Islamabad Art Festival blog
Its now 2021 and I realized I hadn't written anything about my experience in Islamabad, though I mention it on my welcome page. I am aware that this is one of those life experiences that takes time to filter the experience itself as it was so full on, the creativity stimulation was endless. Where do I begin?
It all began one sunny morning sitting in the cafe near my home in London, I had just finished having breakfast when I heard a voice from across the room asking if they could interrupt. It was a relative of a neighbor who was visiting from Pakistan, so I joined them at their table. We had a long conversation about art, I was told about a new festival happening just under three weeks time in Islamabad, I had never been, never had the intention of travelling anywhere other than Japan, and here was an invitation. I have mentioned in my blog about Serbia and a how we Brits tend to shy away from invitations or anything that would involved in making a commitment, especially if its to attend an arts festival in a unfamiliar country. I said the classic British response "That's very kind of you, if I can I will try to come" where actually in reality, what we mean is "No, I cant".
On this occasion I had one of my gut instinct reaction, it felt like this was destiny, a chance meeting was too incredible, the offer was extraordinary, like most festivals if you can raise the flight costs, then you will be looked after once you arrive at the event, accommodation, food and local travel. After returning back home I was checking my emails and there was a flight sale from British Airways, it was too good to be true, but there it was. Two weeks previous I worked for a week decorating a friends flat which I got paid for, and I was holding on to it to travel to Japan in following year. I had the money, I had the time, so what is stopping me? Nothing, I pressed that button and booked my flight, then text my new contact that I have booked the flight and I am coming. This all happened within half hour of our meeting, over the next few days there was a flurry of activity via the internet, lots of communication with the festival organizers and a letter from the founder Jamal Sha, which I took it across London to apply for my visa and within twenty four hours it was accepted. When I went to collect the visa the man who was dealing with me said "you know Jamal Sha?" I replied I didn't, I had no idea who he is, his response with a big smile "He is a famous actor in Pakistan" I just shook my head and thanked him for my visa.
Two weeks or so later I was on a plane to Islamabad! In the world of live art, opportunities do not come that often to perform, a lot of it is about networking, connections, people pointing you in the right direction, sometimes if your lucky you will actually get paid for it, but a lot of it depends on the artist making their way to the country it is being held in. For the first week I began telling people that I was travelling to Islamabad and the negative response I got was awful, it was so bad I decided not to tell people, which is a shame as I wanted to share my excitement, but all I heard was "Terrorists" "Tali ban" "Kidnap" "Shot". I made the decision not to look it up or enquire anymore and hold on to the gut instinct of trust that I am so familiar with and not to give into fear.
Some people were trying to persuade me not to go its dangerous. I am actually a well travelled artist, and I like to think that the choices I make are good ones, so far that has been the case and the doubt that was creeping in was "Have I made a mistake?" but that didn't last with encouragement from my partner that was enough, here was an extraordinary opportunity to attend one of the first open international art festivals that is being held in Islamabad. I wondered also what oppositions the organizers were facing if I was getting this kind of reaction in Britain. The other amazing thing happened my local vicar mentioned that the outgoing high commissioner of Pakistan was a member of our church, and just before I left to travel to Islamabad I was introduced to him. This gave me some reassurance, what are the chances of that happening, as he also use to live a couple of streets away from me. It was good to have a conversation about his experience in an official manner, so I had nothing to worry about, I suppose its all about taking precaution and since I was under the umbrella of IAF19 (Islamabad Art Festival) I should be ok, and the commissioner knew Jamal and felt I would be ok under his care, and so there it was, that was the encouragement I needed, here was someone who had been living in Islamabad and had just retired from his position and was qualified enough to advise me about my travel to Pakistan.
It was a long trip, I had to change flights but managed to arrive in the early hours of the morning in Islamabad, I wasn't sure who or if anyone was going to meet me, so I hung around the airport getting a bit anxious then a group of volunteers turned up to welcome me and then drove me to my hotel, once I checked in I went straight to bed.
