Year in review: Art Talk

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Left to right: Dr Amin Jaffer; Sameera Raja; Rashid Rana; Naazish Ata-Ullah; Imran Qureshi

Clockwise: Dr Amin Jaffer; Sameera Raja; Rashid Rana; Naazish Ata-Ullah; Imran Qureshi

It’s a small world, after all — so runs the refrain amongst the community of Pakistani artists that endeavour to keep the industry thriving at home and, despite a restrictive infrastructure, produce art that creates a huge buzz abroad. The Herald invited four panellists to share their views about why Pakistani art attracts keen collectors:

Dr Amin Jaffer, author and international director of Asian art at Christie’s in London; globally recognised for his innovative art practice, Rashid Rana, associate professor at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore; artist Imran Qureshi teaches miniature painting at the National College of Arts; artist and critic, Quddus Mirza; and gallerist Sameera Raja of Karachi’s Canvas Gallery. They were joined by Nasreen Askari, curator of the Mohatta Palace Museum and art educator, writer and artist Naazish Ata-Ullah, curator for Rana’s upcoming mid-career retrospective, Labyrinth of Reflections: The Art of Rashid Rana 1992–2012. They argued that while Pakistani art generates much lucrative interest abroad it is not losing ground at home, either.

Herald. When we talk about Pakistani art being valued overseas, what criteria are we looking at?
Dr Amin Jaffer. Curatorial appreciation is one important dimension.
Sameera Raja. It’s more about who is showing what and what they intend to achieve. The criterion is set by the works.
Nasreen Askari. This [increasing value of Pakistani art abroad] is a recent phenomenon. Pakistan has come into sharp focus for obvious reasons and its art is attracting a great deal of curiosity. Certainly the quality of art is also an important factor.
Raja. If we have a museum show like Hanging Fire at the Asia Society Museum, curated by Salima Hashmi in New York (2009), that sets a standard and a certain level of awareness, as it is promoted by a reputable art related person.
Quddus Mirza. One has to think about why Hanging Fire was initiated in the first place. I feel Pakistani contemporary art is appreciated, and certainly collected, more abroad than at home.
Jaffer. I cannot speak much for the local audience but I can say that curators and collectors alike respond favourably to works by contemporary Pakistani artists, whether seen at Hanging Fire or in Venice or in a saleroom context. I’m speaking particularly about non-South Asians who have a wide experience in assessing artistic merit. There seems to be a universal appreciation for both the quality and technique, and the underlying message of contemporary Pakistani artists.
Taimur Suri. Besides skill, it is also awareness of critical theories and engagement of these with contemporary artists.
Rashid Rana. It’s not just ‘art from Pakistan’ that is getting attention; art from developing countries is [almost] freed from the burden of tradition and is becoming transnational, in that it’s now showing different facets [of indigenous culture] as opposed to just one.

Herald. Does Pakistani art sell outside of the country because it has become political?
Rana. The bad news coming out of Pakistan is a factor generating interest but it is not the main reason. And proportionately contemporary art from Pakistan is not getting extraordinary attention. It is part of a larger phenomenon.
Askari. I would agree with Rashid.
Jaffer. People are astonished that works of art of such quality – and often subversive and complex in message – are coming out of Pakistan.
Mirza. Yes, but one has to question, whether this focus will disappear once the political attention goes away. Is it seen as art from a country or by a group of artists?
Suri. Even with growing interest, for many local art collectors, things have changed.

Herald. How necessary is global interest for Pakistani art to continue flourishing? And is this response of late, or have things been this way for a while?
Naazish Ata-Ullah. It’s important, in my opinion. Indeed the world has shrunk and art is universally accessible in a way that we couldn’t even imagine a decade ago. The audience is ever on the increase as awareness grows.
Rana. Global interest is important as we live in a small world now. Whatever the reasons for attracting international attention, artists are now also getting attention locally. And how to maintain this momentum could be the question so that, in retrospect, we are not just the flavour of the month. For that, different facets of an art infrastructure have to be nourished and not just a single dimension which at the moment (fortunately) is art academia.

Askari. Amin, you and Sameera have a particular and special take on the markets abroad which we do not necessarily have except if we follow auction houses and galleries diligently.
Jaffer. I work ‘on the ground’ with international collectors and they are inspired by what they see coming out of Pakistan. They don’t feel that way about work coming out of neighbouring countries, for instance. As someone mentioned, the very particular political position of Pakistan makes the work of its artists deeply relevant to an international audience.
Raja. I think, other than the content, which is a big reason, it is also the skill and technique which interests the global patrons. Am I correct, Amin?
Jaffer. Yes, in an age when this is fast disappearing, the quality of draughtsmanship is admired.
Imran Qureshi. I think you cannot separate these two things for producing successful artwork.
Ata-Ullah. Virtuosity for its own sake is not enough.

