Interviewed by Shameen Arshad
Atif Khan exudes nothing but positive energy. His bright countenance is further evidenced in his works. Khan is an artist that crafts his work with dedication and honesty — an honesty that is also evident when I talk with him. In short, he tells it like it is. Khan’s cool and composed nature made our interview enjoyable, as he spares me the pain of hearing more run-of-the-mill, diplomatically correct answers. The Missing Slate sat down with Khan as he humbly narrated the events that led to the conception of his piece ‘City within a City’.
Khan’s project is a necessity in a city like Lahore, where rich cultural heritage is constantly under attack as old structures — replete with culture and history — are being torn down to make way for urban lifestyle. In times like these Khan’s project is seen as a “true gift to Lahore”. ‘City within a City’ rejects the idea of eliminating the old to adjust new ways of life and shows how both can co-exist.
Khan’s ‘City within the City’ is a gesture of love for the life amidst this space. The installation does not just cater to individuals that reside in this area, it also humours another very important presence in the Chowk — the pigeons. This junction has long been home to thousands of pigeons. These birds are endemic to this part of Lahore. They reside within the nooks and crannies of old monumental structures waiting for their feed; grain that is strewn across the sidewalk by individuals, a gesture revealing that these creatures are a vital part of life in this part of the city.
I’m no stranger to the Istanbul Chowk in Lahore. Having been a student at National College of Arts, one sees this Chowk every day. The Istanbul Chowk stands amidst several old institutions, educational and official — between the new and the old — making this intersection one of great significance. Time and again some sort of memorial or banners have been put up; things that you would ignore, or rather not have, on an already busy crossway. So, ‘City Within a City’ was a pleasant surprise.
The installation stands tall and mighty, peaceful and undisturbed by the chaos of the everyday. The Chowk, which was already rich with culture and heritage, is now adorned with a monument that captures the beauty of life within the city of Lahore — something that is an amalgamation of all the going ons locally. The square is also adorned with model fighter planes and war cannons, which according the artist belong in a “military museum”. The tranquil presence of ‘City within a City’ is a good counter to these war machines, reminding the people of Lahore that their history, as well as present, are more than just war memorabilia.
Atif Khan graduated (with distinction) in Fine Art from the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan (1997). He is a recipient of the UNESCO-ASHBURG Bursary for Artists (1999) and the Commonwealth Arts & Crafts Award (2007).
Khan has several local and international shows to his credit, including shows in countries like the UK, Jordan, Switzerland and India. He has completed artist residencies at the Darat-Al-Funun in Amman in Jordan (1998), the Swansea Print Workshop in Wales (2005-06), the London Print Studio (2008) and the Glasgow Print Studio (2008).
In 2014-15, he participated in three museum shows: ‘Trajectories’ at Sharjah Art Museum in the UAE, ‘Garden of Ideas’ at the inaugural show of Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada and ‘Hybrid ii’ at the Islamic Museum of Australia in Melbourne, Australia.
Furthermore, he was commissioned to do a series of large-scale works, including a giant site-specific installation, for The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada. Last year, he won the Lahore Biennale Foundation’s Open Call competition and developed a site-specific installation ‘Çity within a city’ at the Chowk Istanbul in Lahore, Pakistan. Alongside his artistic practice, Khan is the faculty member at the prestigious National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan since 2005.
Tell us a little about your recent public art project ‘City within a City’.
In 2015, Lahore Biennale Foundation (LBF), in collaboration with Commissioner of Lahore and Parks & Horticulture Authority (PHA, Lahore), announced an Open Call Competition to create a public art installation for the Istanbul Chowk in Lahore. A jury was formed consisting of the renowned architect Nayyar Ali Dada, art educationers Rashid Rana and Resham Syed. The jury selected my proposal ‘City within a City’ and gave me the task to materialise the project.
It took more than two months to finish the installation. The project consisted of 425 birdhouses made out of industrial waterproof plywood installed on a 40 ft. high metal pole, to create the form of an abstract tree. A team of 15 carpenters, welders, painters and other technicians helped me to create this monumental artwork.
Where did you get inspiration to create the installation?
‘City within a City’ is a site-specific public art project, so it is extremely important to get an idea about the whereabouts of the site. So, let me inform the readers about the surroundings of the Chowk Istanbul first.
Chowk Istanbul is located in the heart of the city and one can observe that this intersection is surrounded by age-old educational institutions, e.g. the National College of Arts, the Government College University and the University of Punjab. Lahore Museum, Nasir Bagh and the Jinnah Hall (the office of the Mayor of Lahore) are also situated in the surroundings of the Chowk Istanbul.
A few more things are significant around this intersection: a fighter jet, an antique cannon and a life-size model of a missile. All these war machines are installed as memorials around the Chowk Istanbul. At the Chowk Istanbul, they are creating a kind of juxtaposition with the peaceful environment of the educational institutions where thousands of students daily visit to satisfy their desire to attain knowledge.
In such an environment, I found a very interesting activity that shows the real nature of the people of Lahore, which is all about love. I observed that some common people brought grain and water and put them to the roadside at the Chowk Istanbul every day. As a result, hundreds of wild pigeons who live in the nearby trees and the holes of the old buildings gathered over there to feed themselves. This activity from the common people of Lahore is completely in contrast with the war machines installed in the same area by different governments to ‘please’ the people.