The roller coaster of experiences begin!
the hotel was amazing that I was put in, it had a sauna, gym and a swimming pool, I kept my feet on the ground as I had a busy few days and was prepared and had written a schedule, also I was running free workshops that I had offered so had done a lot of preparation.
Spikes schedule for Islamabad Arts Festival 2019
Friday 22 November
Fly to Islamabad Qatar Airlines
Terminal 4.BA7006 8am Arrive in Doha 17.45pm
QR0632 - Time leave 20.20pm
Saturday 23rd November:
Arrive in Islamabad 01.40am
To be met at airport and taken to hotel.
To be confirmed who is meeting me and where I will be staying. Buy art materials for art workshop. Prepare for tomorrow.
Sunday 24th November
Running all day workshop
“Freeing your inner creativity”
There is a full workshop text explaining process and lunch breaks.
Participants to exhibit their art work.
Expecting 12 participants. Sir Syed Memorial Complex.
Monday 25th November
The search for identity through performance art.
Venue: Sir Syed Memorial Complex
From 5pm onwards. Sir Syed Memorial Complex.
Tuesday 26th November
Running all day workshop “Performing live”
There is a full workshop text explain process and lunch breaks
also participants performances.
Expecting 12 participants. Sir Syed Memorial Complex.
Wednesday 27th November
Enjoy the rest of the festival.
Thursday 28th November
Enjoy the rest of the festival.
Friday 29th November
Enjoy the festival.
Saturday 30th November
Last day and closing ceremony.
Serena Hotel and performances.
Sunday 1st December
First of the month
White Rabbit / Rest and explore
Monday 2nd December
Return to UK
Fly from Islamabad Airport Qatar Airlines. QR0632
Arrive at Doha 11.20am
Connecting flight to UK:
BA7015 Qatar Airlines Departs 15.50pm
Arrive at Heathrow 20.25pm NB to meet me. Terminal 4
Freeing your inner creativity workshop:
I had no idea who was turning up or where I would be or what would happen throughout the day. I was still a bit tired from arriving the day before. There is nothing like arriving running, there was no time to recover or rest but just to get straight into it. One of the volunteers came and met me at the entrance of the hotel, that had quite a few armed guards, this was one of the hotels that was blown up in 2012 with terrorist, so people are still quite cautious about who is arriving and leaving. They then took me to Sir Syed Memorial Complex, which was actually walking distance from the hotel, but I only realised how close it was once the festival had ended.
I was taken to an art shop as I was providing the art material for the workshop, and then we returned to the room that I was going to be in. No one really knew who was turning up, but thankfully to my relief people did turn up, some members of the Sha family, during the course of the festival it really became a little performance of mine greeting each Sha.... "Good morning Mr Sha," I would bow, then to the next "Good morning Mr Sha," then bow and the next "Good morning Mr Sha. " There was something nice about the ritualistic greeting. Anyway I digress back to the workshop.
I have ran this workshop in various countries including different parts of the UK, the whole process is about motivation, it is not about teaching how to make art, but to give people an experience of breaking through any limitations they may have that they feel holds them back, its quite intense and you do need a lot of concentration. One of the exhausting aspect of the workshop was to stop other artists coming in and trying to take the group away to see their work, which is all fine, but this was my workshop, also because of the intensity and sometime intimate aspects of the workshop where people are sharing personal information, the last thing I wanted was to have someone walk in and make the space unsafe to share, so this added an extra layer of anxiety. As the workshop leader is was my responsibility to look after those who have chosen to take part and trust me to lead them throughout the day and part of that was to keep the public out.
In all I felt the first day went well, one of the musicians who was present supported me by playing music that I needed as part of the workshop, the rest of volunteer team were fantastic, we also with permission of those attending had the festival film crew present. I managed to create a good bond amongst the attendees, lunch had been provided and in the afternoon we spent the rest of the time making art, then at the end we hung it in the gallery space. I was really moved by the trust that people gave, and they also gave themselves. I rounded up the day with giving people an opportunity to talk about the artwork they had made and what kind of experience they had from the day.
