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Art treasures get sunburnt


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ISLAMABAD, July 1: Art helps a country earn ‘soft image’. But, unfortunately, for Pakistan that image shrivels this summer as a merciless sun beat down on art galleries across the country.

“Extreme temperatures, and sudden changes from cool to hot, however slight, harm artworks inside the galleries. This has been so in the galleries across the country,” confided a curator in the National Art Gallery (NAG) in Islamabad where the damage is palpable.

A keen eye can spot a shade of crack, chip or wrinkle appearing on some canvases on display in the premier art gallery of the country.

Even if the air-conditioning is not suffering from loadshedding, visitors to NAG these days start sweating when they reach Gallery 9 on the top floor. On the ground floor, heat seemingly seeps through the walls facing the sun burning outside. At all levels, gallery managers wear worried looks, but feel helpless about the toll the heat is taking on the paintings and other works in their care.

However, all the worries cannot be heaped at the Nature. NAG had been open just a few days in 2007 when a German conservationist drew attention that its galleries facing the sun directly needed de-humidifiers to provide temperature-controlled environment to their displays. They are dysfunctional now.

And for the last five years only one chiller has been struggling to keep the entire NAG structure cool as the other one broke a few days after the gallery opened.

As the sun turns plants yellow and brown outside the NAG, inside telltale signs of deterioration creep on the precious art by some of the finest painters of the country. These include the works of Saeed Akhtar, a leading exponent of visual arts whose portrait of the Quaid, hangs behind the chair of the Speaker in the National Assembly, and Khalid Iqbal whose landscapes are like nature’s screensavers.

Wrinkling and stretching of the canvas is visible in Saeed Akhtar’s Self Portrait and his work Ishaq Shore in Gallery 7 on the 2nd floor.

Works by Collins David, respected as a master contemporary artist, Lubna Agha, whose art has invoked dialogue between the modern-abstract and the traditional forms and practices of Islamic paintings, and the painter, instructor, promoter and patron of arts Ali Imam, besides several others, are also under attack by Nature’s elements.

Sadequain’s recently restored wall-size murals that decorate Gallery 9 on the top floor are at risk too from surface wounds - that is chipping and wrinkling of paint.

The month of June was a nightmare for the gallery managers when water supply to NAG broke down. “The gallery was without cooling for almost 30 days. The space was like a pressure cooker,” said one of the senior officials of the NAG, explaining the chiller consumed 1,000 litres of water every hour.

Air-conditioners operated briefly between 11am and 4pm when the galleries required a constant temperature of 25 to 27 degrees, and humidity 30 to 35 percent at all times.

The country’s finest gallery was so run down that when a fire broke out in the NAG auditorium three weeks ago - ignited perhaps by a careless guest’s cigarette, the gallery had all the gear but no water to put it out. Luckily, the fire department became handy before any serious damage.

The gallery has roughly three hours to fill up tanks when CDA opens the water supply between 1pm and 4pm every day. “The water level is still one foot below the dead level where it cannot be pumped if there is an emergency,” a senior official explained.

Director General Pakistan National Council of the Arts, who sits in the NAG building, did not respond to these concerns. Instead, the official passed on Dawn’s queries to Visual Art Director of NAG, Musarrat Naheed Imam, to answer.

“The fire proved a wake up call for the administrators to pay attention to lack of resources,” she said, claiming the NAG was “doing best” despite the loadshedding and water concerns.

“We have one of the best and well maintained collections because we are keeping track,” she said, pointing to the restoration and preservation facilities of the galleries.

However, she conceded that lack of resources had caused some damage to the treasure house of art.

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