December issue 2006

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 18 years ago

Exploring issues of personal and national identity and ways in which the clay traditions of the past can inform and inspire contemporary work is a means of locating important new directions for ceramic art in Pakistan. The ASNA Clay Triennial, a platform where dialogue between tradition and modernity has been initiated with the express purpose of creating a new ceramic presence, held its third clay extravaganza, at the Karachi Art Council’s Ahmed Parvez Gallery last month. A two-week art event, this triennial included an International Ceramics Exhibition with the participation of 53 artists from Pakistan as well as 12 other countries, a two-day seminar, workshops and a Kumhar (Potters) Mela.

Inaugurated a few months ago, the ongoing “Tale of the Tile” exposition at Mohatta Palace resurrects the magnificent ceramic traditions of Pakistan to remind us of the grandeur that was. Post-independence art history informs us that the subsequent interplay of traditions and twentieth century sensibilities needed to effect a transition of clay craft into fine art, did not evolve meaningfully in the last 50 years and the ceramic genre had lapsed into near dormancy. While NCA at Lahore boasted a ceramic faculty manned by pioneers like Mian Salahuddin and the husband wife duo of Talat and Dabir, enrolment was meagre and production insignificant. The mega city of Karachi fared no better as it had no ceramic curriculum till recently, and the medium languishing in the backwaters failed to create any ripples. Awareness levels, however, were jogged in the 1990s and ASNA was one of the positive initiatives that emerged from the flurry of activity. Today the ASNA Initiative is the new voice of clay. By questioning the tradition that ceramic forms must be utilitarian, and by exhibiting non-functional sculptural works instead that give the medium a new freedom of expression, ASNA has opened the door to experiment and innovation as the way forward.

asna-clay-2-dec06Inviting ceramists from other countries enables local artists to see foreign works in the flesh and exchange information and ideas with the guest artists. The impact of such exposures is far more comprehensive than just referencing through films, slides, videos, books and magazines. Meaningful results can be obtained by absorbing new influences, not through copying styles but through changing attitudes. Imitation is not the best form of pottery. Real achievement will come when we liberate the minds of ceramic artists to be more ambitious, and to use tradition as a ladder not a prison — and shows like the current Triennial Exhibition are telling indicators of changing trends and mindsets.

Young ceramists in the show critiqued social mores through provocative statements. Kaif Ghaznavi’s large clay scissors clawing at embryonic vessel forms were harsh and disturbing. Equating women with the vessel image, she spoke of severe gender suppression. Inflated egos and misconceptions, bolstered by false media hype, have destroyed Man’s sense of balance. Munawar Ali tried to capture this apparent displacement by fragmenting his clay figures. His series of segmented forms signified division, confusion and breakdown of Man. Sadia Salim’s cone-shaped forms also spoke of balance, the kind that is achieved with co-existence and tolerance for others. An experiment in atmospheric wood firings, her pointed, seemingly (un) balanced pieces emphasised the need for giving space to others to find their own bearings.

asna-clay-3-dec06Raania Durrani’s Kiln Gods, tiny mythical icons, were an interesting reflection on the crucial psychological bonding ceramists have with the kiln. Shazia Mirza’s dark Raku figures, capturing the antics of her eight-year-old, were spontaneous and expressive. Among the few ceramic installations on display, Riffat Alvi’s Hunger Bowl series was a pot shot at the uneven divide between the haves and have-nots. She evoked the sentiment of greed and the inability to share by juxtaposing lavish ornamental table structures with empty, unglazed terracotta bowls amidst a wasteful scattering of grain.

In the foreign category participant, Christine Michael’s ceramic ware beckoned engagement. A graduate in Industrial Design, she had indulged in a wild and creative assimilation of ideas and techniques. Using Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode to Salt’ as her point of reference, she had interwoven the message of infinitude hidden in this ‘crystal of the sea’ with scanned images of her own previous sculptures and her technique of salt glazing. Excerpts of the salt song, imprinted on the dinner plates amidst splashes of sea water and images of sea shells, evoked Neruda’s homage to this ‘piquant powder sprinkling vital light upon our food.’ Vessels by Manisha Bhatachariya, also from India, were interesting examples of space manipulation. Instead of scraping the insides to create hollow interiors of the bowls, she had left the clay intact. No longer vessels now, but compact objects, she used them as a canvas to delineate her impressions of river courses, trails of desert sands or the patterns of parched earth. Inspired by classical pottery, the forms created by Michael Rice stood out on account of their textural dexterity and clean, clear contours. The basketry weave, meticulously interpreted in clay, was the apparent source of fascination in the ceramic vessels of Rimantas Sahalaushas from Lithuania. For the sculptor, however, the deliberate use of primitive expression was an assertion of the right to inner choices in an overwhelming complex global environment. Traditional motifs on our pottery platters were resourced very imaginatively by Iraida Cano from Spain. Her elegant floret of ceramic tile petals encased in an iron base was stamped with Pakistani folk patterns which she had accessed during a workshop in Karachi.

asna-clay-4-dec06While the art was exciting, the show had some obvious shortcomings. The Arts Council is not exactly the right venue for an international show, but the display too was not suitably arranged for the occasion — ASNA has fared better on previous occasions. The display was much too large for the gallery hall and pieces placed in close proximity to each other lost on impact. Participants could have been restricted to a limited number of entries to ensure focused viewing and an obvious absence of price tags at the opening hampered quick sales. This was subsequently rectified.

When rooting for ceramics as an art form, its utilitarian aspect should not be overlooked. Instituting academic courses in industrial ceramics can significantly augment the genre’s profile because triennials alone cannot ensure the genre its due status. ASNA has honoured senior ceramists like Mian Salahuddin and Scherazade Alam but there are still others in the ceramic hierarchy with considerable contributions like Masood Kohari, Talat and Dabir.

The second segment of the Triennial, a paper-reading seminar and dialogue, approached ceramics on multiple fronts. While speakers elaborated mainly on the personal and the technical, other linkages of ceramics with archaeology, environment and heritage architecture, traditional history and contemporary ceramics were also discussed.

Keynote speaker, Canada-based potter Scherezade Alam’s narration, Aik Dafa Ka Zikr Hai (Once upon a time), deserves special mention on account of its impassioned, theatrical delivery. Her life is as intimately one with clay as the laali (red) inside her pots. Australian ceramist Gwyn Pigott’s reticent discourse, surprisingly, was also very endearing as she delved into her mysterious fascination with simply shaped objects. Inspired by the still life arrangements of minimalist Giorgio Morandi, her own quiet arrangements of milky, long-necked bottles, cups, beakers and bowls articulated internal relationships through subtle variations of tones, shapes and contours. Archaeologist Dr Asma Ibrahim’s paper on pottery finds of Mehargarh, Harappa and Moenjodaro was extremely informative. It was supported by visuals of old vessels and a fascinating array of primitive decoration which just needs to be prised out of history books and infused into contemporary aesthetics.

A Kumhar Bazaar of craft pottery was the last programme of this event.

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