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July 27, 2012 / the s.a. project

The dark LAHORE of ArtAsiaPacific

Established in 1993, ArtAsiaPacific magazine is the leading English-language periodical covering contemporary art and culture from Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East. Published six times a year, AAP includes features, profiles, essays and reviews by experts from all over the world.‘ –

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.

Film Art - Shahranga - Photo via internet

Film Art – Shahranga – Photo via internet

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.

Mera Naam Hai Mohabbat ( I am Love) - image © Imran Nafees Siddiqui

Mera Naam Hai Mohabbat ( I am Love) – image © Imran Nafees Siddiqui

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.

Vinyl text on wall – Ayesha Jatoi

Vinyl text on wall – Ayesha Jatoi

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

All our the colour of my heart - Imran Qureshi (Lahore) - image © Amina Ansari

All our the colour of my heart – Imran Qureshi (Rohtas 2, Lahore) – Photo © Amina Ansari

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.

Section Yellow - Bani Abidi (GreyNoise, Lahore) - Photo © Waleed Kureshi via Grey Noise gallery

Section Yellow – Bani Abidi (GreyNoise, Lahore) – Photo © Waleed Kureshi via Grey Noise gallery

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.

The Groom ( Dulha Hazir Hey) - R M Naeem - Photo via Saatchi Online

The Groom ( Dulha Hazir Hey) – R M Naeem – Photo via Saatchi Online

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.




Leave a Comment
  1. Afia / Jul 27 2012 11:28 am

    Hurray for you, Saira Ansari! The story behind such articles is usually that the writer wants to be published in an international journal and produces what s/he thinks would go down well with the editors or the reading public. But that’s too convenient and, frankly, an insult to the public’s intelligence. Until we don’t learn to reinvent our own notions of what people want to read, we’ll never be able to expand what we put before them.

    • the s.a. project / Jul 27 2012 5:52 pm

      Thanks Afia! I’m so glad you drop by often at the yellow blog and actually leave substantial feedback. I agree with you about re-inventing notions. I’m really just so perturbed because while the problems do exist, I don’t understand how they nullify how all that is happening in the face of their presence. Those who live in it should (and usually can) see through the muck and find all the intricacies and details that an outsider is apt to miss. One shouldn’t become the outsider merely to be non-objective. I think that’s a more objective perspective than anything.
      Am I making sense in this rambling!

  2. Hammad Nasar / Jul 27 2012 12:45 pm

    Nice piece Saira. There was definitely a whiff of ‘Af-Pak’ about the AAP piece. While judicious self-censorship does go on, that is hardly the major problem in Pakistan’s little art world. For me the issue is that art world infrastructure cannot be built by artists in a vacuum. Without centres of knowledge production to illuminate Pakistan’s context and artistic trajectories, without sites of display that can take on challenging projects, and without galleries that are invested in educating a new generation of Pakistani collectors, we will continue to look outside for validation with the market being the ultimate arbiter of ‘success’. Until we develop a more nuanced idea of what success may look like, this uni-dimensional focus on international shows and auctions will continue to cast an unhealthy shadow on our art world.

    • the s.a. project / Jul 27 2012 5:53 pm

      Thank you Hammad for your feedback.
      I think what really resonantes with me in your comments is this line: Until we develop a more nuanced idea of what success may look like, this uni-dimensional focus on international shows and auctions will continue to cast an unhealthy shadow on our art world.
      I don’t think I could have said this any better.

  3. Ian Halseth / Jul 27 2012 6:53 pm

    I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I do not know who you are but definitely you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already 😉 Cheers!

  4. karachikhatmal / Jul 27 2012 9:05 pm

    One of the issues/challenges with critique is that they reveal at least as much of the author as they do about the subject. And more often than not, authors can’t help but see anything beyond the biases they hold.

    So many people who write professionally (i.e. in op-eds, policy papers, grant proposals etc) are almost bound to conform to pre-existing narratives. And a single piece like this will spawn countless others singing a similar tune because instead of trying to navigate through the art scene (in this case) they would just reference the simplistic picture given by the AAP piece.

    Of course, within media coverage of Pakistani culture, such a piece would fit right in, since everything from Adil Omar’s raps to Dominatrix-costume-sewing-labourers have been portrayed as trying to wade off the omnipresent threat of extremism and facing a losing cause. But it is disturbing that even high-brow publications are insistent on sticking to this line.

    Ever since we moved to Defence, my parents have embarked on an art-buying spree, and the place is chock-full of calligraphies and rural types doing folksy stuff etc. I thought it was an insulated habit, but until you just pointed it out I hadn’t realised that there are actually tons of galleries and lots of people buying art.

