THE Pakistani art scene is vibrant, exciting and innovative. In essence it is one of the most arresting moments in art in the modern world and a portion of this contemporary art scene has been documented in Salima Hashmi’s new book, The Eye Still Seeks. The fabulous coffee table book set the scene for a discussion on the story of art making in Pakistan at the ILF; a story of survival given the turbulence and violence of the time and space that we live in.
Interestingly, in the process of surviving, art and artists, and mediums and genres have evolved and proliferated. The sociopolitical fabric and issues of religion and gender all serve as a background against which artists have come into their own, innovating to express themselves.
Hashmi at the session ‘The Eye Still Seeks by Salima Hashmi’ spoke of the Ziaul Haq years as a time when art schools and institutions became little islands where expression and political discussion was not curbed. In order to allow the students that space, however, the colleges closed in on themselves to ensure that freedom of expression remained possible. In the process, the relationship between faculty and students expanded and the faculty, while disagreeing on many fronts, closed ranks in this one crucial way.
In doing so, Salima contends, the art that was produced was born out of fearlessness. Those times of pressure were the trial by fire that made Pakistani art unique. While art will not and cannot force social reform, art-making does define its time and everything about its time. And Pakistani art has had the dubious good fortune to belong to very fertile times so that the work is iconoclastic, exciting and innovative.
Across the border interest in Pakistani art is flourishing, and Hashmi’s book was also published in India. The interest was not in commonalities or comparisons of any sort, but in what make Pakistani art tick. To give the answer, Hashmi engaged Pakistani fiction writers — authors who are interested in art — to write about why the selected artists resonate with them. Pakistani art is being written about in India simply because, as Raja put it, “they are interested”.
That some traditional crafts were not promoted over the past many decades and have been lost remains a matter of concern, as pointed out by Dr Nadeem Omar Tarar, in the session ‘Reading Art’. The namelessness of the many individuals who produced painted pottery centuries ago, compared to the immortalisation of the artist who painted royal portraits is an unfortunate repercussion of the value placed on craft in relation to art. High art is celebrated, and the artist viewed as a visionary while craft is most often seen as utilitarian and the folk artist tends to remain anonymous.
Nevertheless, Quddus Mirza, in ‘Art and the Market’, claimed to be amazed by the quality of work coming out of Pakistan and said that it is constantly improving. As the discussions over the two days centred on the commercial and non-commercial aspects of art, the expanding role of private galleries in promoting art was also debated.
Sameera Raja, who has been running an art gallery in Karachi for many years, believes that any limitations on what a gallery chooses to exhibit or promote are self-imposed. “You have to have a vision and you have to put your money where your mouth is,” she said in ‘The Future of the Nation in Art’. Gallery owners, if she is to be believed, have the responsibility of playing the role of patrons for those artists whose work they believe in. Success for a gallery is not as simplistic as the number of artworks sold, although it is a component for sustainability, as it is important for work to be seen, appreciated, and even written about. For artists, however, this can often mean that they rely on the gallery owner for financial support until their work catches on.
In a country where museums are few, the private gallery is the closest substitute, and as such has to be accessible. The hesitance on the part of many to walk into a private space where the expectation is that the visitor will consider purchasing an artwork is an obstacle to be overcome.
The inherent elitism of art was discussed by Mirza and Madeline Clements in ‘From Words to Works’, from the aspect of access as well as the language of art. Mirza spoke of his dislike of Sadequain’s work as a young art student and how he later understood that the master was an artist painting in Urdu in a country where much of the language of art is English.
Clements and Mirza discussed the use of language in art, and how much of contemporary Pakistani art is international, but the motifs are drawn from within the country. The images and ideas of violence and of marginalisation are equally prevalent in the art and literature coming from the region. Literature being restricted to the written word is reserved for the educated, but art, in as much as there is a common aesthetic, can in theory be accessed by anyone.
As art is symbolic of the world around us or a manifestation of inner sensations, artwork has language, imagery and connotations that draw on sociocultural references and experiences. Mirza shared his experience of how after looking at a student’s work at the National College of Arts and hearing the student’s conversation on how the works were universally comprehensible, Mirza asked the studio attendant what he saw in the work — only to be told that he saw nothing.
Lack of awareness and exposure to art generally has meant that art has been for those who can afford to buy a painting and walk away with it, a state of affairs that is changing with the use of technology, photography and virtual museums. Asma Rashid Khan said in ‘Art and the Market’, “Art institutions and galleries are playing their part and the upcoming Karachi and Lahore Biennales will help in institutionalising the Pakistani art market.” In other words, bringing art to people in sprawling metropolises without any commercial angle is critical if we are to have people engage with art. In the session on ‘The Future of the Nation in Art’ it was discussed that the public-private partnership model is perhaps the only way to bring art to Pakistanis who are otherwise deprived of it. The Lahore Biennale Foundation is attempting this model to expose people to art from across the world using incredibly advanced technology. ‘My East Is Your West’ is a project replicating a room from a Venetian palazzo at the Lahore Liberty Chowk.
The room in Lahore, and the one in Venice, will both have a hi-tech wall which will look into the other room across the world. So a viewer in Lahore will see Venetians visiting the gallery and enjoying the art work through a virtual communications portal and vice versa. While there will be no direct communication and the groups will not speak to each other, they will share the experience of viewing the artworks together virtually.
The structure and form of national exhibitions is evolving with technology and biennales, triennials and international art fairs are part of the immediate future. In Pakistan, where we spend much of our time negating our cultural heritage, art must enter the public forum to be ‘heard’.