The missing Shemzas

26 Sep 2020

Email

AT a time when Pakistan is convulsed with political and economic crises (when isn’t it?), the region in turmoil; and the world order on the verge of collapse, should a columnist be writing about art and our cultural heritage?

Absolutely. If we are to hold on to our sense of humanity and civilisation, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of what has been created, and what we have lost. In the latter category falls the mystery of the missing Shemza paintings from the permanent collection of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts.

Details of this loss were given by Ijaz ul Hassan in his capacity of chairman, National Artists Association of Pakistan, in a letter addressed to Shafqat Mahmood, federal minister for education, national heritage and the arts. Mr Hassan, one of the finest painters of my generation, points out that in 2016, artworks worth crores went missing from the permanent collection, and no member of the staff has been held responsible.

More relevant to the present case is this allegation:

“Recently, it has come to our notice that ill-intentioned efforts are being made to remove 10 paintings of our famous Pakistani artist, the late A.J. Shemza, from the permanent collection (under the guise of his wife demanding their return) despite the fact that these paintings have been part of the permanent collection … since 1985.

These paintings aren’t the only artworks to have left the country.

“… I, along with some other prominent artists, have personal knowledge that 10 paintings were selected by Mr Shemza’s wife (Mrs Mary Katrina Shemza) and gifted to the National Art Gallery in order that her late husband be on permanent display as a prominent Pakistani artist who had moved to the UK in the sixties…”

Although the minister’s “urgent intervention” has been sought to block any attempt to remove the paintings, nearly a month has passed without a reply from Mr Mahmood. From a letter written by Mrs Shemza, it is apparent that the paintings are now with her.

In the 1980s, I bought a delicate but eye-catching Shemza done in his subtle, semi-abstract style. I paid less than a thousand rupees for it, and the image has stayed with me, even though the painting hasn’t.

However, at a London exhibition several years ago, Shemza’s works displayed by his widow fetched much higher prices. I don’t want to speculate, but according to Jamal Shah, ex-DG of the Pakistan National Council of Arts, the current prices may have motivated Mrs Shemza to demand the return of the paintings she had presented to the PNCA some 35 years ago. The question here is whether this was a loan or a gift.

These paintings aren’t the only artworks to have left the country. In the 1980s, a painting by Amrita Sher-Gil, the iconic Lahore artist who migrated to India after Partition, used to hang in the office of the DG, PNCA. One morning, he arrived at work and announced that it was missing. It has remained missing since then, although rumours persist that it hangs in the collection of a wealthy Indian. Needless to say, it is worth many millions.

The Gandhara carvings and sculptures that we have been lucky enough to inherit have met a similar fate. Relics of our unacknowledged Buddhist past, with their striking imagery and skilful execution, are far more admired abroad than in our ethos that bulldozes all cultures and faiths, dead or alive.

Gangs operate freely to dig up ancient Gandhara works. And even if there are guards on duty, they are hopelessly outgunned. In any case, why would they risk their lives for the pittance they are paid?

When I was joint secretary at the Ministry of Culture — the best job I ever had in my civil service career — I asked the DG, Archaeology, why he couldn’t have these vulnerable sites enclosed with electric fencing. I’m sure his reply still holds good today: “With my budget, I can barely pay for salaries, utilities and rents. When we make new finds, we leave them covered so thieves won’t be able to plunder them.”

Many of the Gandhara pieces stolen and moved abroad have found homes in Japan, a Buddhist nation, and in the collections of rich Westerners. While Pakistanis can own and display these works within the country, they aren’t allowed to export them. Nevertheless, many have made a lot of money from this trade. Occasionally, special police units have raided art galleries abroad, and have confiscated and returned these works to Pakistan.

However, the lack of interest from our government and public makes this whole racket pretty much a non-issue. With the government’s miserly budget allocation for the arts and archaeology, we won’t be leaving much for the next generation to admire and enjoy.

When it came to power, Imran Khan’s government had promised to convert some official buildings into art galleries.

Can anybody point to some action to meet this promise?

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2020