Manchester Art Gallery visit Pakistan with WIRP international travel grant

Clare Gannaway, Curator and Natasha Howes, Senior Curator at Manchester Art Gallery (Manchester Museums Consortium) travelled to Pakistan in April 2016 on a WIRP International Travel Grant.  This is Clare’s report on their visit.


Visit to Lahore Fort with Lahore Biennial team

Visit to Lahore Fort with Lahore Biennial team

We are working initially towards a focus on South Asia in Autumn 2017 in Manchester and across north west venues. Since our visit we have been successful with an Ambition for Excellence bid to the Arts Council to develop a major 3-year programme between a network of three cities and five South Asian biennials/meetings. The working title is The New North and South. The purpose of our visit was to meet and explore possible links with the teams from Lahore and Karachi Biennials, and to meet artists with a view to showing and possibly collecting contemporary work as part of our programme in 2017 and beyond. We wanted to learn more about the contemporary art scene in Pakistan and as much as possible about its historical, social and political context.

We spent three days each in Lahore and Karachi. Our schedule was organised in advance at fairly short notice, through key contacts in each city who helped set up meetings and/or put us in touch with artists, curators and gallerists. We had a suitably busy schedule, with enough flexibility to be able to fit in more spontaneous extra meetings once we were in Pakistan.



In Lahore we met the Lahore Biennial team and several artists at their homes, studios or at galleries. We also managed to fit in visits to the Wazir Khan hamam and mosque and Lahore Fort; visits organised with help from members of the Lahore Biennial team. In Karachi we visited Canvas Gallery and VM Gallery, where we met the Karachi Biennial team and shared presentations about the Biennial plans and Gallery programme. We also met a very large number of artists at VM in one afternoon, with little ‘quality control’ which was a little draining! We met other artists in Karachi at their homes, at T2 F café, Koel Gallery and Sanat Gallery and discussed possible links/strategies with Karachi Biennial representatives.

Both Natasha and I found the schedule just right in terms of meeting useful contacts and some very interesting artists. It was strange to be driven everywhere, but there was no alternative considering lack of other forms of transport, security issues and the 40 degree heat!

This was a valuable and thoroughly enjoyable visit in terms of the range of artists we met and  the amount we learned. In just one week, we gained so much knowledge about the scope of artistic practice in these two cities, the arts education system and ecology, funding etc. We developed some good relationships which will strengthen our project and ambition for 2017. Obviously there is always more to learn and more research to be done, but travelling to the country and meeting artists there gave us the opportunity to meet artists and see their work in context, which we would not otherwise have had.

Visit to a school in Karachi, one of the possible sites for the Karachi Biennial in 2017

Visit to a school in Karachi, one of the possible sites for the Karachi Biennial in 2017

We learned a great deal about the social, political and historical context, about the history of Pakistan and what it is like living and working in Lahore and Karachi from the perspective of the artists and others we met. Despite the challenges (and even threats) that people sometimes face, we found a huge loyalty and passion for both cities and a desire to show us that Pakistan is not just a dangerous place where ‘Westerners’ get kidnapped.

We would recommend visits such as this to others planning international working, as meeting people and seeing work in context brings valuable learning opportunities. It is definitely worth having a schedule that is flexible enough with possible gaps so that last-minute spontaneous meetings can be arranged. We have also made note of other contacts in the UK and Europe given to us by curators in Pakistan. Obviously with the diasphora from Pakistan being so widely spread, it is important to remember that not all ‘Pakistani’ artists are living and working in Pakistan! An independently organised schedule brings flexibility, but does rely on making initial contact with key individuals who are keen and pro-active and willing to help with other contacts, help make introductions (in this case we were very lucky to have good contacts and were able to get a schedule organised quite quickly).

When travelling to Pakistan, it is worth making contact with the British Council to check any security issues, local updates and also to arrange transport through a car company (we arranged with Mystic Cars in Lahore, who gave us a driver each day).  We also had our hotels in both cities recommended by the British Council.

Natasha Howes and Clare Gannaway meet artists and Karachi Biennial team at VM Gallery, Karachi

Natasha Howes and Clare Gannaway meet artists and Karachi Biennial team at VM Gallery, Karachi

We are currently contacting all the artists we would definitely like to work with to start conversations about possible commissioning  and which works we might show in 2017. At a key meeting on 11 July 2016 hosted by the Liverpool Biennial, we will present our ideas to colleagues from all the organisations involved in The New North and South, including representatives from South Asian biennials and meetings such as the Lahore and Karachi Biennials. We will also hear about plans from these other members of the project team and discuss any possible connections or links between our programmes next year.

We are starting to explore funding possibilities for commissioning and exhibiting work. To realise all the artists’ projects we will need a fundraising plan, sharing of ideas and possibly some joint funding bids to enable us to achieve collaboratively the ambitious aims for 2017. We also acknowledge that The New North and South is a three year project, so we may work with some artists later. We may make contact with other artists (in Pakistan and elsewhere) who we develop work with later too. Our research has certainly not finished!

This was a hugely exciting and stimulating visit – we learned more in a week about so many things than we could ever have learned any other way and we can’t wait to start developing collaborations and working with the artists we met in Pakistan.


“Research visits such as this are hugely valuable as we develop our curatorial knowledge and  expertise on South Asian contemporary art  in Manchester and the North West. This connects directly with our strategy to broaden the international scope of our collections and programme. I look forward to sharing ideas with our regional and international colleagues as we develop The New North and South, our major three year Arts Council funded project,  and seeing the exciting ideas resulting directly from this visit to Pakistan come to fruition in the coming months.”

Maria Balshaw, Director, Manchester City Galleries and the Whitworth