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March 25, 2013 / the s.a. project

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.


AQDear 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.


NEXT ON THE s.a. PROJECT: Art week Dubai and everything related. In my opinion!



Leave a Comment
  1. Usman / Mar 26 2013 2:51 am

    Brilliant, I actually messaged him to say, ‘thank you’ after reading it, I had been feeling agitated for a few weeks and felt like Pakistani artists had been belittled with some narrow mindedness or just lack of interest but a session attended by people from Pakistan and other countries, I felt it was a really tacky drama whereas it should and could have been an intellectual forum for discussion and learning for the people interested in art and Pakistani artists in particular but sadly I was ticked off when he couldn’t remember the name of an artist. I had gone especially for this talk and felt like I had been cheated. I’d just say, a change is needed in the mindset of people and talks like these do not help.

  2. clapclap / Mar 26 2013 6:36 am

    haha.. and what’s up with Quddus Mirza’s whack sense of humor. He comes across as a sexist chauvinist pig. Also, i already know who his artist friends are because that’s all he writes about… besides the ones he intends to make friends with. He can never hold any conversation without making a sexist or perverted sneer.

    • the s.a. project / Mar 27 2013 11:24 am

      Hey thats a little harsh now isn’t it! Lets stick to the actual subject at hand – the content of the forum. I’m friends with him and he’s never written about me 😀 Actually who would ever want to write about me. Scratch that out!

  3. dot / Mar 26 2013 8:03 am

    “the media projection of us now defines our identity….”…sad i think even the artists are prejecting the same

  4. zafar / Mar 26 2013 8:44 am

    You have the right analysis which is pointed out clearly pointed out, the whole problem lies in “vested interest” and thus promoting a certain group.

  5. sultana / Mar 26 2013 10:34 pm

    interesting. i’m totally for the thandi chai 🙂 but i feel that Abdullah needed to drink some thandi chai before writing this. i wish i was there during that talk and as i wasn’t i can only comment a bit about the content that Abdullah has shared..

    As per my experience Quddus Mirza is one of the most honest and encouraging people I’ve ever come across. His strong opinions and genuine criticism might not work for many..due to which i can see that his list of dislikers may be much bigger than his list of likers. he’s the last person in this world to be for ‘themes’ and ‘stereo-types’…im a living example as i’ve hardly ever sold my work…burqaas, planes or bombs have never-ever been a part of my not a part of the ‘who’s-who’ of the art scene..but still..he’s always proved to be a great mentor. I’ve read articles by him where he has bluntly pointed out weaknesses in the works of some people who are his great friends.. !!

    And what’s wrong with the term personal-history..kindly liberate yourself and broaden your understanding of words…maybe he used those two words as another ‘new’ word for an autobiography..
    he thinks that shazia sikander is not pakistani..u can agree or disagree if you want to..
    i agree with you.. experienced people need to be responsible…. but talented, opinionated and influential people like you need to be responsible enough as well… measuring the honesty of a person who has contributed so much to art …after one ‘talk’ that you didn’t agree with. that fair? 🙂

    • the s.a. project / Mar 27 2013 11:22 am

      I’m so glad you decided to write in. A lot of people actually send in hatemail or do group bashing. Your comment is somewhat in the line of what I encouraged in Abdullah’s write-up – The ability to express your opinions legitimately and in a mature manner without resorting to outright character assassinations. Which unfortunately have happened in the comments above and in many conversations I’ve had with others.

      Like I mentioned in this post, I actually have a very good relationship with Quddus Shb and he has often spoken to me critically about my work – and I have almost always taken his critique constructively except when I want to go bash my head in the wall.

      The point is – opinions do matter. But more often than not we are programmed to accept the opinions of established ‘opinion-makers’ and do not either speak up ourselves or encourage others to either. Having opinions in the Pakistani art world means to actually step out of a box, out of the comfort zone, and express your thoughts and then wait for the bullets to come your way! There is no definition of right and wrong. I’m usually always saying stuff no one agrees with. But if we all learn to state opinions without actually resorting to maliciousness, there is still hope for discourse.