This was actually my first day in Islamabad as I arrived the previous morning. For me I felt humble by the emotional sharing of peoples life experiences, this was a mixed group and people from a wide range of ages. We talked a lot about loss, about families, about personal struggles. I spent thirty years working in the social care environment so have plenty of training that enables me to work with peoples emotions and guide them through it. The sharing was organic, I hadn't really thought what would come out of the day or how much involved the participants wanted to be in. It was a surreal experience, arriving at Islamabad airport, taken to a hotel and now in a room full of people sharing personal experiences from life. Wow!
Talk and performance:
There wasn't much time to recover as the next day I had to give a talk, which I wasn't prepared for but managed to pull it off, then followed by a live performance. I had spent some time learning about the Sir Syed Memorial Museum as it was a large building that only recently after a fifteen year court battle the custodians finally took control of it, where before it was used by the military as an engineer training centre.
I did have a look on the internet and couldn't believe the difference of the building, as when those who occupied it sadly destroyed it, smashing toilets so they couldn't be used, and instead of leaving as a functional space a lot of hatred was poured into the building, so when the current custodians finally re-entered they were quite shocked at the state of the building. The previous residents also left a number of financial debts that now the custodians had inherited. It was only two weeks before the festival that they managed to get it returned to the rightful owners, and somehow made it fit for use.
I spent a lot of time exploring the building and had worked out a durational piece that would be performed over a course of four hours that people could dip in and out off. Sadly that didn't happen, as I was told my time had changed and I only had twenty minutes! So I had to change the whole performance and work out within minutes what to do, so out came the rabbit costume. "Behind the mask of white rabbit is a Shaman" This was also inspired an installation of a performance that local artists had created across the road from the centre.
I was the festivals first international conceptual live art performance artist that had taken part, so the organizers and festival volunteers and audience didn't know what to expect, it was daring of me, or dam right crazy, but the opportunity came to me and I embraced it. I did manage to weave in some of my previous preparation about the story of the building and its journey back into the hands of the current custodians, creating a cleansing ritual from bad energies, carrying burnt charcoal from Qammar's performance, symbolically connecting the two. I had no idea what would happen, it was all done live and thankfully there was some paint I could pour over my body.
I managed to run another workshop using communication exercises, again it was intense, a reasonable number of people turned up. I kept having to adjust the time and actually shortened it as some people had to leave in the early afternoon. But for those who did stay on I carried on the workshop outside over the park. It was nice just working with two people in the end and I felt the work became quite deep, touching upon some raw emotions.
The festival was rich in diversity of performances, theatre, music as well as another live art pieces that I witnessed. The exhibitions were engaging, the whole atmosphere of the festival was intoxicating with life, everyone who came to perform or to be performed to, embraced it with the experience with an open heart. I was one of the few people that wasn't with an Embassy or belonged to a group, so people I think didn't really know what to do with me, it seemed I spent a lot of time at the Memorial centre as people disappeared to various venues. I had no idea how to get to places and was very dependant on the volunteers who were working non stop like everyone else in the festival. But I enjoyed spending hours exploring the building and taking my time to look at art. I could have just gone off but I wanted to respect the organizers as I don't think they would want me to go missing. I certainly stood out with my Mohawk and attracted a little crowd.
The magnitude of the amount of visual information to absorb was immense, which I relished in. I decided one day I had enough of hanging around in the hotel to organize a car and head off to explore some of the city as all I had seen was hotel rooms and the performance venues, I hadn't actually got to visit any of the sites of Islamabad, apart at the beginning where we were all taken to a restaurant up in the mountains. Sadly on the way back one of the passengers threw up in the mini bus, it did add a bit of excitement!
