Bonbon takes on Quddus Mirza – the LLF art talk fiasco
A few days ago, my friend (and 39k gallerist) Abdullah Qureshi (aka BonBon Liholmen) posted a small link on his Facebook page. It was an open letter directed at Quddus Mirza, and printed in a new newspaper ‘The Spokesman‘. I was intrigued and clicked the link to read micro-miniscule letters that made me cross-eyed. So I promptly sent Abdullah a message asking him to send me a better link or the text. He sent it back, I read it, then I gaped open-mouthed at my screen and did a little virtual congratulatory back pat for Mr. Bonbon.
In his letter, he simply stated all that he thought went wrong with the Arts discussion ‘Polemics of Time and Space II‘ at the Lahore Literary Festival 2013. According to the LLF program, it was a “Multimedia presentation of Modern and Contemporary Visual Arts by Quddus Mirza followed by a panel discussion” - Panelists: Amin Jaffer, Rashid Rana, Naazish Ataullah, and Dr. Dina Bangdel; Moderator: Salima Hashmi
Just a few days prior to Abdullah’s letter, I had read Fayes T. Kantawala‘s review of the Lahore Literary Festival, OMG LLF, and his disappointment regarding the same talk.
Excerpt from OMG LLF:
The second session was delivered by Quddus Mirza, which I think deserves some kind of official apology. It was of a level so banal that there were involuntarily physical reactions in the audience. I’ll skip most of my gripes and go straight to the hernia: he began the lecture with a massive high-res slide of the artist Shahzia Sikander’s work. “Sikander is not a Pakistani artist because she doesn’t engage with the community,” he said dismissively, and then moved on to sad jokes and painful non-sequiturs about Pakistani art.
Hold up. If Shahzia Sikander is so irrelevant to art today, why did you just open your lecture on Pak Art with A SLIDE OF SHAHZIA-DON’T-MATTER-WHO-SHE-IS-SIKANDER? To those who don’t know, Shahzia Sikander is the most globally eminent artist to emerge from Pakistan. Ever. For some reason, the local art mafia has taken it upon themselves to exclude her from what they consider Pakistani Art, I imagine because she doesn’t exhibit here (would you if the MoMA was buying you?) and a whole host of personal vendettas that have nothing to do with her body of work. That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if it’s s***. What’s deeply petty is to single her out in a general introduction on art for Lahore’s first literary festival, just to say she’s isn’t one of us, when she is in fact believed by the world (let me say it again: the world) to be our best.
Later, a panelist who was a curator from Doha opened the discussion by pointing out that Sikander is actually the biggest name associated with Pakistani art, so she found the hostility against her in her own hometown remarkable. The session marked the petty small-mindedness that so often surface when Lahoris gather in public. I am thrilled to say it was the only one.
I really enjoy Kantawalla’s posts and writing in general, including this one – however, I had gauged this critique to be more about the schism issue in the talk (is Shazia Sikander Pakistani or not. I have had this conversation with so many people, and everyone has different sentiments – but more on that in the proverbial future).
But Abdullah’s letter made me sit up. And react. I promised Abdullah I’d post it. Not as an attack on Quddus Mirza – because that’s never my intention, neither do I have any personal issues with QM. In fact, I do have a pretty good relationship with him. But I wanted to post it because it was after a very LONG time that I have read a mature and sound counter-argument in the Pakistani art world. Abdullah disagreed with the dynamics of the whole talk and felt that he needed to address this – not in small little circles huddled in private gallery corners, not in an art bitchfest, and not to his clique. He wrote directly to Quddus Mirza, and had it published at a public forum. He initiated a dialogue.
From that day of our conversation to now, that article has been shared all over Facebook and other social media. So my post here is basically for those who missed out on it, and also as a celebration of young Pakistani people in the art world writing and expressing themselves. It’s a breath of fresh air, even though many might as usual interpret this as offensive and controversial. To them I say – go drink thandi chai. Because that’s what art is without discourse.
I’m reposting the letter here. It can also be read online here at its original home -> The Spokesman: Open Letter to an Artist – Abdullah Qureshi. Since Abdullah agreed for me to publish the whole thing, I’m adding this in my Guest Write-up section.
Dear Quddus Mirza,
I am writing a slightly late but necessary response to ‘Polemics of Time and Space II’ at the Lahore literary festival. While the entire festival was highly anticipated, this presentation and discussion was what I looked forward to most. Unfortunately, this was a waste of an hour and clearly quite agitating at that.
