Bull In Studio Mirror, Sadequain
Bull In Studio Mirror, Sadequain

Striking art often disappears in to private hands. It is only once in a while that personal collections resurface for public viewing. When the Wahab Jaffer Collection (WJ Collection) was sold to the Rangoonwala Trust, it was the first time that a major private collection had moved into the public domain. Currently showing at VM Art Gallery, under the title Father Figure: South Asian Art Through the Eyes of Wahab Jaffer, this exhibition is a rare opportunity to view and experience the distinctive characteristics of modern art and the ethos of the times it was created in.

Being part of a famous collection gives artworks a special aura. Industrialist and entrepreneur Wahab Jaffer’s personal evolution as a connoisseur collector, artist and patron in the art world perks up the historical narrative surrounding the WJ Collection. His persistence to become an artist in his own right, and his early association with artist and curator Ali Imam, is central to the art he collected. When he first enrolled for painting classes at Imam’s Indus Gallery in the early ’70s in Karachi, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. Initially an outsider, he soon became a well-respected member of the emerging modernist art scene helmed by Imam. In the ’70s, there were more cultural exchanges and the ratio of foreign exhibitions and visiting artists was higher than now. Therefore during those years, Jaffer also had the privilege of hosting artists such as Francis Newton Souza from India and Mujtaba Baseer from Bangladesh in Karachi.

Debate and discussion at Imam’s well-known Sunday afternoon sessions at the Indus Gallery, with artists, writers and collectors was a crash course in art education, and it later enabled Jaffer to develop an eye for good art. Imam Sahib envisioned forming a cadre of collectors who could financially sustain art and artists in the country by building collections that he hoped, someday, would find their way into national museums. With Jaffer eventually becoming the primary buyer at the Indus Gallery, it appears that the WJ Collection is a realisation of Imam’s vision.

A Portrait Of Faiz Ahmad Faiz In Jail, Ali Imam
A Portrait Of Faiz Ahmad Faiz In Jail, Ali Imam

Offering a unique look into the artistic practices and exhibitions of artists in Pakistan from the 1970s through the 1990s, this formidable collection of paintings is supported by photographs, textual records, reviews and press clippings on many of the artists. Spanning over three decades, the WJ archive needs to be assimilated on several levels. In the early post-independence years,

artists deliberately broke away from narrative — characteristic of the traditional arts — towards abstraction. Heavily influenced by Western Modernism, they experimented freely with materials, techniques and the expression of inner visions.

The Wahab Jaffer Collection does not just reveal the art that he created and collected over the past 50 years, but also the artists he befriended and patronised

Featuring works by over 20 modern artists from South Asia, including Ali Imam, Bashir Mirza, F.N. Souza and Mujtaba Baseer, the exhibition does not just reveal the art Jaffer created and collected over the past 50 years, but also the artists he befriended, supported and patronised. There was a special closeness, understanding and exchange of ideas among the modernist circle artists and this camaraderie is fundamental to the evolution of this collection.

Vibrant and varied, the paintings speak as a collection and yet have independent stories attached to their creation. ‘A Portrait Of Faiz Ahmed Faiz In Jail’ by Imam is among the standouts, as is ‘The Life And Times Of …’ by Salima Hashmi. Both were painted during periods of extreme repression. A delightful piece by Anwar Jalal Shemza from his ‘Roots’ series articulates the artist’s feelings for his homeland. An inner kaleidoscope as volatile as the personality of Ahmed Parvez spills out in his untitled works. Sadequain’s ‘Bull In Studio Mirror’ reminds one of Picasso’s influence on the maestro’s art. Raw and forceful, Rasheed Araeen’s black woodcut prints have instant impact. Innovative use of multiple and single lines defines two singular artists such as Bashir Mirza and Lubna Latif in their figurative line drawings. In the foreign artists’ trove, paintings by Zainul Abedin, Souza, Syed Haider Reza and Kazi Baset are notable.

In the absence of state funding for the arts, the generosity of individuals can fill a significant gap in the cultural life of a city and the Rangoonwala Trusts exhibition of the WJ Collection is a baby step towards meaningful projection of heritage art. However, mechanisms for proper maintenance, storage, restoration and insurance cover of paintings still need to be established for the survival of art legacies.

“Father Figure: South Asian Art Through the Eyes of Wahab Jaffer” is being displayed at the VM Art Gallery in Karachi from January 24 to February 22, 2020

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 16th, 2020

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