December Issue 2014

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 9 years ago

Located in Old City, Philadelphia, known as America’s most historic square mile, where dozens of art galleries, design showrooms, eclectic fashion boutiques and artisan coffee shops jostle for attention, Twelve Gates Art Gallery is an arts organisation that promotes South Asian art for the local community. Established in 2011, the gallery evolved from a commercial art space in the city, originally set up by Philadelphia-based Pakistani Atif Sheikh — now a full-time curator at Twelve Gates Arts who works during the day for an entertainment/technology firm. Twelve Gates Arts (12G), founded by his wife Aisha Zia Khan in 2011, is a non-profit gallery that showcases emerging artists from South Asia — from the American diaspora and from their home countries — with an aim to display work of social, political, and educational value. Founding board members include art historian and professor of Religious Studies and South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania,  Jamal J. Elias, and Philadelphia-based lawyer Mehrin Masud-Elias, a collector who has been on the boards of several arts organisations in the city.

The gallery has had several exhibitions to date. “We don’t shy away from commercial art or established artists,” says Aisha, “We work with curators, in-house and external, and follow a programme that fits with the mission of 12G, involving the community at all levels. Community involvement comes in the shape of collaborations with other organisations such as local colleges (University of Pennsylvania), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”

I met Aisha on a quick trip to Philadelphia, while on an ongoing visit to Washington D.C. Interest in exploring Pakistani and Diaspora art on the East Coast led me to her gallery, where I learnt that there was no other art space in the city focusing on South Asian and South Asian American Diaspora art, which Aisha emphasises repeatedly, is not an “isolated category of art.” She says, “It goes beyond borders, and none at the scale envisioned by us.”

A regular visitor to the gallery’s exhibitions and openings recently remarked that “of all the other galleries in the vibrant Philadelphia art scene, this is the only space where the exhibitions make me think beyond the skilfully rendered work on the walls. There is always something deeper behind either the work or the curated project as a whole.”

Aisha explains that the ethos of the gallery is to educate through art in a collaborative way, focusing on real issues that confront cultures which are perceived as foreign — usually through the lens of the ‘other.’ Thus the gallery’s work is to highlight varied perspectives through the arts and, in the process, influence minds while providing a prominent venue to express new ideas.

Philadelphia was a place the couple knew well having lived here for several years, and when they found there was no other art gallery focusing on South Asian American Diaspora art they decided to do something about it. “We had no formal training in the business of art,” says Aisha. “How to run a non-profit as a successful business to achieve our goals is something we’re learning today, not just hands-on at the gallery but through formal courses, conferences, symposiums etc. Atif is completing modules on museum studies and non-profit administration at the University of Pennsylvania. We took art classes at college and art centres and this has, in a way, brought us closer together. We would spend hours on end throwing clay on to the potter’s wheel and paint whimsically. We’ve also been collecting art since 2000,” she continues.

Despite this lack of a formal art background, the energy the couple has brought to the business can be seen from the reputation the gallery has gained since its inception. “Philadelphia is a small big city,” says Aisha, “which means that for the fifth largest city in the USA with a seminal art scene, emerging art created by minority artists has fewer presenting options — 12G has been able to put a dent in that trend with its programming.”

Historically, South Asian art patronage in Philadelphia goes back several decades, mainly due to the work of Dr Stella Kramirsch (1898-1993), designated under the broad category as the curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Kramirsch greatly expanded the museum’s holdings from the region as curator of Indian art from 1954 until her death in 1993. “Outside of academic circles, museums, and niche art collector circles, Twelve Gates, in recent times, may well be responsible for putting Philadelphia on the map of contemporary Indian/Pakistani art in the USA and bringing it to the general public on the streets,” says Aisha.

She explains that the easiest part of sustaining a venture like this is that there’s never a dearth of ideas or creative ways of implementing them. “We’re blessed with the right kind of people, always on the lookout for outstanding creative work.” But financing this is where the challenge lies for the gallery. “Constantly writing grants and then waiting patiently for results is the hardest part.”

Twelve Gates has had several solo and group exhibitions featuring an exciting range of work by artists that include New York-based Pakistani Salman Toor, Lahore’s renowned Iqbal Hussain and Mohsin Shafi,  and a young contemporary artist, also from Lahore. The current exhibition on display right now: Readymade: Contemporary Art from Bangladesh (October 3 – November 20) is curated by the well-established Aicon Gallery in New York, arguably the most well-known gallery showcasing Pakistani art in the United States.  “Collaborations are at the core of 12G’s mission,” says Aisha. “We routinely collaborate with Asian Arts Initiative and the Leeway Foundation for the Arts.”

Readymade features nine contemporary artists from Bangladesh who, as the exhibition catalogue states, “collectively explore the complex and interlocking cultural, political, economic and environmental issues currently facing the often paradoxical and rapidly changing society and state of Bangladesh in the new millennium.”

In retrospect, Aisha is satisfied with the gallery’s success and has some ambitious ideas for the future: “Since it began, Twelve Gates has stayed true to its varied programming and done it out of a small space in the best location in the city. One wish is to have a large space for a large studio and living quarters for our soon-to-launch artist’s residencies. All other wishes follow from that. We also have plans to collaborate with various art spaces in Pakistan over the next two years.” More power to their plans.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue

The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline