THE ENDURING FACTIONALISM OF THE PAKISTANI ART WORLD.
Despite its many troubles, or perhaps because they call for sustained reflection in the realm of culture, Pakistan today produces art, music, and literature of remarkable originality. Although art is the most rarefied of these cultural fields, being accessible to the smallest number of buyers and audiences, it has arguably become the most factionalized of them all.
In my last piece for Newsweek I wrote about this conflicted world, describing how a few artist-critics were creating a canon for Pakistani art on the basis of censorship, exclusion, and a nationalism that is constantly disavowed. These were the very characteristics, I pointed out, which had defined the country’s long experience of dictatorship, whose culture therefore lives on in the work of those who profess to decry it.
That piece aroused some debate in the art world. Two of the art historians I had criticized complained, on this newsmagazine’s website, of “outrageous” and “unbalanced attacks” against them. The professional nous of these artist-critics to select and evaluate art help them determine its aesthetic and market value for museums, galleries, and collectors globally. But their links with particular artists and institutions make it difficult to distinguish the art historian from the agent.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with art historians preferring and even promoting some artists over others. What raises eyebrows, though, is the seemingly careful framing of Pakistan’s art history in such a way as to foreground friends and to marginalize, if not quite eliminate, rivals. Because artist-critics like Iftikhar Dadi and Virginia Whiles have produced the founding script of Pakistan’s art history, all subsequent interventions will have to take their narrative into account. This is why it must be contested.
Dadi, who teaches art history at Cornell, responded to my article by arguing that his Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia was neither a “broad, bland survey” nor devoted to contemporary art, but was a selective study of modernism in 20th-century South Asia. This is not true. Instead of being about “Muslim South Asia,” itself a meaningless aesthetic category, his book is devoted in nationalist fashion to Pakistan, treated as if it were the political telos of all the subcontinent’s Muslims. Unfortunately, the title ends up marginalizing non-Muslim South Asian greats, such as Pakistan’s Colin David.
Pakistani art is promoted as a form of Third World development.
Justifying the inclusion of his own work as part of the “Karachi Pop” movement in one of the book’s two sections on contemporary art, Dadi asks if I am “seriously suggesting that I should have omitted even this brief mention, and provide no context whatsoever for Karachi during the 1990s?” But as Ardy Cowasjee, owner of Karachi’s Ziggurat Gallery, points out in another comment to my earlier piece, it was Unver Shafi and Amin Gulgee who dominated the city’s art scene in that decade, so Dadi’s claim to be providing a “context” for it is somewhat disingenuous—especially since he ignores these artists.
Pakistani art is promoted for a global audience as if it were a form of Third World development, with its role in the empowerment of women, for instance, lauded in award statements. No Western artist, of course, would be described in this way, which throws light on the problematic entanglements, essentially with the marketing of a country’s misery, in which its Pakistani practitioners as much as critics are bound. But Dadi denies relying upon patriarchal genealogies by mentioning his work on female artists like Zubeida Agha. It was not the presence or absence of women in his narrative to which I objected, but rather the use of genealogy as itself a patriarchal form.
Dadi also takes umbrage at my suggestion that he’s unaware of the historical context in which the artists he studies work. Of this I gave two small examples, the first being Risham Syed’s use of the number 5. Similarly he doesn’t notice that Saira Waseem’s painting Round Table Conference might invoke the Round Table Conferences of the 1930s that decided Pakistan’s future. The futility of the original Round Table Conferences is mirrored in the meetings of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to which Waseem’s painting refers. But Dadi justifies these absences by stating that he is only responsible for the references his artists mention. To be sure, the art historian should trace the social resonance of symbols and terms beyond artistic intentionality.
Whiles, who teaches at the Chelsea College of Arts, had a walk-on role in my article; I dedicated one sentence to her Art and Polemic in Pakistan: Cultural Politics and Tradition in Contemporary Miniature Painting. Her response to my piece is unscholarly, and relies on personal and ad hominem arguments. Whiles can’t understand why someone not connected to the art world and its system of favors should risk writing, as I did, for no apparent cause or benefit. She describes my piece as “a foul text full of anger and subjective spite.” Having toyed with my being a “frustrated groupie” as a possible cause for the article, Whiles finally decides that I must have a “psychoanalytic” motive.
It is no accident that those who accuse others of psychoanalytic motivations should display them so clearly in their own writing. Thus Whiles imagines the late Zahoor ul Akhlaq launching a physical attack on me. Since I had acknowledged his role in the development of the new miniature, it is not clear why she thinks Akhlaq would engage me in “fisticuffs.” But given the fact that he had been murdered in exactly such an attack, this image is in rather poor taste.
Whiles also claims to be “speaking truth to power,” which I wouldn’t have thought possible for a London-based academic whose work involves marketing high-end art to elite buyers. But maybe she is part of the same vanguard as Edward Snowden, and we just didn’t know it. If not honesty, can we at least expect some humility from Whiles about the profession she and I both share?
From our March 22, 2014, issue.
