October Issue 2013
At the Critics’ Table
The state of art writing and criticism may not be a burning issue in Pakistan but that does not mean it is not an important one. There are few spaces where artists and art writers can come together to discuss critical issues in art writing but, luckily, the Unicorn Gallery is one such place. Held alongside their annual art book fair, the gallery organised a panel discussion this September to discuss how people write and engage with Pakistani art. Moderated by eminent art critic Niilofer Farrukh, the panel comprised Taimur Suri, Quddus Mirza and Rizwanullah Khan who all teach art at various colleges.
The cosy Unicorn Gallery was seated to capacity with both art lovers and artists as they waited patiently for Khan to arrive so that the event could begin. Eventually, Farrukh wisely decided to start the session without him and he finally arrived just in time as Suri and Mirza finished their introductions. Several important points were raised during the session: Suri mentioned how language is a barrier for many students when it comes to writing and reading about art, and that many art students value technical skills over theory. Reiterating the language problem, Mirza added that while most art writing is in English, many of the artists themselves are more comfortable speaking in Urdu. Mirza also stated that often artists don’t read their own reviews and exclaimed rather dejectedly, “We (art critics) are useless!” While Mirza expressed some disappointment with the lack of readership of art criticism, Khan stated he was satisfied with how things are currently and advocated a more personal, instinctive response to art that does not rely on a hierarchy of values established by academics or critics.
Not everyone was in agreement though and one gentleman in the audience pointed out to Khan that be it art or cricket, the more he reads about a topic, the more he appreciates and enjoys it. And artist Taqi Shaheen, also in the audience, must have given some hope to Mirza when he revealed that his art reviews deeply influenced him as an artist.
The panelists and the audience both spoke keenly about art writing but as a whole the discussion did not flow smoothly. Oftentimes Farrukh interrupted the panelists to tell them to wait for their turn when they themselves seemed to be leaning towards a more informal discussion. Also, as a result of the tight space, photographers stood in people’s faces to take pictures and those who arrived late at the event had to stand near the door, even though there could not have been more than 30 people at the event already. Then there was this woman in the audience who, inexplicably, decided to make an appointment with her gynaecologist in the middle of the session. Her faux whispers carried much further than she had thought and, ignoring glares from at least half a dozen people, she continued her phone conversation until one of the organisers finally asked her to hang up.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.