Artists gain advantageous projection when they exhibit at popular international art festivals. Other than the opportunity for commentary and dialogue in a pluralistic environment, the global nature of today's art trade allows artists to present themselves and their art to far more markets than ever before. Pakistani art manages to appear in every edition of Art Dubai even though not a single Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad-based gallery has, as yet, shown in the fair’s exhibition booths and the state support or facilitation is also non-existent.
Reporting on ‘Art Dubai 2013’, Vinita Bharadvaj, writing for The New York Times observes, “This year the Dubai show features a significant number of artists from Pakistan, adding to Dubai’s reputation as a forum for artists whose home countries give them little support.” Adding further gravitas to this observation, Art Dubai director, Antonia Carver reveals, “Previously, the city was a destination to discover the best art from Iran and Palestine. However, we’re now seeing it become home to some seriously good work from Pakistan and Syria.”
Currently winner of The Abraaj Group Art prize 2013, shown at Art Dubai, Huma Mulji (previous winners include Hamra Abbas and Risham Syed) is among the two Pakistani artists whose work captured international media attention.
Huma Mulji’s artwork titled, ‘The miraculous lives of this and that’, is a 21st century Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, slightly larger than life, full of objects such as taxidermy animals and porcelain imitations of cheap plastic dolls, meditating on the mortality of all things.
Curator Abraaj Prize, Murtaza Vali, describing the piece to Jim Quilty (reporting for the Daily Star, Lebanon News) says, “Huma’s artwork is a 21st century version of what was called a cabinet of curiosities. These emerged as cultural phenomenon in the 16th century and are considered the predecessor of the modern museum. Unlike the museum — [which] is driven by a rational model for categorisation, chronology and display — ‘the cabinet of curiosities’ collection strategy was completely unsystematic and nonrational.” Adding further, he states, “If the museum is all about knowledge, the cabinet of curiosities is about coming to terms with your inability to know and relishing that.”
The other striking installation/sculpture titled, ‘History lessons’, was by Ehsanul Haq, a Pakistani artist, represented by Grey Noise. A series of 12 life-sized donkeys possibly inspired by the Qin dynasty’s terra cotta Chinese warriors, this herd is an oblique look at ideas of control, force and meek acceptance of authority.
Reporting for The National, Anna Seaman writes, “The creatures, identical and arranged in military formation, are a playful poke in the ribs at what he (Haq) describes as the dynamics of followers, leaders, power play and also masculinity.”
She further explains that while his work is not geographically site-specific, it was commissioned for the fair and Haq says the work is relevant in Dubai because politics and power play a huge role here. “Dubai is a place where people come from all around the world to display their power and the political atmosphere is also very active. In some ways this is a reflection of the viewer back at themselves,” explains Haq.
Combining the practice of sculpture and photography Pakistani origin artist (currently based in Boston, US), Hamra Abbas’s macro prints were shown at the Lawrie Shabibi booth at Art Dubai. Sculpting miniature heads of everyday people in plasticine and then photographing them to make large oversized prints Abbas displaced the works from their original context.
Overwhelming the viewer with their immensity the macro prints compel engagement. For Abbas the exercise initiated new readings of issues related to migrations and integrations, she feels, “In exchanging greetings and short encounters, I realised how a quick contact and a conversation with a stranger, does entangle or compel us into a web of relationship and has the potential to transform us.”
Indian gallery Grosvenor Vadehra’s booth presented the first in a series of exhibitions exploring the theme of contemporary miniature painting. ‘Miniature rewind 1’ features the work of a number of contemporary artists from India, Iran and Pakistan, all of whom are either working in the miniature technique, or employ styles and themes usually observed in the discipline of miniature painting. From Pakistan works by Saira Wasim, Faiza Butt and Mohammed Ali Talpur were included.
Detailed watercolours and etchings depicting traditional figures from Indian folklore by Old Master Abudur Rehman Chughtai and Sadequain’s prickly staccato figures and landscapes derived from calligraphic compositions were also on display. Yet other works of Old and Modernist masters like Anwar Jalal Shemza, Bashir Mirza and Tassadauq Sohail were on show as well.
In the Aicon Gallery enclosure works by Adeela Suleman, Abdullah Syed and Sana Arjumand were shown alongside a host of other artists paintings and prints.
Writing for The Art Newspaper Gareth Harris felt that Art Dubai has earned its stripes. “Access to new collectors and a solid programme of commissions, talks and events have turned this fair into a fully fledged, paid-up member of the international circuit,” he states.