BY FAISAL DEVJI – MAR 18 2014
This essay must start with a qualification: it offers only a selective overview of developments in modern and contemporary art in Pakistan. Here, the term modern is used for the art produced between the middle of the 20th century and the beginning of 1990s. After that contemporary art comes into vogue. Modernism largely avoids engagement with the immediate and the present.
Rather than focusing on specific social circumstances or engaging with current events, modern art offers metaphoric and transcendent alternatives to the real world. Its materials and mediums seek permanence. By contrast, contemporary art is immersed in the immediate and the present. Unlike modernism, it offers no transcendence but instead engages with existing conditions. It is often post-medium, as contemporary artists usually employ diverse materials and techniques that include ephemeral and time-based mediums.
Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1894-1975) enjoyed a long and productive career and stands out as the first prominent modern Indian Muslim artist. He studied at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore circa 1911 and began painting early in his life. He forged a distinctive style and grounded his art in the ideas of Urdu writers and poets. By the 1920s, under the influence of poet Muhammad Iqbal’s pan-Islamic ideas, he started basing his paintings on consciously Islamic and Mughal aesthetics. His influential publication – Muraqqa’-i Chughtai (published in 1928) that illustrates the poetry of Mirza Ghalib – marks this shift. Chughtai and Iqbal possessed a cosmopolitan Muslim imagination during the first half of the 20th century when independent nation states in South Asia and much of the Middle East had not yet materialised. But while Iqbal’s later poetry and philosophy is characterised by dynamism, Chughtai’s artistic ethos is marked by introspective stasis. His early paintings are set outdoors or in simple architectural frames, illustrating Hindu mythological figures. By contrast, his later paintings are set in arabesque interiors in which female figures are covered in elaborate, stylised layers of clothing. These paintings are not based on a particular narrative but create an aesthetic universe akin to the one conjured by classical Urdu ghazal.
Chughtai was over 50 years old in 1947 but, while he remained an admired figure, he had no prominent disciples in the newly created Pakistan who would follow in his artistic footsteps. Pakistani art needed a new formal language that could better express the challenges of mid-century modernity and decolonisation. For a fully modernist artistic practice to emerge, Pakistan also needed a restructuring of its art schools and exhibition venues since a large number of art teachers, students and curators had left for India after Partition.
At the time of its creation, the country faced a difficult landscape for fine arts. Even Lahore – that at the time had two schools for art instruction, the Mayo School of Art and the Department of Fine Arts at the Punjab University – was in a poor shape because of the departure of many art instructors and students. Karachi virtually had no art scene before 1947 and there was not a single art school in East Pakistan.
Key institutional developments took place over the next two decades. The Mayo School of Art was upgraded to the National College of Arts in 1958, a move that facilitated a greater focus on the teaching of modern art. During the tenure of Shakir Ali (1916-1975) – first as an instructor in painting from 1952 to 1961 and then as principal from 1961 to 1969 – National College of Arts became an incubator of modernism in West Pakistan. At the Punjab University, expressionist painter Anna Molka Ahmed (1917-1995) became the head of the Department of Fine Arts and held the post for many years, organising numerous exhibitions during the 1950s and publishing many catalogues on emerging artists. In Dhaka, Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) founded the influential Institute of Fine Arts in 1948. Artistic societies and arts councils emerged in many cities. These included the Arts Council in Karachi, the Alhamra Arts Council in Lahore and the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Rawalpindi that artist Zubeida Agha (1922-1997) headed for 16 years beginning in 1961. When scholar and historian Aziz Ahmad noted in 1965 that the “Westernized elite of Pakistan takes its modern art seriously”, he was also commenting on the evolving reception of modern art in the country over the previous 17 years.
Zainul Abedin, one of the best-known artists at the birth of Pakistan, played a key role in promoting art across the country, especially in East Pakistan. He studied painting at the Government School of Art in Calcutta from 1933 to 1938 and then taught there until 1947 before moving to Dhaka. His work first attracted public attention in 1943 when he produced a powerful series of drawings on the famine in Bengal. As the founder principal of Dhaka’s Institute of Fine Arts, he soon turned it into the best art school in Pakistan. Not only was his art practice exemplary for his students, he was also respected for his administrative skills which he judiciously exercised to promote art and crafts in both wings of the country. After Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, he came to be regarded as the founding figure of modern Bangladeshi art.
His practice was divided between modernist experimentation and depiction of folk and tribal elements in East Bengal’s culture. As Badruddin Jahangir has pointed out, Zainul Abedin avoided painting “pictures of Muslim glory” like Chughtai did. He, instead, portrayed peasants and bulls from rural Bengal. Human beings and animals in his work appear as labouring bodies and heroic figures engaged in struggle. He also recognised the need to create a rooted modern high culture because the Bengali bhadralok (elite) high culture of those times was seen as Hindu culture and was thus disapproved of by the West Pakistani ideologues. He argued for, and practised, a “Bengali modernism” based on folk themes, abstracting them into motifs characterised by rhythm and arrangement of colour and pattern.