Herald. If art is accessible in ways that we didn’t even know existed previously, do collectors here and abroad understand the value of Pakistani art?
Raja. Yes, the collector is aware of the importance, not the buyer. There is a big difference [between the two] which most people overlook.

Dr Amin Jaffer. Rashid, you refer to an infrastructure whether it receives government support or not, including institutions such as art schools. How does the art world today help in that regard?
Rana. The art scene in the developed world functions within the larger economic system of capitalism. It consists of many players and institutions. They help the longevity of the scene. In Pakistan, we have many players and institutions missing.
Raja. Art schools in Pakistan play a huge role. Very rarely will you see so many accomplished artists with thriving practices imparting back into the system through institutional teaching. We also have a corporate sector for art missing; so we primarily have a small art world. The media also plays a huge part in this.
Jaffer. Plenty of private support will be required to develop that infrastructure. Leading arts institutions in Britain and America – including the great national museums – began as a result of private philanthropy and commitment to the arts.
Naiza Khan. The local collector base needs to be expanded. We cannot produce art students without a strong and diverse market base.

 

Is Pakistani art valued more abroad than it is locally?*
Yes 79%
No 21%

 

*The above question was posed to online readers during the two-hour live discussion

Mirza. I wonder what kind of collector collects contemporary art from Pakistan, without being lured by a gallery or without having a relationship with the artist?
Jaffer. Museums endorse the work of contemporary artists; they are essential in the validation process.
Raja. There are collectors who may not have 700 paintings yet, but will get there. The collector is a younger, more informed person. Collecting art is new for Pakistan. There are some who have been collecting for many years and some that have just started. Many more will start.

Yusra Askari. And what about art as an investment?
Ata-Ullah. Collecting is not necessarily for investment. If I have money to spare, and often even when I don’t, I still enjoy buying art that I find stimulating.
Rana. I think we hardly have ‘contemporary art’ collectors locally. Lack of awareness and education, and bad economy [leads to] less diversification of investment. In India, because of better education and awareness, young businessmen in their 30s think of investing in art and not just real estate, which often leads to some of them becoming genuine collectors.

Jaffer. New question: Will Pakistan have a presence in the Venice Biennale 2013? I ask this because [participation] reflects local commitment towards making an international impact.
Ata-Ullah. Pakistan won’t have an official presence because the state won’t support it. We have experienced this in the past.
Qureshi. I think there will be some presence of Pakistani art in Venice (still confidential … cannot disclose the name of the artist).
Jaffer. What about an unofficial pavilion such as [the one] it had a couple of years ago? It was critically acclaimed.
Rana. Who would finance an unofficial pavilion?
Jaffer. Galleries! It happens all over Venice. State support tends to follow after private patrons make enough noise.
Rana. A group of UK-based Pakistani individuals tried to raise funds for an unofficial pavilion but no one responded positively.
Ata-Ullah. Official participation is a validation of the state’s commitment to art and culture.
Jaffer. India had a pavilion last Venice Biennale for the first time. Getting that far took endless lobbying.
Ata-Ullah. The work that the government is supposed to do is often better executed by NGOs but that doesn’t absolve it of its responsibility.
Qureshi. The reason is obvious: due to political pressure, will the government select the appropriate persons to curate the pavilion and work independently?
Ata-Ullah. As far as art is concerned, the Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA) tries to be democratic and fails. The government gets the taxpayer’s money for the PNCA and it should deliver. They too need to be educated. We have to fight for that as well.
Qureshi. Yes, the PNCA is the best example of the government supporting art and you can see what kind of art they are promoting.

Herald. If the art world doesn’t collectively lobby the government, especially as they’ve already kick-started much of what’s happening, then will private patrons continue to bridge the gap when it comes to sponsoring museums, educational institutes etc.?
Ata-Ullah. We have to continue to struggle, in my view.
Rana. In our case, the private sector is key. We should not bank on the government, at least not for the next few years.

Yaminay Chaudhri. Public institutions (like the National Endowment for the Arts or the New York Foundation for the Arts) have helped independent artists tremendously in the US through grants and scholarships — often with few or no strings attached. Having something similar in Pakistan would be tremendous. Would you please comment on this?
Mirza. In the US or UK, these institutions select people through a fair process or on the basis of their abilities — not in Pakistan, where there are other processes which are mostly a way to oblige someone else.
Raja. I believe [public institutions] would [help] but when it comes to state sponsorship, I am not sure if something like ‘no strings attached’ will apply.

Saira Ansari. Do you consider opportunities for diaspora artists and Pakistan-based artists as equal when connecting to international audiences and collectors?
Rana. Diaspora artists would get more opportunities in the 1990s but this has now changed. Artists working in their places of origin between 2001 and 2010 started getting more attention from the world outside. (I am making a generalisation. There are exceptions). And now, it does not make a difference wherever you are. If the work has something in it, it will get its due respect.