I was touched by the kindness of many of the workers, the organizers, though overwhelmed by people wanting my whats app number, which I said didn't work as I didn't know who was who, so I did tread with some caution while being polite. I watched the performance of my new friend Qammar who actually teaches fashion, but here he was doing his first live art performance, being a trans shaman and using hand made voodoo dolls. I have to say this to me seemed quite challenging and risk taking in dominantly Muslim country.
Here is some information from the The Express Tribune about Shamanism:
The description wasn't far off what I had witnessed in the performance.
GILGIT:The very mention of Gilgit-Baltistan conjures up images of majestic mountains, amazing glaciers and diverse wildlife. But this remote scenic region is also home to small community of high-mountain people who practice Shamanism, locally called Danyalism. Little is known about this ancient spiritual practice to the outside world. The practitioners, called Danyals, inhale the smoke of burning juniper branches, dance to a special music, enter into ecstatic trances, drink blood from a freshly severed goat’s head and converse with ‘spirits’ to find solution to the problems of the people
Potograph above is the performer Qammar Abbas during his trance state ritual, and no he did not drink goats blood. (You have to imagine the audio sound of the city in the background, this was being performed by a busy main road, also with prayers being sung, while Qammer not only pierced the air with his voice but the dolls with needles.
This was a group effort, a lot of people were involved in the making of the dolls but also a team around Qammar realised the performance. For me this is what I do full time, but really respected someone who has never identified themselves as a live art performance artist and also to take on such a challenging topic, which had a political background to it about the women of Kashmir .
I found an article in the https://pakobserver.net/plight-of-women-of-kashmir/ (Pakistan Observer) Worth a full read, here is two paragraphs from the article written by Raja Muhammad Sajjad Khan The writer is a PhD (Law) Scholar at IIU, Islamabad
"Plight of woman of Kashmir"
"IN every armed conflict women are soft target. Women are directly or indirectly victim of occupation and human rights violations. Women in India-occupied Jammu and Kashmir have been facing human rights violations since 1947 but from 1989 they are suffering a lot. From January 1989 to 29 February 2020 in IOJK 95,506 civilians have been killed and 22,911 women were widowed. Occupational forces are systematically targeting women and enjoying impunity. Indian occupational forces are using rape and molestation of women in IOJK as weapon of war. Mostly rape cases passed unnoticed or unreported. From January 1989 to 31 January 2020 in IOJK 11,178 cases of rape and molestation were reported."
"Women of Kashmir are facing rape, killing, torture, inhuman treatment and violation of their every right. Rape is war crime and also crime against humanity but countries claiming themselves as champions of human rights are busy in their financial interests and politics. International community should take notice of these human rights violations and should change its double standards."
This is certainly something totally unexpected to have come across such a powerful performance, I totally had an infinity with Qammar being the only other performance artist around, good to have a companion in the arts. We are hoping to team up in 2021 IAF to collaborate on a joint cultural performance and are regular contact via the internet.
Along with many other artists and organisers from the festival we received personal invitations to attend an afternoon tea at the president resident by Dr Arif Alvi the president of Islamic Republic of Pakistan and Begum Samina Alvi. This was an amazing experience I was overwhelmed, also unfortunately I was not feeling well, but still attended, every artist stood up and spoke on behalf of their country and I was almost forgotten about not intentionally, but when I did speak I ended up in tears, I was overwhelmed with emotion and being ill made me more hypersensitive.
Being in a lot of smoking environments didn't help with my Asthma, but I never complained, I was grateful to be in Islamabad. We weren't allowed to photograph but I only have one image that someone sent me waiting to meet the president, mohawk well spiked up!
Even now I am still discovering the many other things that happened at the festival, there was so much it was impossible to try to attend everything. All the countries that took part and local artists really engaged with the local culture. I met some new friends whom I am still in contact with today. Because of COVID the festival was cancelled last year, I did try and suggest a digital version. IAF put on live performance most weekends, jamming sessions as well as invited guests from all over Pakistan, so they are still able to keep up with some form of presence.