Other artists from East Pakistan active during 1950s and 1960s include Quamrul Hassan (1921-1988), SM Sultan (1923–1994), Hamidur Rahman (1928-1988), Mohammad Kibria (1929-2011), Aminul Islam (1931-2011) and the pioneering modernist sculptor Novera Ahmed (1939-2015). A lively artistic exchange then flourished between the eastern and western wing of the country despite political tensions. Exhibitions in one wing featured works from the other wing and artists travelled frequently between the two parts of Pakistan.
Zubeida Agha’s solo exhibition of provocative “ultra-modern” paintings in 1949 “fired the first shot”, as noted a critic who marked it as a key event in the emergence of modernism in the country. She was Pakistan’s first properly modernist painter. Her enlightened family had encouraged her early interest in art in the 1940s. She was deeply struck by the modernist painter Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) who had died young in Lahore and whose unconventional life and art have become the stuff of legend. Apart from her work as the director of Rawalpindi’s Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zubeida Agha was involved in discussions and plans for setting up a national art gallery and a national art collection.
She led a mostly reclusive life. Her engagement with modernism was a focused, lifelong endeavour, forged through her study of Greek philosophy, classical Western music and mysticism as well as her fascination with the urban. Her later paintings move between depiction and abstraction and are characterised above all by decorative motifs in dazzling colours. Yet the very richness and surfeit of her ornamental aesthetic create a modernist effect – of a reflexive alienation. Unlike the flattened picture plane of Chughtai’s watercolours, her “third dimension” is seen as a modernist artistic structure in which the dynamism and balance of elements express ideas, tonalities and moods.
Ahmed Parvez (1926-1979), who spent a decade in the United Kingdom starting from 1955 before returning to Pakistan, also developed a dynamic language of colourist abstractions. In contrast with the contemplative compositions of Zubeida Agha’s work, however, his explosive forms mirror his volatile existential dilemmas.
The decades immediately after independence saw important political developments take place that would come to shape modern Pakistani art. Soon after, Pakistan’s founding, military-bureaucratic-industrial establishment concentrated in the western part of the country started following unwise policies that alienated East Pakistan. As a Cold War ally of the United States, Pakistan also suppressed leftist intellectuals and activists. But repression alone cannot fully explain why Pakistani artists disavowed realism and adopted modernism. A major reason was that modernism helped them express subjective and social predicaments in a more complex manner than was possible through realism.
Some early modernists such as Shakir Ali were also leftist political activists. He began his artistic training in 1937 in Delhi and joined the JJ School of Art in Bombay in 1938 as a student. By then he was also contributing progressive Urdu texts to literary journals. He later studied and worked in London, France and Prague for many years. There he was associated with socialist youth groups. His mentoring and personality were decisive in inspiring a generation of students and fellow artists who emerged on the art scene between the 1950s and 1970s. These include figurative cubist painter Ali Imam (1924-2002), Anwar Jalal Shemza (1929-1985) and Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999).
Shakir Ali’s modernism was restrained and disciplined. He focused his work on exploring form and composition rather than on narrative and drama. Birds, cages, moon and flowers became symbols in his paintings for human finitude and its transcendence through imagination. He remained immune to jingoistic motivations as is clear from his refusal to assume a nationalist stance during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. Indeed, the lives of Zubeida Agha, Shakir Ali and many key artists of the generation that followed them, including that of Zahoor ul Akhlaq, are marked by an enigmatic silence on many issues of public importance. Their works were giving shape to an artistic project aimed at exploring visual allegories for ethical and social dilemmas more deeply than was possible through public debate in that era.
During the 1960s and 1970s, calligraphic modernism formed an increasingly influential mode of expression though Hanif Ramay (1930-2006) had started reformulating calligraphy to express abstract ideas as early as the 1950s. Iqbal Geoffrey (born in 1939) developed an expressionist calligraphic practice, accompanied by a playful Dadaist performative persona, during his stay in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1960s. Anwar Jalal Shemza, who was also a noted Urdu writer, moved to the United Kingdom during the mid-1950s and developed an important body of abstract calligraphic work. Inspired by Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, Arabic calligraphy and carpet designs – his family had earlier been involved in the carpet business – he worked out his aesthetic mode of expression over the course of a disciplined career. His Roots series, executed in the mid-1980s towards the end of his life, exhibits remarkable formal restraint as it expresses the anguish of an expatriate. Jamil Naqsh (born in 1938 and now based in London) has also created numerous abstract calligraphic paintings apart from his signature figurative oeuvre.
But the greatest practitioner of calligraphic modernism is Pakistan’s most celebrated artist Sadequain (1930-1987). His rise to extraordinary fame commenced in 1955 when he exhibited his works in Karachi with the support of Prime Minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a liberal patron of arts. Sadequain soon received many prestigious government commissions. A large number of murals he executed between 1957 and his death have reinforced his myth as a suffering but heroic artist. His gigantic 1967 mural at Mangla Dam, titled The Saga of Labour, is based on Iqbal’s poetry and celebrates humanity’s progress through labour and modernisation.
