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ARTISTS WORK: Reviewing art standards

November 14, 2008

This is the age where cultural norms are being redefined recurrently. It has become extremely challenging to pursue professions and interests, keeping pace with style while at the same time tracking innovations and inventions which dictate lifestyle decisions.
And so, it is also a feat to chronicle progress and achievement in any one discipline, particularly so in fine arts, a task which Salwat Ali has accomplished rather creditably.
Journeys of the spirit; Pakistan art in the new millennium is her triumph. Published by FOMMA (Foundation for Museum of Modern Art), Karachi, in collaboration with the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA), it comprises over 300 articles and nearly 450 visuals of artists' works in hard cover. It is a body of work in which Salwat has assembled her art critique pieces of the past seven or so years and has literally brought under one roof the development, standing and aspirations of Pakistani art and artists. How far her endeavour has managed to do justice to the subject might be a moot point for other aficionados of the field, one thing however is unarguable; that
Ali is more than qualified for the job of chronicling art in Pakistan.
It is not just her grounding in the subject which gives her the edge; rather it is her unconditional 'love of art' which qualifies her as the perfect judge. And by that very token she has come out with an endeavour of love which while chronicling her own writings, succinctly rounds up the progress of art in Pakistan in this millennium. Since her work as an art critic has been substantial, her book too has covered significant ground.
Classified according to the particular genre each reviewed piece represents, the book ends up having 12 sections that cover almost all aspects of fine arts. There is 'New age art' that includes multimedia installations and performance art; there is 'Contemporary miniature' which examines the still evolving technique of miniature painting and there is Abstract and Figurative art which explores minimal manifestation of props, cubist figuration as well as the use of stylised and decorative support. And besides the group exhibitions in general categories, photography, calligraphy and printmaking, there is also a wealth of in-depth examination on art education and the many art publications that have come out over the years.
Most significant for me however were her portraitures of art icons, some written in memoriam and some living portraits sketched in her usual imagery — simplistic yet insightful. In fact, that is the essential quality in Ali's writing. Most art writers, tend to employ complex language while critiquing which not only ends up making reading of the pieces arduous but the point too often gets lost in translation. Ali's reviews while adhering to the use of art terms still appear clear-cut and comprehensible even to a non imaginative reader.
Ali's association with the art world spans well over three decades beginning with a GCE in fine arts. After graduation she pursued advanced education in art at the Pakistan Art Institute in the '70s and followed it with a correspondence course in writing from the London School of Journalism. Merging her art learning and writing qualification she founded the Fine Arts Society in Pakistan and began writing formally on art as an associate writer of the society. And since the early nineties she has been writing profusely.
Journeys of the spirit is a selected compilation of these articles which Ali has written for the many periodicals and newspapers published across the country on a weekly or monthly basis. Dawn Gallery is still hardly ever published without a piece by Ali who is considered beyond doubt as one of its most reliable and unbiased authority on the art
exhibited rather indiscriminately in the country.
The section in the book dedicated to art education also includes Ali's review of the annual mega exhibition, 'Emerging talents' pioneered by the VM art gallery which showcases the thesis work of students from different art colleges and institutions. Ali has consistently reviewed students' works emerging from these institutes and she has conscientiously critiqued the work giving due encouragement as well as providing valuable examination of its worth. She puts the finger on the pulse when she writes; “Modern technology, theory and encroachment of market forces into academia are fostering a new mindset.
Today's students expect (and need) their degree investments to pay off with successful careers in Fine Arts or related fields. Here in Pakistan the proliferation of art schools and students, the embrace of diverse art forms and content, is also geared towards the professionalisation of art practice. Institutions showcase their newly minted art graduates through well publicised degree shows. Dealers, agents and representatives of companies are invited and selections of deserving candidates open doors of opportunity to many.”
How far the students are pushing the boundaries and still adhering to the high standards set by their predecessors is a topic for another debate. However, a subject for general deliberation is 'where art is headed in Pakistan'. As Ali remarks on the breakaway style of a Pakistani artist dabbling in miniature, “Can erratic marks, scribbles and blotches pass of as art?” In the ever emerging world of art, it probably can. And Ali, judicious as ever of an artist's 'originality', further writes, “The artist is going through a transition, what appears as trivia could be the birth of new metaphors or a theme in the making...” It is typically Ali's style to find a saving grace in every artist's undertaking. She always finds a new dimension in a form which some critics might run down unmercifully if it doesn't suit their sense of the aesthetics.
Whether the rebellion against 'pretty pictures' justifies the almost fanatical trend of innovations or how revered disciplines should be remodelled, will forever be argued upon by art enthusiasts. But if the evolution process of art in Pakistan has to be measured, Ali's documentation serves as a well formatted text, encapsulating Pakistani art's glory as well as its sporadic tilt towards mediocrity.
The writer is former editor of Dawn Gallery