February Issue 2015
The Best of Times
The proverbial worst of times are certainly the best of times for contemporary Pakistani art. In recent years there has been a phenomenal rise in the number of young artists who are working, exhibiting, selling and travelling with striking energy and confidence.
It seems aeons ago that the likes of Shahzia Sikander burst upon the international art scene, and almost single-handedly turned the spotlight on the talent being quietly nurtured in Pakistan. Today, it is the artists who live and work in Pakistan who define contemporary art-making here.
This is not to deny the importance of the Pakistani diasporic artists who have made their reputations internationally. Many of them strive to remain connected, participating in conversations with artists here. Artists like Faiza Butt return regularly to exhibit their work, talk to students and engage with artists and their concerns. Talha Rathore, Saira Wasim, Tazeen Qayyum, Anila Qayyum Aga, Ruby Chisti, Khalil Chishti, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Ali Raza and Amin-ur-Rehman have made careers where they live, but also recognise the need to be in dialogue with artists here. The sap in their roots is thus renewed and rings true in their art production that occurs continents away. Bani Abidi, Mariam Suhail and Masooma Suhail live in India, having married Indian artists, defying the searing odds that confront such cross-border relationships. And Bani Abidi and her husband have chosen a third option, a home in Berlin, which serves as ‘no man’s land’ for the moment.
The art diaspora does not imply the remote or the ossified. It is often the site for cross-fertilisation of dialogues, made easy through the Internet. These exchanges can produce tangible or virtual outcomes. Collaborations occur in unexpected ways, such as the now celebrated Kaarkhaana Project, curated by Imran Qureshi, when six artists across three continents assisted by FedEx worked together on 12 paintings. But that is already in the past. Collaborations today happen through curators who reach out through cyberspace to put together exhibitions such as the inaugural exhibition, in September 2014, of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. The Garden of Ideas curated by Sharmini Perera, brought together Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, David Alesworth, Bani Abidi, Atif Khan and Nurjehan Akhlaq in a critically acclaimed show. The individual practice of each artist bore testimony to the divergences present in art-making in Pakistan. It also revealed the vast gap between what the ‘regular’ audience in Pakistan would consider art and the adventurous spirit of the Pakistani artists.
The seminal retrospective (1992-2013) of Rashid Rana’s work at the Mohatta Palace Museum established this quite clearly. The first solo exhibition of this magnitude by a living contemporary artist to be held in Pakistan, the event affirmed two things. Firstly the dynamism of Pakistan’s leading contemporary artist could be shown and explained to an audience who would never have ordinarily been exposed to his work. Secondly, the gap between maker and viewer could be narrowed, if intelligent patronage could take up the challenge. The exhibition which was on for a year from 2013 to 2014 was a tour de force, one of a kind venture in Pakistan’s art history. Rashid Rana is an acclaimed artist whose nationality and commitment to teaching in Lahore are often remarked on in international art circles. It draws attention to what it currently happening locally — the convergence between art and politics with innovative outcomes. Rashid Rana is also one of those artists who have bridged the cross-border divide. The neo-miniaturists were the first to be noticed and patronised in Indian art circles, which has gone a long way in sustaining many young Pakistani artists economically. Rashid Rana is listed among the top 10 artists in the Indian art investors index, who are often oblivious to the passport he carries!
This connection will be underlined in the Venice Biennale 2015, when for the first time there will be a joint India-Pakistan pavilion. This initiative is the brainchild of Feroz Gujral, of the Gujral Foundation. Two artists, who are also the curators, are Rashid Rana and Shilpa Supta. The growing awareness that South Asia as a region needs to build its artistic affinities is manifest in the Dhaka Art Summit. Pakistani artists made a strong group with Risham Syed, Farida Batool among them while Rashid Rana and Shahzia Sikander were definitely in the ‘star’ category at the summit. The award for the best emerging artist at Dhaka went to Ayesha Sultana of Bangladesh, but it was noted that she was a graduate of Beaconhouse National University (BNU) in Lahore!
Art Dubai also provides a venue for such convergences and regional mingling. It also offers the prestigious Abraaj Art Prize. Hamra Abbas was one of the first winners, more recently followed by Risham Syed and Huma Mulji.