I met so many artists from all over the world one of them was Peter Bussain a photographer/film maker who was exhibiting his photographs of Trans in New York, which has now been published. Amongst the local art being exhibited unexpectedly you stumbled across amazing images of woman, until that is you read the biography about the images and what they embody, incredibly strong stuff, being shown in a Muslim country.
The organizers obviously felt it was worth taking risks with a diverse range of subjects normally taboo in Pakistan. While the glitz and the glamour of some of the theatrical performances getting a lot of coverage it is performances like Qammars and Photographs of Trans in New York certainly were throwing some political punches. But quietly present among the art of Jamal Sha with his figures that are based on a physical punishment in Pakistan. I know little of it, but did try to attempt to hold my ankles in the position that people had to endure for hours, and I couldn't even achieve it for two minutes.
About Peters book:
'Trans New York' Seeks to Immortalize Transgender People through Portraiture
In the new book Trans New York, published by Apollo Publishers on June 2, photographer Peter Bussian spotlights, through portraits, the transgender community living throughout New York City’s five boroughs. Bussian photographed approximately 60 different trans New Yorkers across the gender spectrum, from trans women and men to non-binary people, across the 50 photos included in Trans New York. The trans people photographed for the book are of different ages, come from different backgrounds, and express themselves in unique ways—quite literally showing a different picture of transgender people and the transgender community as a whole than many people have in their heads.
Above Peter during a talk on the left hand side in Islamabad.
In slide show bellow you will see images of Jamal's figures.
Here is a transcription of my speech at the PNCA "Pakistan National Council of the Arts"
Transcript of talk by the British artist Spike Mclarrity at the IAF19 (Islamabad Art Festival)
at the PNCA with the First Lady Samina Alvi Friday of Pakistan 2019
Thank you for the invitation to attend the IAF (Islamabad International Art Festival) Jamal Sha has been a fantastic host. I am grateful for the opportunities he has given me and also the opportunity to meet people from all over the world as well as other artists from Islamabad and also from all over Pakistan.
The art festival has been produced with such a high standard that I have never come across, as a British artist I have travelled all over the world, but mainly perform in Asia, from China, Philippines and Japan, as well as all over Europe attending many different art festivals.
Jamal Sha the standard you have created is extraordinary and you have certainly shown dedication to make this festival happen.
When I attended one of the music performances I sat there realising how extraordinary this event was, and that Jamal and his dedicated team had managed to bring together a high standard of performances from many different practices from all over the world.
I can only describe it like having a meal that has many spices, some hot, some bland but somehow the organisers have managed to create a taste that everyone can experience, some for the first time.
I am touched by the dedicated team of volunteers that have been looking after myself and artists attending the festival has been faultless.
I have been educated from many artists including the artwork currently shown at the PNCA . I am humbled by the immense organisation that has been involved in getting people to Islamabad, not just the artists but also the artwork that is on show throughout the festival.
For myself I pray that I leave Pakistan transformed and changed by the Islamabad art festival. I want to return to the UK and say to the British council that now there is a door open to the art festival, we have had British artists attending, so now let’s getting moving and lets us embrace the Islamabad Art Festival in Pakistan.
(Translated from film in my own archive, though tided up some words as I was ad-libbing. as I was asked to talk ten minutes beforehand!)
The whole experience was just incredible, I am still filtering it, even writing this blog I realised there is so much more to say, so many more stories to tell it will be impossible. I will try and do some very short version, as there were so many performances I want to share and discuss, but I feel I have jammed a lot into this blog, though its taken over a year to write, at last and finally I am pleased to get it together.
Jamal and his close team of co-organizers were just amazing, the dedication was faultless, after all this was an historic moment for Islamabad holding such a festival of the arts. The closing ceremony blew my mind as I was given an unexpected award to acknowledge my performance "Behind the mask of white rabbit is a Shaman" After ten years of performing on the International festival scenes, this was a first.
"THANK YOU AIF19"
I will leave you with the image bellow, such a happy bunny!
Spike Mclarrity is a duration based conceptual performance artist.