Salima Hashmi, the moderator, introduced you as ‘one of the foremost if not the foremost art critic of Pakistan’. Only something great should have followed. It didn’t. However exhausting the festival was, your “hangover” from the prior talk was unjustified. You should have been prepared. Irrespective of the many well-read and knowledgeable individuals present, this was insulting. Instead of an experience that could have been enlightening, one left in a state of disappointment. This session came across as a filler; attempting to promote certain individuals and exposing the politics that the art world is often accused of.
You began by presenting a personal history of contemporary art. What do you mean by “personal”? How is history ever personal unless it is autobiographical? Did you mean you were showcasing artists affiliated with you or those you had been in contact with? You continued talking about several traditions in the history of Pakistani art but except for the miniature you focussed only on thematic work. What was further infuriating was your need to explicitly illustrate the visible. We know what a fallen plane looks like; there is no need to reiterate.
Good that we are touching upon topics that have been taboo for so long in the region. However, images of couples intimately lying together, followed by cheeky jokes undermined the seriousness of the art. Who did you think you were presenting this dumbed down and diluted history of contemporary art to? This entire charade was followed by a brief panel discussion, hardly making sense. The session was cut short and Mrs. Hashmi ended with an excuse by saying, ‘We had not planned for a Q&A in this session’.
Your only significant point was regarding the use of the term “artists from Pakistan” instead of “Pakistani artists”. I agree that limiting art makers in such a category is counter-productive and is probably only done for commercial reasons. However, you failed to elaborate on this. You mention how Frank Stella is Frank Stella and not merely an American painter. Sure! Except for the fact that the artists presented had nothing to do with Stella whose work is a direct response to the abstract expressionist movement. Here we are drifting away from ideas of representation and dealing with the picture as an object.
The practitioners you showcased are in fact interested in the socio-political. The world has certainly become a different place since 9/11 but it is incredibly naïve to define art produced since then as a tradition. Traditions of art have more to do with our history and the history of art collectively. A lot of these works are mere depiction of stereotypes. Not all of it is art. To mislead the public locally and abroad that this is all contemporary art from Pakistan is fraudulent.
In recent years, the influence of media in the art produced in Pakistan has become apparent. One sees the planes you refer to along with other symbols representative of war and perceived Islamicisation; Taliban, guns, burqas, drones even the US flag. Some of these were visible in the early works of Shahzia Sikander and continue in works of Faiza Butt and Waseem Ahmed. However, since then the use of these themes – the word I hate most being deliberately used in the context – has become “mainstream culture”.
The heavy use of such imagery especially by miniature painters has led to what we now call “modern miniature”, problematic because the media projection of us now defines our identity. You discuss Shahzia Sikander as no longer being a Pakistani artist. The issue at hand is not that she is Pakistani or not but her concerns in art. While her content is still rooted in the South Asian region, the engagement is much broader. The location is an important concept, it was observed by Naazish Ataullah, but it does not affect Sikander’s practice and why should it? The relevant question to ask here is what “modern” and “contemporary” means to us. Only then will we start understanding what our contemporary culture has become.
As a critic you are certainly allowed to have your own opinions but then it is also your professional responsibility to be honest with your critique. In your brief introduction you mentioned several traditions of art in Pakistan. However, the artists presented were specific practitioners. This biased historical account is unjust to us as the audience, consisting of artists, young students and the general public interested in learning. This process of manipulation and a selective use of history that is to your benefit, is at the expense of future generations.
This corruption that you cause in the cycle of knowledge must stop and, frankly speaking, we have had enough. People are interested in genuine debates; we need a critical dialogue. Many industries and institutions have been ruined due to the vested interest of individuals. Please don’t be one of them. Gone are the days when you could fool people by using a few foreign terms and get away with it. We live in a time where everything is a click away and the audience is much better informed.
We need experienced people like you to look up to instead of becoming a joke. This aggravates me because I care and I am sure that I am not alone. This is also a broader message to other young people in the arts to be sent out there. The more pluralistic this environment is, the more enriching it will be. We need more voices and hopefully those that disagree. Only then can we look forward to a future art scene that is going to be diverse and genuinely relevant in global debates.
So here’s to more and more and more fresh, honest opinions. Because being opinionated is a much better than being a sycophant.
Thank you BonBon.
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