Behind Yaseen's barbers shop on Bethnal Green Road, London, UK

  • Barber shop language class
    Title : Barber shop language class
  • Boundary wall intervention, Karachi Photo by Karen Mirza
    Title : Boundary wall intervention, Karachi Photo by Karen Mirza
  • Roadside shave, Karachi, Pakistan Photo by Naiza Khan
    Title : Roadside shave, Karachi, Pakistan Photo by Naiza Khan
  • Saddar at night after a flash flood, photo by Brad Butler
    Title : Saddar at night after a flash flood, photo by Brad Butler
  • Yaseen Hairdressers, Bethnal Green, London Photo by Brad Butler
    Title : Yaseen Hairdressers, Bethnal Green, London Photo by Brad Butler

Review By Josephine Breese

The Museum of Non Participation overturns the conventions of the four-walled museum as we know it, offering a compelling alternative more suited to our contemporary experience. On the initiative of collaborative partners Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, artistic practice becomes a viewer-centric exercise in context and communication.

The power of language and dialogue serve as the axis for The Museum, as indicated by the riddle of its title. The traditional museum is overturned in favour of a new, complex solution. Accepted understanding of the museum as a specific, physical site for interaction collides with the notion of Non Participation. The term’s implications deny the museum’s original function. In its place, The Museum of Non Participation does not argue its own definition or boundaries, but stands as an inclusive forum for reassessment and creativity.

Much discussion of The Museum of Non Participation has focused on its identity. What is it’ How does it function’ Where is it’ These queries are best answered through its enterprises. Unique to individual relationships with the initiative and paradoxically dependent on participation, The Museum of Non Participation is a cumulative and experiential project. Standing against the formal traditions of art, The Museum is a state of encounter. It is a presence developed and challenged through contributions to its voice.

Conceived in 2007, the ever-expanding Museum of Non Participation was established to initiate and facilitate a dialogue addressing the derogatory western view of Pakistan through our media. This is no light undertaking. Pakistan is a country ravaged by violence and corruption with a pressing need for substantial international understanding as opposed to inflammatory political and journalistic rhetoric. Butler and Mirza found a methodical strategy for tackling this ambitious task in a broad range of activities and events including workshops, residencies, interventions, film, publications and classes in both Karachi and London. Purposely seeking a cross-section of the public in both countries to participate, The Museum’s reach is representative of a diversity of opinions, giving voice to unlikely combinations of individuals.

In its most recent manifestation, The Museum of Non Participation took on a physical form for a month from 25th September - 25th October. Housed behind Yasseen Hairdressers on Bethnal Green Road, the distinctive venue held The Museum’s Urdu/English language classes, free and open to all, since October 2008. Visitors accessed The Museum’s temporary home through the barber’s shop, past smiling and seemingly unperturbed clients with business continuing as usual. Following the regular language classes and The Museum’s collaboration with The Jang, an Urdu/English daily newspaper, on a substantial insert relating to The Museum, Butler and Mirza’s project is gaining momentum in Bethnal Green. This gradually emerging community is a local example of The Museum’s aims that will last beyond the allocated month.

A programme of salons saw a complement of journalists, writers, curators, activists and the artists introducing themes for discussion. Debate and communal activities, such as workshops, poetry readings and language classes ensued, pivoting on The Museum’s essential concerns and motivations. Visitors were constructively brought together to address divisive issues at the heart of The Museum’s focus such as politics, violence and terror. This new stage in The Museum’s life reflected its progressive impetus, with difficult topics raised, deconstructed and familiarised through communication.

The Museum operates on subjective and shared experience, but its history can be explored online and exists in various forms, as exhibited behind Yasseen’s Hairdressers in relevant articles, specific essays and the artists’ films. Butler and Mirza act as unobtrusive guardians of The Museum, allowing its direction to grow in response to the conditions of participation. In keeping with their radical model for the museum, art is not a sealed or sanctified activity. The Museum is a conceptual host to interlinked and sustained projects that must be considered in their own right as well as indicating a future of imaginative plans for fulfilling its aims.

Press Release

‘London and Karachi: both are cities of my imagination, made real only through mortgages, the price of a meal and quality of domestic help.’
- Mohammed Hanif

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler
conceived The Museum of Non Participation in 2007 when - during the Pakistani Lawyers movement in Islamabad - they viewed the protests and subsequent state violence from a window in The National Art Gallery. Since then they have worked extensively in London and Karachi with street vendors, the cultural elite, architects, lawyers, artists, housing activists and writers, pursuing ideas connected to their position that day and how our lives in one space have implications on another. The Museum of Non-Participation aims to interrogate the western media representation of Pakistan as a rogue nuclear state suffering from conflict, extremism, natural disaster and sporadic martial law and has evolved as a newspaper supplement, an exhibition, a film and a diverse programme of film screenings, language classes, readings, a poetry symposium, makeovers, soap-opera script-writing workshops, talks and discussions.

On Sunday 20 September, the Museum of Non Participation launches as a special 12-page Urdu and English edition supplement in Pakistan’s international broadsheet The Daily Jang ( with contributions from architect Arif Hasan, language teacher Hasin Sheikh, artist Suzanne Lacey, London media lawyer Razwana Akram, corporate lawyer, television host and columnist Ayesha Tammy Haq, civil society activist Naeem Sadiq, Karachi advocate Faisal Siddi, Karachi-based artists Auj A. Khan and Naiza Khan, architects Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, architect, curator and writer Eyal Weizman, John ‘Pancho Villa’ Phillips and others.

From 25 September Mirza and Butler bring The Museum of Non Participation to the streets of Bethnal Green in a temporary museum headquarters located in an empty storage space behind Yaseen Hairdressers. The space will be a living archive, including a sound installation from recordings at Urdu language classes; video works documenting their performances and interventions in London and Pakistan; photographs of a theatrically lit wealthy area of Karachi called Unbuilt Cities; a video library of Pakistani soap operas; and an assortment of printed ephemera that Mirza and Butler have assembled throughout the project.

The Museum of Non Participation ‘headquarters’ also hosts a diverse programme of events including: an informal discussion on the international role and power of the media lead by award winning investigative journalist Nick Davies; a poetic symposium led by playwright Yasmin Whittaker Khan and Rukhsana Yasmin; a discussion on the politics and ethics of museum and gallery collections by artist and curator Alan Jelinek; an imagining of The Museum of Non Participation as a real institution by critic and curator Fatos Ustek, and an investigation into the history of non participation through art historical, political and literary contexts by London Printshop founder John Phillips. The programme also includes an intimate film screening of the first ever Pakistani vampire movie Zinda Laash (1967); Lollywood-style makeovers accompanied by chai; discussions on Pakistani politics hosted by the owner of a local newsagent; Urdu/English language classes, script-writing workshops to develop a pilot for a television soap opera based on Pakistani life in the UK, and local history expert Harold Neville leading a walk around the East End.

The Museum of Non Participation culminates on the Southbank with the London Film Festival world premiere of Mirza and Butler’s film The Exception and the Rule (2009/37min). Shot primarily in Karachi, the film frames everyday activities within a period of civil unrest incorporating performances to camera, public interventions and observations in a politically themed work.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler have been working together for ten years; their practice centres on collaboration and dialogue. This manifests itself in a multi-layered practice of filmmaking, drawing, installation, photography, performance, publishing and curating.

The Museum of Non Participation has been produced by Artangel.

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