora Field Notes, a new body of work by the artist Naiza Khan.
Manora Field Notes is a project in three parts, an iteration of the artist’s long-standing and evolving engagement with Manora Island, a peninsula located off the harbour of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Khan’s sustained contemplation of the island’s landscape, history and present reality has yielded a complex alternative geography, that conveys larger concerns of post-colonial histories, climate change and displacement.
Khan’s visual practice is built on a process of critical research, documentation and mapping-based exploration, focusing on urban public space and its entanglement with history. The artist has concentrated on the transformations of sites such as the expanding Karachi harbour and Manora Island. Her prolific archive of images, objects and recorded observations, which document the evolution of the island, engages with multiple bodies of knowledge – historic myths and local communities – to foreground the dimensions of embodiment, ecology and habitation.
From the eighteenth century onwards, Manora served as a defence outpost facing the Arabian Sea. Its many sites of worship – the Shri Varun Dev Mandir, Saint Paul’s Church and the Shrine of Yousuf Shah Ghazi, amongst others – point to the diverse religious history of pre-Partition South Asia.
Over the past decade, Khan has witnessed the slow erasure of the island’s architectural history and natural ecology. These transformations reflect in microcosm some of the larger issues of environmental change, social and economic justice, and mass displacement. Like the island that stands as sentry-post, this exhibition is an observation point that produces insights which bear relevance to other sites in the Global South and across the world that are undergoing similar transformations.
Manora Field Notes creates many connections between Karachi and Venice. Both port cities are situated on historical, transnational trade routes and both regions, at different points in time, have been at the crossroads of immense geopolitical change. The Pavilion of Pakistan is situated adjacent to the old Arsenale; built in the twelfth century, it was an industrial assembly line and a factory that mass-produced warships and merchant vessels. Today, part of the Arsenale is still a naval base and the harbour that lies between Manora Island and the Port of Karachi continues to be the main entry-point for most of Pakistan’s shipping trade.
The Pavilion of Pakistan is spread across three interconnected spaces, creating a journey for the viewer to engage with the lived histories and temporalities of a specific locale. As they make their way from one installation to the next, visitors chart individual courses through the presentation.