During a residency at Gadani near Karachi in the late 1950s, Sadequain encountered large cactus plants whose vertical, leafless and prickly branches formed silhouettes suggestive of calligraphic forms. He subsequently moved towards an imagery that contained exaggerated linear features drawn like cactus plants. His self-portraits and murals evoke a sense of movement and dynamism that mark his most significant works of the late 1960s, including his 1968 paintings based on Ghalib’s poetry. His residence in Paris during the 1960s was also formative in his artistic development. A 1966 series of drawings he made in France depicts him in his studio with his severed head and in the company of female figures. The drawings associate Sadequain with transgressive Sufis such as Sarmad (whose head was cut off on the order of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1661) and with Picasso’s drawings and prints from 1930s on the mythos of the artist and the model.
Sadequain charted a unique artistic trajectory. He remained close to the state that promoted calligraphy during the Islamisation of the 1970s and 1980s, yet he exhibited aspects of transgressive Sufism through his persona. His star status also allowed him to address an audience wider than the urban elites. As Lahore-based artist Ijaz ul Hassan (born in 1940) has aptly noted: “[Sadequain] never hesitated to glorify the inherent strength and creative spirit of man, and his ability to build a better world … [He] was the first to have liberated painting from private homes and transformed it into a public art … ”
Other modernists have also broken new ground. Rasheed Araeen, who was born in Karachi in 1935 but moved to London in 1964, has been producing art based on constructivism and geometry while at the same time being active against racism and inequality. Race and inequality have formal value as well as social significance in his art. In 1987, he founded and began editing Third Text, a journal that offers an important global critical platform for writings on modern and contemporary art. In recent years, he has engaged more closely with artistic and intellectual developments in Pakistan.
Karachi-based artist Shahid Sajjad (1936-2014) was a pioneer sculptor in carved wood and cast metal. His work continues to influence subsequent practitioners of these genres across Pakistan. AR Nagori (1939-2011), who taught art at the Sindh University, Jamshoro, addressed marginalisation and inequality in expressionist paintings that depict symbolic facets of aboriginal communities in Sindh and the surreal excesses of General Ziaul Haq’s regime. Zahoor ul Akhlaq created drawings, paintings and sculpture that have left deep and formative impacts on numerous artists working today. And Imran Mir (1950-2014) was one of the first few to systematically investigate geometric forms in painting and sculpture.
Many of the latter-day modernists were still actively producing art during the 1990s even though modernism had begun to transition to contemporary art by then.
Contemporary art practices emerged in the context of specific political, economic and global developments: the rise of Islamist politics since the mid-1970s, the emergence of feminist activism during the 1980s, the restoration of an unstable democracy (in 1988-1999), the privatisation of state-owned businesses under direction from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the accelerated growth of mega cities, the migrations of skilled and unskilled workers abroad in large numbers, the arrival of global satellite television in the early 1990s, the advent of the internet and liberalisation of media, and the impact of foreign artists, curators, biennials and residencies. As these developments stirred and agitated the artistic community in Pakistan, some artists found the formal and thematic framework employed by their modernist predecessors as inadequate. Pakistani art practice had been primarily easel-based oil or watercolour painting or sculpture till the early 1990s. Its formal modes were also focused on landscapes, calligraphic abstraction and regional, historical figures and symbols.
Contemporary artists wanted to address social concerns more directly than was possible with the languages of modernism. They were also intrigued by the artistic potential of new mediums and technologies. These motivations are evident in the work of artists who are making increasing forays into mediums previously marginal to art in Pakistan such as performance and video. Sculptor Amin Gulgee has created a regular platform to support performance art in Karachi. Hurmat Ul Ain and Rabbya Nasser have done a number of collaborative performances. Photography has matured as an important medium for artistic expression. While Arif Mahmood has pursued a subjective lyrical approach in his photos, Nashmia Haroon and Naila Mahmood have documented social and spatial inequities in their photography. Others such as Sajjad Ahmed, Aamir Habib, Amber Hammad, Aisha Abid Hussain, Sumaya Durrani, Anwar Saeed, Mohsin Shafi, Mahbub Shah, Zoya Siddiqui and Iqra Tanveer have extensively employed lens-based montage, staging, manipulation and conceptual approaches. Bani Abidi, Sophia Balagam, Yaminay Chaudhri, Ferwa Ibrahim, Haider Ali Jan, Ismet Khawaja, Mariah Lookman, Basir Mahmood, Sarah Mumtaz, Aroosa Rana, Fazal Rizvi and Shahzia Sikander have used video and new media as key modes for their artistic expression.
A representative selection of diverse contemporary artworks can be viewed in the catalogue of the Rising Tide exhibition curated by Naiza Khan in 2010 and in Salima Hashmi’s more recent book, The Eye Still Seeks: Pakistani Contemporary Art (published in 2015).
A major contributor to the growth of contemporary art is the evolution of an art school culture that has proliferated in recent decades. Many innovative contemporary artists today are either former students of the National College of Arts, the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, and the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, or they are teachers at these institutions.
