May issue 2009

By | Art | Arts & Culture | People | Q & A | Published 15 years ago

If there is any one Pakistani individual among the current crop of art dealers and collectors who best embodies the spirit of international contemporary art, it is Hammad Nasar, co-founder of Green Cardamom, an artists’ initiative in London.

In Karachi recently for Cardamom’s ambitious undertaking, on the theme of Partition and identity, ‘Lines of Control’ — a three-exhibition series held in London, Dubai and Karachi — Nasar spoke to Newsline about art from South Asia making waves in the global market and Green Cardamom’s role in promoting and selling it.

Q:  How do you go about choosing artists for exhibitions?

A: Firstly, it is not just me who chooses. Over the past two years, we have built a curatorial team comprising Nada Raza, Leyla Fakhr and Anita Dawood, who co-founded Green Cardamom with me. We are all fairly independent thinkers and bring to the table our own ways of critique.

For me, the exhibition never comes first. I am inspired, intrigued, seduced or touched by a body of work.  For example, ‘Karkhana’ was a full-fledged exhibition conceived and organised by artist Imran Qureshi. I wanted to capture in a book, the process that had led to the six artists creating 12 collaborative paintings. Discussions around the project set off a collaborative between museums, academics, artists and curators which led to another type of exhibition — ‘Karkhana: A Contemporary Collaboration.’

On the other hand, ‘Beyond the Page’ was a UK-based exhibition that developed out of an argument with Imran Qureshi, Rashid Rana, Hamra Abbas and Anna Sloan among others, about the status of miniature artists who were already working loosely within the framework of the miniature to create innovative work.

But things are never so clear-cut. We could not say no to working with someone who could paint like Ali Kazim; it was just a gut reaction to the strength of his work.

If there is one thing that unites the artists we work with, it is a combination of great craft (whether drawing, sculpture, photography or filmmaking) and an ability to engage the mind (through conceptual rigour, psychological explorations or the quirkiness of their views).

Q:  How did you get involved in the business of art?

A: I took my first art history lessons in evening classes while I was training to be an accountant in London, around 18 years ago. Throughout my various earlier careers, I always maintained an interest in the arts, briefly working as a film critic, writing the occasional review, and even curating a show of my mother’s watercolours.

The big push came when the artist Usman Saeed approached me to help him get a show in London. I helped arrange an exhibition at the Royal College of Arts in 2003, followed by a silent auction that raised funds for The Citizens Foundation. From his share of the proceeds, Saeed managed to do an MFA at the RCA. This demonstrated to me that the lack of suitable platforms was holding back young Pakistani artists from realising their full potential.

I was also doing a part-time post graduate course at Goldsmiths College at that point, with a focus on curatorial practice and post-colonial visual culture. My research was on contemporary miniature and my thesis morphed into the catalogue essay for the Karkhana publication.

Q: How do you define Green Cardamom’s mission?

A: Green Cardamom is an international arts organisation that works on a not-for-profit basis to develop visual arts projects in partnership with museums, galleries, academic institutions and artists to promote an Indian Ocean-centric view of the art world.

Too often, ‘international’ is used to describe a Euro-American viewpoint hovering somewhere mid-Atlantic. We are trying to help forge a different meaning of ‘international’ for the art world — with its centre in the Indian Ocean. With that focus comes an opportunity to work with artists and tackle issues that may not be fashionable in the Euro-American art world.

Secondly, we are not a profit-maximising entity. For the past two years we have been partly supported by the London-based Rangoonwala Foundation, a philanthropic institution with its roots in Pakistan, and have one more year of committed funding. While the foundation has been unbelievably generous and supportive, we cannot rely on their never-ending support and want to be self-sustaining for most, if not all, our activities. The primary way we are looking to do that is through running a commercial gallery programme, both to showcase the work of artists we work with and to develop curatorial projects that can grow into full-fledged museum shows. Our target is to have our costs fully funded by our gallery operations by the time the three-year support from the foundation runs out.

For individual artists, we have supported the production of new work which may not be commercially viable, for example, Hamra Abbas’s entry into the Istanbul Biennial festival or Sophie Ernst’s ‘Home’ project. In addition, in partnership with Vasl and Gasworks, we have also started an annual residency in London for Pakistani artists. Over the last two years we have invited curators from the Tate, Whitechapel, Arnofini, Ikon and MIMA to be part of the final selection process.

Our aim is broad and holistic. We certainly want to help develop the market but we also want to create a bridge to help artists find a wider audience and provide younger artists with opportunities to develop their careers and practice.

Q:  Green Cardamom focuses on South Asian modern and contemporary art. What makes you maintain this focus?