War machines are always used as the symbol of destruction and killing, on the other hand, pigeons are a global symbol of peace and love. This comparison reminded me of my own artwork ‘Landscape of the heart’ (2012).In that artwork, a Mughal king is standing on a Roman column and shooting the birds, swarming around a tree. This artwork helped me come up with the idea of a giant tree-like form, and the presence of pigeons at this site led me to think about the pigeonholes. Thus, I chose to combine these two elements to create a new form. One element came from my own art practice, and the other evolved in response to the site, but both reflect the feeling and meaning of shelter and peace.
How was the experience of working with the Lahore Biennale Foundation?
I will give you a completely undiplomatic answer. My experience of working with the LBF was totally disappointing. Their responsibility was to coordinate between the artist and the government offices, i.e. PHA and the Commissioner’s team, but unfortunately they failed to do so.
They are presenting the project everywhere getting all of the credit without properly mentioning the name of its creator. They have not even bothered to put a name plate with information about the artist and this project at the Istanbul Chowk. I would not like to go into the details, but some serious issues are still to be resolved.
Could you share a little about your process? The hurdles, the people you had to work with, and the new challenges of creating a public installation?
After the approval of the project, I made the detailed working drawings using computer software. I asked PHA to involve a structural engineer to refine or rather approve my suggestive drawings for the metal armature.
Meanwhile, in a wood workshop, a team of carpenters were making 425 birdhouses by hand, following the given designs. Industrial quality, waterproof plywood was used to construct these birdhouses in different sizes and shapes. Later, the birdhouses were painted with heavy duty car paints to add more protection from the weather. When the metal armature was erected at the site, the birdhouses were moved over there.
Now, the work of more precision started. The challenge was to install the individual birdhouses in a tree-like form. We did it successfully at a lower height and later lifted the whole form to its current 40 ft. height, with the help of two heavy duty cranes. It took more than 2 months to finish the installation.
In this project, I directly worked with the Commissioner of Lahore, the Director General of PHA and their teams. Unlike the general perception about government organizations, I found them very talented, cooperative and willing to work for their city — Lahore. Unfortunately, the only unsatisfactory experience was the poor coordination with the Lahore Biennale Foundation.
What is the most important thing to consider when making public art?
Since this form of art is created or installed in a public space it should be something that the community can relate to. Its conceptual side should not overcome its formal side.
Viewers and art enthusiasts usually like to chat with the artist to know how a certain body of work comes into being. What is the most unusual comment or question that you have heard concerning this project?
From day one at the Chowk Istanbul, I and my team of artisans have been hearing comments from passersby who were keen to know what we were doing at the site. The comments were mostly encouraging and the people were excited that something good was happening in their area. It was quite surprising for me that some common people reached to the conceptual meaning of this installation and said that it is important to build something positive among the war machines installed at this intersection. I was also thrilled to hear a comment from an old person who said “Beta, what you are doing is a true gift to Lahore”.
Some people, including the Commissioner of Lahore, questioned me that “Do you think birds will accept these birdhouses as a nest?” My reply was quite unexpected and shocking for them, I said: “No, not at all. This is a symbolic tree made of birdhouses. If I was a bird, I would never leave my current shelters to live in these birdhouses that are surrounded by smoke, dust, heat and noise”. I am happy that they understood my point of view.
If you were asked to collaborate with another artist to create a public installation who would it be and why?
This is a very difficult question indeed. Producing art in a studio, in collaboration with another artist is not an easy job. Therefore, collaboration for a public art project makes things even more complex. Instead of teaming up with another artist, I would prefer to work with an architect, like Zaha Hadid or scientists like the Wright Brothers, but unfortunately, they are not amongst us today.
When art is moved out into the public place its audience changes or even increases. You are no longer just catering to a crowd of artists, galleries and art enthusiasts. Does the responsibility of the artist increase as he has to consider the sentiments of more than just art lovers?
The studio is the safest place for an artist to create artwork on whatever theme he / she chooses. Art galleries also provide a favorable environment where usually like-minded people are invited to appreciate a work of art. However, working in a public space or setting up a public display means you are putting up a live stage performance where the artist gets the response, good or bad, from the audience, immediately.
There is no comparison between the viewership of an artwork in an art gallery and in the public place. The responsibility of the artist definitely increases when creating public art. It puts upon them the burden of decency and simplicity. The artist has to use a visual vocabulary that is digestible to the public. However, the more challenging it is, the more is the pleasure.
In your experience is public art effective in creating understanding and appreciation for art amongst the masses?
Yes, it is a very an effective tool to develop a certain type of sensibility in the masses, not only about the visual arts but also regarding the life and culture of a specific area. Many countries use public art to propagate a state’s ideologies to the masses. Unfortunately, most of our public spaces are filled with meaningless monumental structures. My project is a sign that now government officials are collaborating with artists and taking interest in public art projects.
Who in your opinion sets the bar for art installations today?
It’s a very personal view, but I like the work of a famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the British artist Anish Kapoor for the variety and simplicity of their ideas. I cannot ignore the work of internationally acclaimed Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi who has a very unique style deeply rooted into our own culture.
Having put up a successful and largely appreciated installation yourself, what advice would you give to others that would like to take up public art themselves?
Artists should develop their public art ideas, approach the local government officials (e.g. Commissioner, DCO etc.) and convince them of the significance your project. I am sure most of them will be open to having a discussion on your proposal.
Shameen Arshad is an art critic for this magazine.