The dark LAHORE of ArtAsiaPacific
Very recently I came across an article shared by a friend on Facebook. It was an offering by the esteemed art journal ArtAsiaPacific, simply titled ‘LAHORE‘ and penned by Ambreen Karamat. The author has a respectable academic background and experience and according to her LinkedIn profile is “Working as project/studio manager focusing on Rashid Rana’s mid career retrospective at Mohatta Palace Museum Karachi.” Yet, browsing through the article I was struck by its tunnel vision approach and decided to write a blogpost in response. It isn’t meant as an attack on the writer – it is simply negating an image of Lahore that I absolutely don’t agree with.
I admit I’m a cynic. Especially when it comes to the art world in Pakistan. And I like to question everything I read and see. I like to pick on discrepancies in opinions, mostly in art instruction and guidance for students and younger artists. I am the last person who will glorify an institution just for the sake of being patriotic. More so than ever, I am also aware how many negative elements are hindering progress in the country in all fields. The Arts suffer the most, predominantly due to lack of state support and funds.
But what I am not is a Nihilist.
I cannot oversee the amazing leaps and bounds we are making in the Arts, within the country and across the world. I cannot ignore the vast pool of skill, intellect and talent that our artists possess. And I absolutely cannot ignore how so many people, important and ordinary, are part of the art world despite assumptions that this is a small pocket. Amidst the many challenges they are faced with on a daily basis, they continue to push ahead and create their own niche.
Then comes this article by ArtAsiaPacific (AAP) that puts an ‘Afghanistan’ twist to the storytelling (for the lack of a better term.) It is hard to simply take a bite of it and gulp it down without a protest.
The article is largely catering to an audience that has absolutely no way of comparing on-ground realities with romanticized-horror reporting. But really, to read an article like this in AAP is deeply unsettling. The opening paragraph is vastly suggestive of the tone the article has taken, deciding for the reader what their opinion should be: a politically steeped one, depicting doomsday scenario.
The article then goes on to read: Hand-painted flora-and-fauna motifs, outlined with cut-outs of bright patent leather, embellish trucks, rickshaws and food stalls, alongside lively cinema posters showing women in suggestive postures and exaggeratedly valiant men.
Such raw, crude images are publicly acceptable in “mullah” culture, but when rendered by the fine artist, the same imagery is banned. Works with images of women with uncovered heads are censored at the Alhamra Art Gallery, run by the Lahore Arts Council. Private galleries are hesitant to show works with any element of nudity.
Hesitant to show any element of nudity? If anyone remembers my post ‘Naked – Literally and Figuratively’ I addressed this topic (from quite another angle actually), but went on to give numerous examples of contemporary artworks that contain the male and female nude. And these are only the works that I’m familiar with. Undoubtedly there are many more. I addressed the limitations of showing some works and the wild abandon with which others were displayed, but most of these have shown in Pakistan.
However, censoring ‘images of women with uncovered heads’ must stem from some story that I have not heard of. Because of the many many many shows I have attended since my student life in NCA, starting back in 2001, and my exposure to the galleries before that, this is not something I’ve noticed. I do know Colin David’s private exhibition of nudes was attacked by a group of miscreants in May 1990, and am painfully aware of the vociferous negation by extremist elements in society at many other instances. But I never heard of any other portraiture being censored, simply because it didn’t have a dupatta on its head!
In fact one of the most recent shows at Alhamra, ‘Mera Naam Hai Mohabbat (I AM LOVE)’ included themes of gender identification and gay pride. (Residency exhibition picture on left)
I completely agree with the author on one point though when she argues, “…national support for arts and culture is almost nil. Before 1995, the ministry for culture was joined with that of sports and tourism. In 2006, separate ministries for culture and sports were created and art world experts were called to draft a revised cultural policy, finalized in 2008—with no visible results as yet. Like other government branches, the ministry lacks a vision and a good leader. The current minister holds a master’s degree in agriculture. With a series of incompetent governments, it is still too early to expect a cohesive national policy for art.”
In fact my own thesis report talks about the house of mystery the ministry for Arts has been. In my opinion, the author is absolutely right in pointing out the key problem here, as without any form of state support and state acceptance, the brunt of work is shouldered by private bodies – which is good and bad in different aspects. And to top it off, a lack of policy leaves a weak infrastructure that is predisposed to abusive practices.
But then she goes on to state that, “In this chaotic scenario, Beacon House National University and the National College of Arts are producing a profusion of artists who struggle to exhibit in the limited spaces available. Gallery culture in Lahore is almost nonexistent, with a few fighting to survive. Most venues are commercial, selling to clients who walk in with swatches of cloth to match paintings to their interior decor.”