A: Most of us are from South Asia. What we are striving towards is a world-view that comes from South Asia but is not simply celebrating everything South Asian. We are also working with artists from the Middle East, Australia, Europe and the US, and will seek to develop these connections through group shows.

Q:  Does your interest and knowledge in the history of modern Pakistani art help in a better understanding of contemporary art? How do you view the current crop of Pakistan’s artists?

A: I am not trained as an art historian but I am certainly a student of art history. I firmly believe that to understand the present moment one needs to be aware of its history. I am also a victim of the impulse that grips most critics, curators, writers and art historians, who think they are living in the ‘golden age,’ where art is so much better than anything else.

The younger group of artists have already shown the potential to match their peers. I am willing to bet that, measured only in terms of their artistic achievements, (i.e. not as institution builders), they will eclipse the artists we refer to as the ‘masters’ in Pakistan.

Q:  As a gallerist, you seem to have paid close attention to the art market infrastructure in the region. And last year, Rashid Rana and Ali Kazim commanded unprecedented prices at auctions. How do you explain this market acceptance?

A: Being a gallerist is only one of my hats. I describe myself as a curator first, writer second and gallerist third. And that, perhaps, gives you an idea of how I see my priorities.

The art market infrastructure is significant, especially in a society like ours, where there is no credible government support and no museum-going culture. Very few people see art as a cultural expression, and most view art only in commercial galleries. Hence, commercial galleries take on a disproportionate role as arbiters of taste. This distorts the importance of money in the consideration of what is ‘good’ or ‘important’ art. This distortion has only increased with the international auction houses discovering Pakistan on the heels of bigger markets like India and the Middle East.

Rashid Rana was producing great art 10 years ago, when not a single auction house had heard of him.  Rashid’s works that failed to find buyers in Karachi at Rs 15,000 five years ago, were just as great then as they are now, when they are commanding prices in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

These auction records are a result of the spectacular rise in the Indian art market. By virtue of showing in India, and being recognised as part of that scene, Rashid has benefited from their huge interest. But the Indian art market bubble has now been punctured.

While Kazim has certainly enjoyed great success, financial and critical, in his still young career, he has chosen not to be part of the auction circuit. He is in the collections of the V&A Museum and Queensland Art Gallery, and has already had a mid-career survey show at Cartwright Hall — and he is not even 30.

Art history is not written in auction houses. And most artists care more about their place in art history than about their place in the rich lists. No one takes on the challenge of becoming an artist as a way to make a fast buck.

Q:  What’s your advice to Pakistani artists on the current art scene?

A: Pakistan’s art scene has been lucky in that it never reached the giddy heights of the art scene in India, where voracious demand has seen even some first-class artists produce third-rate work, and where artists would do a show a month all over the world and sell their future productions in advance, for cash. With the current global economic collapse, it is unlikely that Pakistan would go down that road. Recession is when art becomes better!

Q:  In spite of a trend of recession in the art market globally, the only thing seemingly doing well in Pakistan is art. What is your take on contemporary miniature art, and why do you think it sells?

A: Contemporary miniature was my introduction to the art world, though  I do not subscribe to the idea that everything on the wasli is fantastic.

As to why it sells, it is produced by people with tremendous skill in drawing, and can be appreciated by a much wider audience. It is quite often small in size and can thus find a home anywhere. But, above all, it sells because people have seen sheer talent and success borne out of this practice.

Q:  Green Cardamom has been accused of escalating the prices of contemporary Pakistani art by making it international, depleting the local market and depriving the local collector. Comment.

A: Firstly, we are not trying to raise prices randomly. Instead, we are trying to find the right prices for the artists we work with. Quite often, the biggest complaints come from people who have made a small fortune by buying works at cheaper prices locally, and then selling them for several times that price, internationally. By trying to maintain one set of prices we have certainly annoyed them, but this also means that the artists have been able to benefit a lot more. If we can have international bankers earn international salaries while being based in Pakistan, what makes artists different?

Art is not just a consumable luxury good. It is also a free public good that can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in it. Nothing stops people from going to see shows. We are adamant that work must be seen in Pakistan.

Lastly, art buyers are not usually people on subsistence incomes scratching for a living. Buying art has always been and remains the prerogative of a very small percentage of society. In Pakistan, they will continue to be the same people who get their toilet fittings from Dubai, and spend fortunes on bridal wear. In fact, we arranged Ali Kazim’s exhibition in India, and despite the high prices many of the buyers at the India show were Pakistanis!

It is a fact that most artists we work with now demand prices that are beyond my budget. But that only means I collect less, yet try to get outstanding works.

The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. He is the current managing editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, a bi-monthly science and technology magazine.