September Issue 2014
The Business of Art
Believe it or not: in this hot, hungry, dangerous, over-populated, unkempt city, Karachi, there is also a growing space of calm and creative-aesthetic upliftment. This is Karachi’s art world, and among a proliferation of enterprises going by the name, are some genuine galleries that now dot the Karachi landscape and provide seasoned art buffs and the young at art some creative food for the soul.
One of the oldest art galleries in Karachi, VM started off as a narrow corridor displaying art supported by the Rangoonwala Trust, and never stopped growing. Now, with three operational wings and two more under construction, it shows no signs of slowing down. You might plan to drop in for 15 minutes and end up there for hours, as there is always a wealth of interesting and varied work on display. Riffat Alvi, curator and an established artist herself, has created a gallery that is a true repository of creativity and learning. VM’s main focus has always been to support students and recent graduates, and it has started a number of initiatives to do so, such as an annual scholarship for young artists at any one of the art schools in the country, frequent lectures by artists and critics to educate art students about old masters and new techniques, and shows — often in collaboration with the British Council, Goethe Institut, and other international organisations — by visiting artists that provide a wealth of information about the international art scene. VM’s ‘Annual Emerging Talent Exhibition,’ which is now in its 13th year, showcases the work of fresh graduates, who are further supported by the ‘Attaining Heights’ event, which takes place every three years, to follow up on the same artists’ progress.
In 1985, Zohra Husain opened Chawkandi in Clifton’s commercial area, bringing art to a whole new generation and spectrum of buyers. After pioneer Ali Imam’s Indus and Bashir Mirza’s Atelier galleries slowly lost their standing — or just shut down — Chawkandi became the go to gallery, and inspired in the process numerous other similar ventures. Initially though, for a long time, there was no viable competitor in the market. So established artists and aspiring ones, both flocked to Husain for a show, while buyers couldn’t get enough because art was increasingly becoming a must-have for the upwardly mobile. This was the only thriving gallery in town offering a large variety of original artwork, ensuring always, some modicum of quality work. Even today, many senior artists exhibit only at Chawkandi.
Canvas is one of Karachi’s busiest galleries that usually holds at least two shows a month, with a focus primarily on contemporary art. Since its inception, the gallery has displayed, among more standard artwork, other work that is sometimes controversial, both thematically and stylistically. Canvas owner Sameera Raja says she attempts to bridge the gap between what patrons “thought art is and what it is now.” The aim is to elicit a reaction: According to Raja, people should leave Canvas feeling angry, sad, moved, revolted, pleased, or “anything, really, as long as they don’t feel indifferent.”
Artchowk began as a project aimed at getting Pakistani art on the internet. Its founders, Shakira Masood and her daughter Camilla Hadi Chaudhary, maintain that the genesis of Artchowk was in the lack of information about local artists and their work that was available off and online. So the mother-daughter duo decided to take matters into their own hands. They began to represent artists online and help local and international clients to build collections virtually. Just a year later, they expanded into physical space as well. The focus of their online and actual gallery is on the work of young, contemporary artists, and often on concept-based shows. Masood, also an artist herself, contends that the message the work carries and its technique supersede its commercial appeal for her. Rather than promoting decorative and popular artists, she says she aims to open “the inner eye” of local audiences to new forms of work. And since ongoing disturbances in Pakistan have significantly stymied the business of art in Pakistan, ergo a new age solution: a virtual gallery.
Noorjehan Bilgrami, proprietor of the gallery, says she wants viewers to leave Koel “feeling enriched.” That they do, and in more ways than one. Koel offers a popular gourmet cafÃ©, a boutique and a leading art gallery all in the same space. Bilgrami has long been working to preserve art and cultural traditions in Pakistan, especially promoting block-printing and fabric-making techniques. In 1990, a small gallery was opened to exhibit artwork, but the project was short-lived as Bilgrami got involved with setting up the Indus Valley School. Koel Gallery restarted in 2009. The art featured here is an eclectic mix of contemporary and traditional work by mid-career or senior artists, and it all feeds into Koel’s raison d’etre: to highlight and preserve heritage, and also to contextualise it in terms of modern, urban life.
The Indus Valley School has been Karachi’s premier art institution for
several years, and the gallery feeds into the culture that it is aiming to create. Tucked away in the basement level of the campus — a well-lit and cheery space — the small gallery aims to educate students by exposing them to great and good art, and also to provide a platform for graduating students about to embark on their
artistic journey in the real world. Alumni are given the gallery space to display their work at the annual alumni exhibition and also at other group shows. After a gallery visit, visitors can explore the campus and also see the students art works in progress.