During the last few decades, faculty at the National College of Arts has included such accomplished artists and art teachers as Bashir Ahmad, Naazish Ata-Ullah, Jamil Baloch, Colin David, Salima Hashmi, Muhammad Atif Khan, Afshar Malik, Quddus Mirza, RM Naeem, Imran Qureshi, Qudsia Rahim, Anwar Saeed, Nausheen Saeed and Beate Terfloth. While miniature painting had been taught at the National College of Arts for decades, by the 1980s under encouragement by Zahoor ul Akhlaq – who was interested in the miniature’s underlying structure – its pedagogy converged with other aesthetic frameworks. The National College of Arts has consequently produced notable New Miniature artists from the 1990s onwards. These include Waseem Ahmed, Khadim Ali, Ayesha Durrani, Irfan Hasan, Ahsan Jamal, Aisha Khalid, Hasnat Mehmood, Murad Khan Mumtaz, Imran Qureshi, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Wardha Shabbir, Madiha Sikander, Shahzia Sikander, Aakif Suri, Saira Wasim and Muhammad Zeeshan. Their work ranges from meticulously rendered figures and repeated floral and decorative motifs on vasli paper to unorthodox sculptures and large scale installations.
The other change brought about by the National College of Arts is an expansion of artistic activity beyond the issues and concerns of big cities and the likes and dislikes of their elites. Being a state institution, it admits a diverse student body that cuts across rural and urban divides and other distinctions based on class, province and ethnicity. Many contemporary artists trained by the National College of Arts come from different parts of Pakistan but they have made Lahore their home. A number of them – Noor Ali Chagani, Imran Channa, Shakila Haider, Ali Kazim, Waqas Khan, Nadia Khawaja, Rehana Mangi, Usman Saeed and Mohammad Ali Talpur – employ in their works a rigorous and repetitive mode of expression pioneered by Zahoor ul Akhlaq and the recently deceased former National College of Arts teacher Lala Rukh (1948-2017). While Zahoor ul Akhlaq investigated the tension between geometry and narrative at a structural level, Lala Rukh was steadfastly committed to her spare, minimalist practice on diverse and unorthodox materials.
The simultaneous proliferation of art schools has also created a competitive environment in which teachers and students are more willing to experiment than ever before. The work of many Beaconhouse National University graduates employs innovative conceptual strategies and digital technologies. Salima Hashmi served as the founding dean of its School of Visual Arts & Design from 2003 till recently. Its faculty members have included David Alesworth, Unum Babar, Sophie Ernst, Malcolm Hutcheson, Samina Iqbal, Ghulam Mohammad, Huma Mulji, Rashid Rana, Ali Raza, Razia Sadik and Risham Syed.
The Indus Valley School, founded in 1989, has had a notable art faculty that includes Meher Afroz, Roohi Ahmed, David Alesworth, Elizabeth Dadi, Saba Iqbal, Naiza Khan, Naila Mahmood, Samina Mansuri, Asma Mundrawala, Nurayah Sheikh Nabi, Seher Naveed, Muzzumil Ruheel, Sadia Salim, Gemma Sharpe, Saira Sheikh, Adeela Suleman, Munawar Ali Syed, Omer Wasim and Muhammad Zeeshan. Its teachers and students experiment with diverse forms, structures and materials while focusing on Karachi’s complex urban issues such as identity, labour, infrastructure and public space. Established a decade after the Indus Valley School by artist Durriya Kazi, the Department of Visual Studies at the University of Karachi has also trained many active practitioners of contemporary art.
Some artists trained at these institutions have brought traditional mediums in conversation with diverse non-traditional materials and approaches. Akram Dost Baloch in Quetta and Abdul Jabbar Gull in Karachi, for instance, work with carved, constructed and relief sculptural works. Ehsan ul Haq, Mehreen Murtaza, Seema Nusrat and Ayesha Zulfiqar have made conceptual multimedia installations. Many others – such as Sana Arjumand and Jamal Shah in Islamabad, Numair Abbasi, Moeen Faruqi, Madiha Hyder, Rabeya Jalil, Unver Shafi and Adeel uz Zafar in Karachi and Rabia Ajaz, Nurjahan Akhlaq, Fahd Burki, Fatima Haider, Sehr Jalil, Ayaz Jokhio, Madyha Leghari, Zahid Mayo, Imran Mudassar, Abdullah Qureshi, Kiran Saleem and Inaam Zafar in Lahore – have been committed to drawing, painting and printmaking in abstract, expressionist, figurative and narrative modes.
Increased opportunities for higher education as well as residencies and workshops abroad have allowed artists to learn and practice new skills. Karachi-based Vasl Artists’ Collective (part of the Triangle Arts Network) has initiated important residency programmes since its founding in 2000. Recent ventures by Karachi’s Sanat Gallery and Saba Khan’s Murree Museum Artists Residency are also notable initiatives. The Lahore Biennale Foundation has supported a number of prominent and innovative public art projects. The move towards exhibitions curated around a theme – by such curators as Aasim Akhtar, Hajra Haider Karrar, Adnan Madani, Zarmeené Shah and Aziz Sohail among others – is another recent development that is prompting artists to explore new ways to create and showcase their works.