    Which makes me wonder why people are so loath to try and understand society’s regard for art. I mean, what do people think about it? Not whether they want to buy it or ban it, but what do they feel about art’s place in society? And it would be pointless to just flat-out ask people, especially as a journalist, because they would likely respond with answers they think they should give. But if you try and look at people’s actions and reactions and use your own experience to try and construct a picture of what it means, you get a much clearer idea.

    This limitation of critique exists for Pakistani film and music too, but interestingly, the critique of cricket as a cultural force often breaks out of these limits, which serves to highlight that it is possible to try and view these things outside of the terrorism/Moozlamic narratives.

    • the s.a. project / Jul 27 2012 10:50 pm

      Thanks for the detailed feedback! And love your twitter recommendation.

      And you make a valid point about regurgitation of cliched views and opinions about…well everything. We as Pakistani’s seem to suffer a lot because of this. And most of the times, I really do believe, that it is unintentional. Many people fall into the trap, even when they want to be promoting an insider’s image.
      Where it concerns Pakistani art, there is a lot of material on the same kind of thought found again and again, simply because very few people research and write on it, in comparison to any other field, or another facet of our culture even. It just keeps getting replicated in different forms.

      Let’s keep talking, writing. Walking (Johnny Walker?)

  5. Salman Toor / Jul 27 2012 10:18 pm

    Good work, Saira.
    Strangely, it’s a lot of fun to make art in Lahore. I missing working there right now. The real and imagined radars I have in NYC, the enormous bulk of DuChampian junk and the worthless noise disappears and allows one to be oneself. The problem, of course, is that to create (paint) anything of real consequence is considered an unforgivable transgression in Pakistan. Which is why I can understand when local artists create networks of dealers and buyers abroad. There are a few serious buyers in Pakistan as well and one hopes one day their enormous private collections of the best Pakistani art will be accessible to everyone.

    • the s.a. project / Jul 27 2012 10:43 pm

      Thanks for your comment Salman.

      That’s very true and actually one of the things that I really do think about. Will generous private collectors in Pakistan ever open up their treasure trove for all to see? There are some great examples across the world of such exhibitions and foundations, but then thats a crazy amount of money involved.

      As for creating networks abroad – there is no harm in it. It is a natural extension of one’s work and a desire to participate at a more global level.

      In any case, Lahore comes with its bitter lemons, and all of us who are part of its art world (physically or in satellite forms) love to make some good lemonade.

      Good luck with your work! x

  6. peter bradshaw / Jul 28 2012 8:45 pm

    for outstanding contribution towards lime lighting the art of contemporary system and artists the sao paulo gallery of contemporary arts confer upon you the mark goebbels award…

    hope u will like it

  7. Nashmia Haroon / Jul 28 2012 10:50 pm

    Bohat sahee. But its a shame that no one thinks like that or rather acts upon stuff thats writen out there. We need more writers (with balls) like you in the art scene. Shabash*.

  8. Khanistan / Jul 29 2012 2:57 am

    Wel said Saira 🙂

    Well i can proudly say I’ve displayed Nudes, semi Nudes & homoerotic works at Alhumra with no issues and they have even sold those works and even published them in the catalogs . And this is the young artists exhibition i am talking about, which is a very very public event and any one & every one can and do come.

    once we even drove around Lahore with the painting of a Huge dark naked guy sticking out like a sore thumb from above our jeep, cuz the painting was big, so we took the hood off and stuck it in from above.
    No one complained or stopped us, the policemen parked in front of us on the red light sitting in a Van just kept looking at our jeep smiling and giggling which actually made us realize that the naked guy is very viable and those Policemen had their Ak47s in their hands, No one shot us, no one questioned us and no one stopped us even and we just took pictures of our viewers pointing Him out to each other, The people of Lahore are quite tolerant & have a sense of humor.
    out of the 8 mullasutra series is did only one was sold abroad all the rest were sold right here in Lahore on the same price.
    The collectors are there in Lahore and I dont know how but they do some how find you and get to you and then slowly more people.

    What I am trying to say is, We are alright at least for now and the situation is getting better, it is not as bleak as it has been painted. Ive made homoerotic art for the past 6 years or more I think And displayed them Publicly and so far i have not been shot and I’ve payed my rent & my tuition on time 🙂 Alhumdulilah!

    so let us by all means just Paint!

  9. peter bradshaw / Jul 30 2012 4:50 am

    can you guys forward me the email of collin david?

    • the s.a. project / Jul 30 2012 7:18 am

      Colin David passed away a few years ago. So no way really to get in touch with him.

      • peter bradshaw / Jul 30 2012 8:41 pm

        i see…….i bought one of his paintings from sao paulo society some time ago….

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