Ex-banker Abid Merchant has made his long-time passion, art, his career through the Sanat Initiative, which opened this summer. Merchant is especially interested in experimental art and multimedia, and providing opportunities to emerging and mid-career artists. The ambitious project is not yet fully complete, but alongside the gallery will be a cafÃ© and a Pakistani restaurant, with an aim to draw walk-in clientele from the restaurants along with art buffs. The complex is set out over a three-storey structure. Exhibitions will be kept on for longer than the standard time frame for local shows, and each will have a professional catalogue. But what really sets this gallery apart is its annual residency project. For its opening show, the gallery featured works produced in a five-week residency, curated by Muhammad Zeeshan. Shortlisted artists worked together in one space for five weeks and produced some compelling pieces.
What sets the Full Circle gallery apart is its Barnes and Nobles kind of atmosphere. Once there not only can you check out the artwork, you can also pick up a book to read from those available, or request the caretaker/curator to play music from the gallery’s selection while browsing. Full Circle started off as a tribute to artist Tassaduq Sohail in 2012, and his work is certainly one of the gallery’s mainstays. There is, however, an eclectic mix of the work of other artists as well, both established ones and those who entered the art scene more recently.
Faraar Gallery at T2F
At T2F, one of the most happening art and culture venues in the city, you get more than a one-dimensional treat when you attend an art show. Apart from the work of young and often out-of-the box artists, at any given time there will be live music, classes in assorted fields, lectures, writing workshops, film screenings and more at the venue. And there’s also a cafÃ© and a bookstore in the building.
Unicorn announces its presence flamboyantly — the road-blocks leading into the street are painted in bold colors spelling out the gallery’s name. Launched by Seemah Niaz in 2004, the gallery focuses on modern and contemporary South Asian art, and also hosts events like book fairs, documentary screenings and seminars, and additionally produces travelling shows and publications. The work is varied and often there’s one — or more — old master thrown in for good measure.
Mohatta Palace Musuem
Another Karachi landmark is Mohatta Palace, the closest thing we have to a museum. The beautiful, historical building hosts ‘serious,’ comprehensive exhibitions — for example, a recently concluded long-term show of the work of internationally acclaimed artist Rashid Rana, and an ongoing exhibition of rare prints and maps. The shows at Mohatta invite visitors to also explore other forms of art: the labyrinthine building itself with its vintage tile flooring, frescoes, carved doors, and stained-glass windows.
Sadequain Galerie at Frere Hall
For local art aficionados, Frere Hall is the ideal launch-pad for a painterly odyssey. The magnificent building is yet another Karachi landmark, and its vast grounds are ideal to walk around and soak in the city’s heritage. Architecture aside, the gallery at Frere Hall has a fantastic ceiling mural by the master painter himself, in honour of whom the space is named. Closed for renovation, the gallery, an idyllic space with beautiful lighting, was recently reopened to the public, and has since been hosting regular exhibitions by local artists.
In large part due to the fact that art sells, both, for aesthetic reasons and commercial ones given its growing investment value, Karachi has, of late, seen a proliferation of ventures operating, both justifiably and otherwise, as art galleries. While some are true galleries and a few others do have potential, likely to evolve into viable art galleries, others are little less than framers shops posing as art galleries.
Either way, in Pakistan the absence of government support for the arts has led to the galleries becoming much more than exhibition space. These establishments increasingly serve as museums, educators, and sources of financial support for schools and students. Gallery owners contend that their role is to expose artists to the endless possibilities the art world has to offer, to educate the public and train their eye — and, of course, the unstated — to make a pretty profit since most art establishments are ultimately commercial enterprises.
So who frequents the galleries? On opening nights, you are likely to see the same faces everywhere. Art is a luxury, as gallery owners readily agree, and the galleries can only survive because of the patronage of a distinct set of art-lovers, who make up a set client list. However, it is a growing market. Although there are a few genuine art collectors in Pakistan, there is a growing number of nouveau riche customers who recognise the ‘status symbol’ art provides. Hence, they are the ‘must see and be seen’ attendees at art shows. Younger people, starting to look at art as an investment and yuppies who can afford to buy — and even those who can’t, but do, when galleries are compliant in instalments — are also regulars at exhibitions. Art students also visit galleries often.
As to how artists manage to find space to show their work, many galleries have an open-door policy for artists wishing to come in and show their work to the curators, who determine whether a show is viable or not, or whether it merits a solo or group showing. There’s also a relationship between art schools and galleries. Sometimes artists are discovered by schools and referred to assorted galleries, or students with art degrees approach galleries themselves. Unfortunately, some established galleries refuse to even cast an eye on the work of those who are not sure-sellers.
The bottom line, though, is that for one reason or another, the business of art is beginning to redraw past definitions and perceptions of its creators. Hence, the ‘starving artist’ is increasingly becoming a relic of the past.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2014 issue.