As far as awards and prizes go, times have clearly been good for the Pakistani artist. Never mind that the National Awards in the Visual Arts given by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts seem to have fallen by the bureaucratic waysides that Islamabad is so full of. No Shakir Ali Award, no Chughtai Award; outstanding artists seldom appear in the Presidential lists. It was left to the private sector — e.g. the Engro Award — which recognised the genius of sculptor Shahid Sajjad, before he passed away this year. But Pakistani artists have long since given up on state recognition. No matter! Imran Qureshi was Deutsche Bank’s ‘artist of the year’ and this more than made up for the rigor mortis at PNCA. His work was resplendent at the Guggenheim in Berlin, and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He was commissioned to create an on-site installation at the roof-garden at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He lay on his work on ground, next to Bono. Together they looked up at the blue sky above and Imran told the musician about his years at the NCA. That must have been enough satisfaction on its own.
Waqas Khan, the very young Lahore artist, was nominated for the Jamil Prize in 2014; his work is on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. In fact, the international recognition given to Pakistani artists in 2014 is extraordinary. A selection of the Biennale, and Triennale they featured in included Ehsanul Haq and Iqra Toor in the Moscow Biennale, Bani Abidi and Khadim Ali in Documenta, David Alesworth and Mariam Suhail in the Berlin Biennale (one of the most important venues for contemporary art) and Haider Ali Jan and Mehreen Murtaza at the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale. This coming year Risham Syed and Haider Ali Jan will be seen at the Asia Pacific Triennale in Brisbane. Museum shows all over the world have included Pakistani art: Naiza Khan, Waqas Khan, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid… the list is long. The British Museum and the V&A have acquired work by Khadim Ali and Waqas Khan recently. Ali Kazimi’s work has been bought by the Asia Pacific Museum, Pasadena. And works by Shahzia Sikander and Imran Qureshi were acquired by museums much earlier.
It seems ungracious to point out that none of these artists are in the National Gallery collection in Islamabad, nor indeed in the permanent art gallery in Lahore. Mentioning the National Gallery seems perverse in this context, but one has to be restrained from terming it a national disgrace; which it surely is. The gallery’s inspiring inaugural exhibitions in 2007 in its uplifting building are now totally forgotten. Tedious bureaucrats and indifferent ministers have brought it to its knees. The visual arts director, who knew the national collection, has been cast aside and is on the brink of being laid off. The less said about the state of the visual arts programming at PNCA, this year or the next, the better for one’s composure.
By contrast one should focus on some of the most edifying aspects and developments in the past year. Apart from innumerable vibrant and exciting exhibitions hosted by private galleries and art departments in art institutions, several initiatives have given one hope.
The artist’s collective Vasl has been a stimulating presence for many years. Its residencies have nurtured many a young artist. It is therefore a good omen when other sponsors and supporters appear on the scene. The recent Sanat artist residency in Karachi has been well received by young artists for whom it is meant. The Murree Museum artist residency — set up by Saba Khan in memory of her late father Dr Farrukh, who was a indefatigable documenter of Murree’s history and whose dream of a Museum for Muree is yet to be realised — is a fine way to keep his vision intact.
Just happening, is the setting up of an artist-led consultancy ‘White Turban,’ Ambreen Karamat’s effort to bring informed advice to the buyer/collector. The opening reception was a who’s who of art in Lahore, a testament to the vibrancy of the community. The sudden appearance of artist and academic, Iftikhar Dadi, at the well attended soireÃ© was a welcome surprise. In Lahore for a mentoring workshop at LUMS for young art teachers, Dadi spoke of the need to take critical discourse and pedagogy to a new level. The absence of archives, historical research and writing has been a grave impediment to the teaching of art and art history in our context. This is slowly being addressed by, among others, Samina Iqbal, an artist-scholar investigating the Lahore Art Circle for her PhD studies. Simone Wille’s book on modernism in Pakistan has just been published, and several young writers of art are beginning to enrich the sparse body of writing on the subject.
The best of times for art is here and now!