EXHIBITION: STRANGE CUSTOMS

September 08, 2019

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The blank gallery walls
The blank gallery walls

'Lightest lights’ is a term that comes up when one learns how to draw and shade an object in art. It refers to the fact that no matter how white/light a surface may appear, there are layers of tones and values within, if one observes closely enough.

On August 20, a group exhibition titled Space In Time was set to open at Canvas Gallery in Karachi. But upon entering the space, the audience was welcomed by blank gallery walls. A projected slideshow of the catalogue of this visibly non-existent show provided the only view of the artworks. But these empty walls were more than just white; they were layered with shades of a narrative, and it was time for the viewer to unearth the dismaying details.

Space In Time was an exhibition that emerged from the meetings between Dr Johannes Beltz from the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, and Professor Quddus Mirza from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore. Museum Rietberg, a public institution, is the only museum of non-European art in Switzerland. One of its fundamental commitments is to collaborate with countries from which their housed collections originate and, in this case, to create a dialogue with the traditional miniature paintings of Museum Rietburg and Pakistan. As a result, the project invited 23 young artists, all trained in miniature painting from the NCA, to each respond to a traditional miniature artwork from the Reitburg collection.

Canvas Gallery presented blank walls at the opening of a show to register its protest against the misconduct of the customs department

The resulting works were displayed at Museum Reitburg, and co-curated by Mirza and Dr Widmer, which opened on February 21, 2019. The successful collaboration attracted a multitude of visitors, including Pakistan’s ambassador to Switzerland. It closed on June 16, 2019.

The show was then meant to be held at Canvas Gallery in Pakistan. Sadly, the artworks have yet to reach the gallery because they are all being held by the customs department in Lahore.

When sent to Zurich, it was ensured that all documents were presented and cleared. It was declared that the artworks leaving Pakistan were sent for a non-commercial event. Consequently, the museum sent back the works on June 17. But as commercial artwork is prohibited by the Pakistan customs department, a process that should have taken a fortnight at most has now stretched to over two months — despite the shipper presenting all the paperwork and re-declaring the not-for-sale status of the art.

It is a sad state of affairs when an exhibition that was seen by a number of people in a foreign country and one that is meant to create a positive image of Pakistan has instead embarrassed the art community in front of its European collaborators. It was seen as incomprehensible by Museum Reitburg that, after two months, there was still no clear date as to when the works will be released.

Sameera Raja of Canvas Gallery explains that this is not the first time the government has displayed such negligence and there have been other instances where shows have had to be delayed or cancelled because of this kind of misconduct, causing a great deal of embarrassment for both the artists and the art community. She adds that it is high time people in power understand that artworks are not always commodities but rather personify an elevated image of the country.

The artists who await their paintings are: Adnan Manganhar, Ahmed Javed, Donia Qaiser, Esha Sohail. Faryal Ahsan. Hoor Ahmed. Ifrah Mehmood Afridi, Jahanzeb Ahmed, Maheen Khan, Mahzeb Baloch, Maryam Baniasadi, Muzzamil Khan. Nizakat Ali Depar, Noormah Jamal, Norouz Ali, Onaiz Taji, Rahman Zada, Sehrish Mustafa, Shahid Malik, Shakila Haider, Shamsuddin, Syed Hussain and Wasif Afridi.

“Space In Time” was scheduled to be held at Canvas Gallery in Karachi from August 20 to August 29, 2019

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 8th, 2019