5th Karachi Literature Festival: Art: a world apart

February 16, 2014


Naiza Khan and Kamila Shamsie -- Courtesy KLF
Naiza Khan and Kamila Shamsie -- Courtesy KLF

For the first time in its five-year history, the Karachi Literature Festival presented a dedicated art section, giving the public free access to talks by leading artists, art critics and prominent figures in the Pakistan art scene, as well as to art and photography exhibitions, curated by Adeela Suleman.

Ironically enough, the section remained true to the notion that the art world is based on exclusiveness: the sessions were held in the Tulip patio which was somewhat detached and tucked away from the other halls of the Beach Luxury Hotel. Their timings were also different from all the other sessions that were boxed together in the schedule and panelists were presented giveaways by the organisers. The patio also had its own book stall and even the chai was served to the audience at their seats.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t just the chai that attracted a large crowd to the Tulip patio. Panelists at the art section included pioneers such as Jalaluddin Ahmed, his wife Azra, artists Naiza Khan, Durriya Kazi and Quddus Mirza, and art critic Marjorie Husain, among many others, all of whom exchanged experiences and views on contemporary art in Pakistan with equally high-profile moderators, authors H.M. Naqvi and Kamila Shamsie.

The sessions kicked off with a talk by Jalaluddin Ahmed, who recounted his experience of starting Arts and the Islamic World, the first magazine of its kind in England.

“Everyone would say that you cannot produce [such] an art magazine because there is no such thing as Islamic art, but we survived 18 years, both the magazine and ourselves,” said Ahmed. In those 18 years, 36 editions of the magazine were published and it ran successfully until, Ahmed pointed, “I couldn’t stand the British winter anymore and the time came to go back home.”

Ahmed gave all credit to Arts and Islamic World director Zafar Malik (who flew in specially for the talk) and his wife Azra, whom, he said, was the only person “who read each and every word of the magazine.”

The trio spoke extensively about their experience of running the magazine for nearly two decades with “13 pounds and seven pence” in their account and how “the Islamic art world became [a way of] of living, while everything else became less significant.” Azra concluded the discussion by thanking her husband and Malik for “giving me joy that will last me my whole life.”

Meanwhile, in the following session on the ‘Art of Writing for Art,’ Naqvi moderated a debate on the role of art critics and the identity of artists in Pakistan with panelists Marjorie Husain, Quddus Mirza and Zarmeene Shah.

Mirza, artist and editor of ArtNow, insisted that there isn’t any tradition Pakistani writers follow in terms of critiquing art; rather, they follow other countries. At the same time, he said, “There is no one in this country right now that can make or break someone’s career by writing about them.” Husain, one of Pakistan’s preeminent critics and curators, rued the lack of opportunities and facilities available to artists. “Artists in Peshawar cannot hang their work on walls, Quetta has no galleries, the Sindh festival does not include any artist from Jamshoro University,” she pointed out. “An artist must be known is his or her own country before [exhibiting abroad].” At this point, Naqvi contended that despite the resources available in Dubai, their art is less than impressive. “I don’t think infrastructure will change the topography of art,” he said.

On the second day, the patio opened to a thought-provoking session with panelists Durriya Kazi, Gemma Sharpe and Muhammad Zeeshan on ‘Art and Politics of Our times’. The participants focused on the influences on art post 9/11.

The second session of the day saw gallery owners Zohra Hussain (Chawkandi Art) and Sameera Raja (Canvas Gallery) discuss the value of art galleries, and the various challenges faced by them and how best to remain unaffected by them. “I am a work horse. I wear blinders and I work. If your back isn’t against the wall, you can’t be successful,” said Raja. Artist Naiza Khan was a big draw, with a huge crowd at her conversation with Kamila Shamsie. Khan, the most recent recipient of the prestigious Prince Claus Award, spoke about growing up away from Pakistan, her inspiration and her most recent muse.

“I came [to Pakistan] in January 1991 and started teaching in August. I found a whole fraternity of artists and a kind of support group; people I could relate to, creatures like myself,” she said.

However, the transition was not as seamless as she had hoped. “I found the environment to be quite aggressive … and the fact that I was using a female model made some also feel like I was coming with the baggage of the West, which I found a bit disconcerting. Here I was, being brought up through a Pakistani household in Britain and producing a lot of work at the Ruskin which seemed to be addressing my identity and heritage and now that I’m back home, I was being misunderstood,” said Khan. She added that she kept working through the critiques, reviews and everything else that came her way. “Anyone coming from the West were looked at with a certain amount of skepticism at that time, which is a pity because we lost out on the dialogue with writers and critics for them to understand us and for us to be assimilated.” Khan also went on to talk about her work Heavenly Ornaments, which Shamsie described as “armoured lingerie.” The artist explained how the work was inspired by the Urdu book Bahishti Zewar. “The intention was to challenge a little bit of what was out there and to also create an identity that was subjective to the drawing and something that was more about the subjective experience,” said Khan.