Mohsin Siddiqui. There’s certainly high valuation of Pakistani art abroad, but it’s hardly low locally. One of the problems for local aspiring collectors is that galleries and artists are priced well beyond the price point for even upper middle-class incomes. You can hardly build a collectors’ mindset or group when the art is rarely available for purchase beyond a limited audience.
Raja. Galleries do not price the works. Artists do, or their fellow artists. At a recent thesis show and at our own show, we had works as low as in 4 digits… where are the people then? If they like high-end work, I guess they have to pay high-end prices.
Rana. Public museums are for people who cannot afford art. And the price is something that artist’s cannot control. In 2007, I insisted galleries that represented me keep prices low. But as a result part-time collectors who bought them were tempted to sell them for huge prices and they did in fact sell them for 10 times the profit. Everyone has a role to play in the art scene. Investor-collectors or bigger genuine collectors should worry about prices. Genuine art admires will get to see art one way or the other.
Qureshi. I have a completely different story about pricing. For years, I priced my work differently in Pakistan and abroad. Until 2006, the work I sold for 5,000 pounds in Europe, was sold for 75,000 rupees here. Luckily, I found a gallerist who completely understands my point of view; that Pakistan is a different country and it is more important that my work is acquired by more people rather than be inaccessible art.
My gallerist would inform his collectors that they might find the same work in his [the artist’s] home country at a lower price but none of them refused to buy the work for that reason. I think it also depends on who buys art. Is he or she just an investor or a fashionable art collector or a serious collector? For the latter, these things never matter.
Jaffer. I can see both sides of the story. On the one hand, an international market price makes sense and is fair; but to nurture a local audience, sometimes a two-tier pricing is the best encouragement. A true collector will go where the best work is.
Mirza. I think Pakistani art is appreciated more abroad, as it is shown more abroad and collected there. I think it’s a good sign of development for Pakistani art, both for artists working here and anywhere else.
Rana. I don’t think there is a huge difference. It may seem huge because interest in ‘art from Pakistan’ (or from any other developing country) is really a recent phenomenon. I don’t think art from Pakistan in the context of the international art scene is a major factor. I would like to see more players contribute to the local infrastructure than just art academia. An art scene just revolving around art academia is not healthy. Generally, in the present scenario with the explosion of free media in Pakistan, creative people and intellectuals have been marginalised. I don’t see art becoming a focus for the government or media in the near future. But we can avoid being the flavour of the month if supported by critical discourse, publishing and private patronage.

Herald’s pick of Art for the year 2012

Hajj: Journey Through the Heart of Islam, British Museum, London
Curated by Venetia Porter, this exhibition focused on the history of Islam and the region, while looking at the material culture surrounding the religion.

Art at the London 2012 Olympic Games
An aquatics center constructed by renowned Iraqi-British artist, Zaha Hadid, known for her sculptural designs.

Artist Anish Kapoor won a commission for the Orbit at the London Olympic Park, in collaboration with structural engineer Cecil Balmond, which visitors were encouraged to descend through a spiral staircase of 455 steps.

Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, Turkey
Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk opened a museum based on his 2008 novel, Museum of Innocence. Displays are organised according to the storyline in the novel.

Damien Hirst, Tate Modern, London
Curated by Ann Gallagher, conceptual artist Damien Hirst’s retrospective was the most visited solo show in the museum’s history.

Mughal India: Art, Culture and EmpireBritish Library, London
Curated by Dr Malini Roy, this exhibit is the first to document the period, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, through more than 200 exquisite objects covering the entire 350-year history of the Mughal Empire.

New Works by Iqbal Hussain
The Look, Canvas Gallery, Karachi
An engaging new work, capturing the ethos of the women who live and work in Lahore’s red light district.

Mohammad Ali Talpur, Alif, Green Cardamom, London
Talpur takes calligraphy as inspiration for works that denote an introspective quality, with an almost-peaceful, meditative quality.

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
A landmark exhibition with 300 works focusing on two centuries that shaped the medieval world, showing cultural adaptations and innovations.

Letters to Taseer, The Drawing Room Gallery, Lahore
Curated by Salima Hashmi, a poignant tribute to Taseer on his first death anniversary, featured works by artists such as Faiza Butt, Imran Mudasser and Mohammad Ali Talpur.

dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany
An ‘Everest for curators’, this is a five-yearly exhibition which sprawls through Kassel and beyond for more than a 100 days. Shattered fragments of the Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban, were shown.

The Unilever Series – Tino Sehgal 2012, Tate Modern, London
Sehgal’s, These Associations, consisting purely of live encounters between people, was the museum’s first live commission under the series sponsored by Unilever.

 

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