This does not mean that all is well and wonderful in Pakistan’s art scene. A major issue is the near-absence of rigorous exposure to the study of humanities, social sciences and critical theory. This ultimately limits the intellectual growth of art graduates. For example, many young artists continue to simply quote historical motifs and artistic fragments from the past in their compositions. Others replace original motifs in ancient works with contemporary images or juxtapose them with commodity visuals. Rarely are these attempts groundbreaking. They are symptomatic of an inadequate critical ability to meaningfully engage with the history of art – a necessary part of finding one’s path as an artist. A deeper understanding of Indic art, miniature painting and western art movements may offer students more fundamental lessons pertaining to scale, structure and finesse in formal terms (of which Zahoor ul Akhlaq serves as an earlier exemplar) as well as those concerning the social significance of such artistic concerns as patronage, circulation, address, narrative, history and economy. It does not help when graduating students triumphantly sell their work during degree shows. This reinforces the notion that market success is the primary measure of an artwork’s value rather than the process of research and investigation and the inevitably awkward initial grappling with complex aesthetic and social questions.
A related problem is the absence of robust platforms for intellectual debate. The few journals on art or culture that exist in Pakistan have been unable to frame key issues in ways that engender serious discussion. Even these journals have not been published regularly. Two of them – Sohbatpublished by the National College of Arts and Nukta Art issued from Karachi – folded recently, leaving in their wake an even more impoverished discourse on art. Online journal ArtNow: Contemporary Art of Pakistan has thus assumed great significance as far as reviews and criticism of contemporary art in Pakistan are concerned.
This is partly addressed by graduate programmes at the National College of Arts, led by Lala Rukh earlier and Farida Batool at present. The focus on the study of humanities at the undergraduate level at the recently founded Habib University in Karachi and the announcement of a new undergraduate cultural studies programme at the National College of Arts offer grounds for optimism. A critical mass of engaged writers and theorists on art and culture may emerge in the years to come.
Democracy was restored in Pakistan in 1988 but it brought little relief to Karachi. Throughout the 1990s, the city had a severely depressed economy and experienced deadly violence between the government and identity-based political groups. But Karachi is also remarkable for its ever-proliferating commercial energy and its ceaselessly vibrant visual culture. The rise of popular urban aesthetics during the 1990s in the city needs to be situated against this background. Initiated by the art practices of David Alesworth, Elizabeth Dadi, myself and Durriya Kazi, this development is sometimes referred to as “Karachi Pop”. Its aesthetics bypass fidelity to national or folk authenticity and deploy informal urban objects and popular images to create photographs, sculpture and multi-media-based works that explore cinematic fantasy and everyday desire. Other artists who have similarly worked extensively with urban and media-popular cultures include Faiza Butt, Haider Ali Jan, Saba Khan, Ahmed Ali Manganhar, Huma Mulji, Rashid Rana and Adeela Suleman.
Many contemporary artists have worked on the complex ramifications of the post-9/11 era. Sensitive portraits of young madrasa students by Hamra Abbas in her work God Grows on Trees (2008), Rashid Rana’s digital photomontages that bring opposites together in perpetual tension and Imran Qureshi’s Moderate Enlightenment miniature paintings (2006-2008) as well as his large-scale installation at the Sharjah Biennial (2011) are among the most thoughtful works in this regard. 9/11, however, has also resulted in the production of many one-dimensional works that serve little purpose other than manifesting how global terrorism has eclipsed other important issues that contemporary art ought to have been investigating.
Feminism, too, has been a major theme in contemporary art. During the 1980s, feminist artists and poets emerged as the most vocal opponents of Zia’s Islamisation policies. Artists and activists Salima Hashmi and Lala Rukh have played a major role in this opposition. Since then many other artists have employed various modes of expression and genres to explore feminist themes and ideas. Naiza Khan’s art has explored the materiality of the female body since the early 1990s; Aisha Khalid’s paintings have investigated the liminal status of the female body trapped within decorative and ornamental motifs; Farida Batool’s photographic work critically locates the vulnerability of the ludic female body in urban space; Ayesha Jatoi has made striking interventions on public monuments that display military hardware; Adeela Suleman’s early work with decorated cooking utensils highlights the dangers women motorcycle riders face; Risham Syed has utilised embroidery and fabrics to highlight the disjunction between genteel domesticity and violence in public spaces; and Rabia Hassan’s videos draw attention to the rampant objectification of women’s bodies in Pakistani commercial cinema.