  6. Atteqa Ali / Mar 28 2013 1:30 am

    this article does address some valid points–the writer in question does make inappropriate remarks and is very judgmental without being wholly informed. but i think in general abdullah’s article is not very strong. i especially don’t like that the supporting of political art in Pakistan is seen as a bad or detrimental thing. life in pakistan is political and if someone wants to make political work, then so be it. news flash: making a picture of a burqa or bomb is not necessarily going to get you attention in the global art world, even with the support of supposed art critics. this is way too simplistic an understanding of a complex scenario.

    • s.a. / Mar 28 2013 3:59 pm

      I agree with you on that fact that life in Pakistan is political and the artist are obviously affected and influenced by it. Hence ‘war imagery’ or political work cannot be written off. Neither is supporting such work detrimental. However, I agree with Abdullah on the use/overuse/abuse of such imagery for the sake of defining what Pakistani art is. Yet the effort lies in the audience being engaged enough to differentiate between genuine expression and that which isn’t. Even while I write this, I realize how ridiculous it sounds and how hard it is to define the two. But while burqa/bombs might not necessarily get one attention as an artist, it will get attention for its intrinsic shock value that is always so desirable to the ‘outsider’. Again, there is no concrete solution to this – except maybe that we need to embrace into our narrative many other contemporary artists and their visuals that are working on completely different tangents.
      My head is a big box of mess right now and I can’t seem to state my thoughts coherently in this reply and so I apologise. Maybe later, maybe in Pakistan we can talk more about this.

  7. AQ / Apr 5 2013 2:02 pm

    Finally someone had the guts to stand up and speak out against the narrow-minded, myopic world view of someone like QM.Thank you!

    I hope more people will stand up and speak out against his brand of cronyism and nepotism. For too long his ilk have been systematically and unfairly shutting out artists from progressing, while promoting his favourites and friends.

  8. Nobody / Apr 6 2013 4:12 pm

    This is not hate mail. The author has given full justification for his negative views of QM, most of it is already known to a wide circle of artists. Although, no body dared to write about it. Can someone tell how a person of so limited intelligence can become an art columnist in a Sunday edition of a leading English daily in Lahore? Ask the Editor, FZ! His license to kill as an art critic stems from his position in the Fine department at NCA, where he played havoc with generation of tender minds with his twisted and heartless comedy. As as an aide to SH, who mentored him all his life, he was able to perpetuate a hegemony of a group of artists from Lahore, who controlled the Pakistani art world through galleries, press reviews and international shows. Shazia Sikander went solo after becoming rich and famous in US- and entered in a global art world of diaspora artists. At a personal level, QM suffers a deep seated inferiority complex which he acquired as a eager young man at NCA, who had come from a artisan family in a village, and was forced to survive in a engrezi mahul – where creativity is steeped in elitism. The harsh reality is a character of an artist intellectual whose judgements are colored by his prejudices- and sadly there is a long list of those. And my judgment is that he should be exposed to his peers!

  9. Aliph / Jul 26 2013 1:29 pm

    i did not like QM’s talk at LLF — dull and boring. but this article by Bonbon is pure bakwas. these both things got nothing to with pakistani art.

    • Fatima Zahra Hassan - ZAHRA / Feb 6 2015 4:20 pm

      Pakistani art has to be re-defined and explained by those who are knowledgeable and not make shift writers. I am sorry to say that but unfortunately, people who claim to be the critics have no standing and know nothing about the art history of the region with reference to what Pakistan is today in terms of art, etc.

  10. Fatima Zahra Hassan - ZAHRA / Feb 6 2015 4:04 pm

    Reblogged this on Zahra's Blog and commented:
    Thank you, Saira Ansari for sharing this and thank you Bonbon. I know it is rather late as we are approaching 2015 Lahore Literary Festival, but it is never too late!


  1. Outsider, Insider – How the politics of identity is informing the Pakistani art scene | The s.a. Project

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