First of all I do not understand where this has come from. Much as I comment myself on the recklessly ‘commercial’ side of many galleries, business in fact is not slow. I’m the first to say that many of these galleries have their own issues, sometimes even ethical ones. But there are many spaces, big and small, which are showing work all year round. I receive numerous invitations via snail-mail, email and Facebook, cramming for attention. Student shows, solo shows, group shows, travelling shows, international shows, private collections, curated events, screenings, and now even performance. Aside from that, several people are exhibiting pop-up shows in non-gallery spaces every now and then also, utilizing their studios, homes, and other venues. This might not even be close to other Art Hub cities in the world in number or scale, but its there.
During my stint at teaching First Year NCA in 2010, I was constantly urging my students to catch this show or the next. I remember taking them to a show at Ejaz gallery, and there was barely room to move around because of the high attendance.
Yes, there are always those exhibitions that have paintings matching sofa covers for monied clientele, but there are also shows that have people going round a room to read just one line of script that is loaded with meaning. (see image on left)
All the people associated with the art world in Pakistan admit to the fact that times are increasingly difficult. Extremist tendencies are increasing in our daily lives at an alarming rate. There have been big blows to the academic art scene in Lahore recently – events that I have been asked by persons involved not to write about, much as they pain me deeply.
However, most of these woes in our art world are linked to economic hardships, production issues, finding the right buyers and gallery representation, and making a healthy living with art as the career of choice. Censorship is NOT high up on the list of issues that plague it.
And while the main commercial and production activity of art is centralized in cities like Lahore and Karachi, these are inundated with artists and craftsmen from across Pakistan, even those areas considered to be sensitive. Art institutions in Lahore, like National College of Arts (NCA), Beaconhouse National University (BNU), Punjab University Department of Art, are teeming with students from far-flung corners of the country. (Visit this link on my blog to see a list of more art institutes across Pakistan)
Again, the author goes on to write, “It is commendable that in these circumstances Lahore is nevertheless producing artists with international reputations, introducing new genres to the world, such as the “Neo-Contemporary Miniature.” Locally, however, most artists are going unnoticed. Rashid Rana, who has made waves internationally with his large images composed of micro ones, is booked for international exhibitions and talks for the next two years, but is largely overlooked at home.
The reason is obvious, yet not articulated. Eminent Pakistani artists hardly exhibit their works at home due to the limited number of local platforms, and the dearth of curators, agents and art dealers. Artists of international repute, such as Imran Qureshi, Bani Abidi, Naiza Khan and Hamra Abbas, have established a network of buyers and dealers abroad”
On the contrary, ‘Neo-Contemporary miniature’ giants like Imran Qureshi and New Media giants like Bani Abidi and Rashid Rana are widely applauded across Pakistan and respected by students, and they do show their works in the country as well, including venues in Lahore.
Likewise, other artists of international repute (or international residence) also continue to show in Lahore – for example: Hamra Abbas, Naiza Khan Khalil Chishti, Ruby Chishti, Faiza Butt, Huma Mulji, Risham Syed, Ayaz Jokhio, Iqbal Geoffrey, Farida Batool and many more have exhibited in Lahore within the last 2 years alone.
Exhibits also include book launches by art and literary figures such as Virginia Whiles, Muhammad Hanif and more.
And finally the article states: “Following their lead, the majority of artists in Pakistan wait to be picked up by either New York’s Aicon Gallery, Green Cardamom in London or Gandhara Art Gallery in Hong Kong.“
It is indeed a great experience to show on international platforms through curated shows, or gallery representations. It provides an opportunity to expand one’s own vision as well as share ideas with those who have never seen or heard of our work. And while many of our artists are showing with mostly 3 galleries, it is a gross over-statement that automatically assumes that all local artists want only this. Artists like R. M. Naeem have an illustrious career and an almost cult-ish following amongst his students and peers. Many of his protégés also show with these galleries. But he himself does not wait to be picked up. On the contrary he’s trying to create a platform that enables local artists to intermingle with international ones in his own curated residencies and exhibitions. It is one of the very few residencies taking place in Pakistan and is entirely self-funded.
The thing is, if we cannot learn to look beyond the ‘Arab Springs’ version of the story of every country’s art sphere, then there really is no hope for unbiased, non-objective dialogue. We will continue to be stuck knee-deep in the orientalist mentality that still plagues are own writers.
We keep looking at ourselves as how the outsider might see us in a glimpse. But we don’t live in a glimpse. We are so much more.
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