Globalisation’s impact on contemporary art has also been significant. It has reconfigured the relationship between home and diaspora through ease in foreign travel and developments in communication technologies. Home and diaspora now exist in much closer proximity than was the case in the past. Many Pakistani artists have migrated abroad but they are producing artworks on themes and subjects that directly or indirectly link them to their home country. One of the most prominent among these expatriates is Bani Abidi. She has lived in India and Germany but continues to tackle fraught issues of identity and everyday life in Pakistan. Huma Bhabha, who developed her career primarily in New York, has created a series of apocalyptic prints based on photographs from Karachi titled Reconstructions (2007) and Seher Shah (now based in India) has explored haunting afterimages of exposure to Mughal and British colonial imagery. Other artists living abroad include Mariam Suhail and Masooma Syed (both based in India), Mariah Lookman (who resides in Sri Lanka), Saira Ansari, Rajaa Khalid, Saba Qizilbash and Hasnat Mahmood (who live and work in the United Arab Emirates), Humaira Abid, Anila Qayyum Agha, Komail Aijazuddin, Ambreen Butt, Khalil Chishtee, Ruby Chishti, Simeen Farhat, Talha Rathore, Hiba Schahbaz, Shahzia Sikander, Salman Toor and Saira Wasim (all based in the United States), Farina Alam and Faiza Butt (based in London), Khadim Ali, Nusra Latif Qureshi and Abdullah M I Syed (who have lived in Australia) and Samina Mansuri, Tazeen Qayyum, Amin Rehman and Sumaira Tazeen (who have migrated to Canada).
A more direct engagement of art with the enormous issues of social justice in Pakistan is also developing amongst contemporary artists. By making site-specific interventions (instead of creating discrete art objects such as paintings and sculptures), some artist collectives are investigating social processes and relations in modes that venture beyond the dominant ways of artistic expression. The Awami Art Collective in Lahore has done projects in public spaces that critique sectarianism and destructive urban development. Karachi-based Tentative Collective has focused on making interventions in subaltern communities of the city. And the archival and research-based work by Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajani analyses how large-scale inequality is being structurally entrenched on the physical and socioeconomic margins of Karachi.
This essay was completed before two major art events – the Karachi Biennale curated by Amin Gulgee and the Lahore Biennale – have transpired. One hopes and expects that these ventures will distinctively and positively transform the trajectory of contemporary art in Pakistan in the months and years to come.
Some of the experimental contemporary art work has been supported by Vasl, Gandhara-Art and the Lahore Biennale Foundation. But to continue to flourish, it urgently needs sustained and substantial support from state and private cultural organisations for research and production. It also requires prominent, large-scale, not-for-profit, intelligently curated spaces for its display. Private collectors spend large sums of money to acquire a single artwork but do not seem to comprehend the long-term value of incubating investigative artistic practice and scholarship that do not immediately yield shiny trophies for private possession. Grants through applications adjudged by juries coupled with ongoing mentorship through a research process can encourage young artists, curators and researchers to begin such investigations. Existing museums can also create spaces for contemporary projects and programmes to foster non-commercial art. This will have the additional advantage of placing experimental work in a critical dialogue with the existing museum collections.
Pakistan is a vast and diverse country. Its social and cultural dimensions, in which rapid transformations are transpiring not always peacefully, remain highly under-examined. Apart from the undoubtedly urgent and highly visible issues of violence and political and media scandals, a whole host of other processes are unfolding rather silently. These include dramatic changes in rural and urban ecologies; the rise of new informal economies and labour practices; the capture of natural resources and economic development by crony capitalism; the disastrous state of education and other human development indicators; growing sectarianism and a simultaneous scripturalisation and mediatisation of religion; the tensions and collaborations between linguistic groups and the formation of new ethnicities; the complex traffic between folk authenticity and televised popular cultures; the transformative spread of social media technologies; the reconstitution of social hierarchies in emerging digital and biometric infrastructures; and marked changes in familial structures and sexual mores – just to notate a few. Only a few artists are addressing such issues and that too only tangentially.
Committed contemporary art practice, its thoughtful curating and incisive criticism and scholarship on it can provide unrivalled insights into these consequential developments. These diverse analytical and creative perspectives will view Pakistan not through the lens of narrow exceptionalism but by developing comparative insights with reference to the adjoining regions of South and West Asia as well as to the larger Global South. But for that to happen, many aspects of contemporary art need to be reoriented towards research and process. The existing strengths of Pakistani contemporary art – its commitment to rigorous studio practice and object-making – need to be brought into a sustained critical conversation with other academic and creative disciplines.
This article first appeared on Herald.
The first years of the twenty-first century have been a critical time for Bangladesh and Pakistan. Although the arts are thriving, the political climate is unstable. Bangladesh, which declared independence from Pakistan in 1971, has yet to get on its feet. It is an extremely poor, overpopulated nation. After Pakistan’s fiftieth anniversary in 1997, many questions still loom. Are the principles upon which it was founded justified? Will there ever be full peace and stability in the region? Pakistan continues its struggle with India, now with the added threat of nuclear war. Through their sometimes political artwork, Bangladeshi and Pakistani artists contribute unique perspectives to the complex debates surrounding their countries.
Art schools are the centers of artistic activity in these young nations today. In Bangladesh, Shilpakala Academy and the Institute of Fine Arts at Dhaka University are the main schools where students can enroll in classes ranging from painting to theater. The National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore and Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi are the two major institutions in Pakistan that challenge ideas about what can be considered contemporary art, and particularly the position of postcolonial artists within this debate. New generations of artists in Bangladesh and Pakistan think critically about their society and its artistic heritage. They use a range of local methods and materials, from the jewel-like technique of miniature painting to elements of the vibrant mass culture. Yet these artists also embrace global modes, including abstract painting and video art.
brought postmodern ideas to the forefront in the 1970s and ’80s. At NCA, he insisted on miniature painting’s relevance and viability as a source for contemporary artists. His own paintings took elements from the
and combined them with an abstract painterly style. But some artists from the next generation have reversed this practice and use miniature painting as a foundation for their contemporary images. One such artist is
. Her work is in dialogue with the tradition of miniature painting; she expands it by adding contemporary elements such as new artistic techniques or images dealing with current events. Bashir Ahmed taught her and others, including Ambreen Butt and Imran Qureshi, in the late 1980s and early ’90s through a rigorous training in the craft of miniature painting.
Sikander and Butt are two of a number of Pakistani women at the forefront of artistic innovation; others include Alia Hasan-Khan, Naiza Khan, Huma Mulji, and Asma Mundrawala.
, principal of NCA in the 1990s and currently a professor at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, has been very influential in the work of these and other younger women. In the 1980s, she continued to make artwork that dealt with political and feminist themes at a time when the military dictatorship curbed artistic expression.
Amin Gulgee is among Pakistan’s most acclaimed sculptors. Born in Karachi, he is the son of the late Isma’il Gulgee (1926–2007), the legendary artist and a pioneer of modernism in Pakistan. Amin’s art is bold, creative and multifaceted. He works primarily in copper and produces art in different scales, including public sculptures which stand at prominent locations throughout Karachi. His work is eclectic and draws inspiration from the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of his native Pakistan, as well as from a range of themes such as Hindu mythology, Buddhism and South Asian and Islamic art. His use of calligraphy as a vehicle of expression reflects his deep spirituality and his interest in the
. Amin’s recent body of work “Cosmic Mambo” is comprised of several sculptures that combine religious devotion and elements of his own cultural roots and worldview, all presented with a touch of playfulness and humor.
explores postmodern ideas in her art. Living and working in England, Islam develops cutting-edge videos on subjects ranging from the films of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder to the mechanics of vision.
is known for his scathing political cartoons. More recently, he has made paintings in the style of Bengali film posters.
Lives and Works: Pakistan
Armed with a Bachelor of Art in Economics and Art History from the prestigious Yale University, USA, Amin Gulgee began his career as an artist in 1990 from his native city of Karachi in Pakistan. Using this ancient land and its rich, diverse history as his muse, his creations synergise Hindu mythology, Buddhist asceticism and Islamic calligraphy to explore the underlying spirituality of man.
An aesthetic patron of Sufism – a unique manifestation of the spiritual side of Islam – his works mirror his individual struggle to perceive himself and to substantiate his essence through an immediate and pure union of the soul with the Divine. The elemental forms and simple scripts in his work, he believes, will help crystallize this connection.
As Amin Gulgee the artist has evolved, so has his work, ranging from abstract sculpture to wearable jewellery, from autobiographical forms depicting himself and his family to his groundbreaking three-dimensional calligraphy. To bridge the gap between the viewer and art, he encouraged that sculpture should be touched and jewellery should be worn close. His medium of choice therefore: malleable metals like bronze and copper.
Other than numerous exhibitions all over the world, Amin Gulgee has also made several public artworks in Pakistan including sculptures called “The Message” for the Presidency in Islamabad and “Minar” at the Quaid-e-Azam International Airport in Karachi. Highly decorated, he has recently been awarded the President’s Pride of Performance – the highest award a civilian can receive by the Government of Pakistan.
Amin Gulgee has been hailed as one of Pakistan’s most important sculptors on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Over the last 40 years, Beaconhouse School System has developed into one of the largest educational systems in the world. Established in November 1975 by Nasreen Kasuri as the Les Anges Montessori Academy for toddlers, Beaconhouse has since grown into a global network of private schools, institutes and universities.
“We endeavour to and will continue to extend our reach so that meaningful, accessible and affordable education is readily available to all children”
Nasreen has played a significant role in the development and advancement of education in the private sector in Pakistan and has helped to bridge the gap between expensive quality education and affordable quality education.
Nasreen is very supportive of and has encouraged, women empowerment in the country. Under her wing, Beaconhouse is a female-friendly organisation and 62 percentile of employees and a considerable number in the senior management are women.
She is the chairperson of the board of directors of the Beaconhouse National University, the first non-profit liberal Arts University of Pakistan of, which Beaconhouse is the principal sponsor.
She has also served on several boards and committees some of, which include the Queen Mary College for Women, the National College of Arts, the Education Advisory Board of Pakistan, World Wide Fund for Pakistan, Sanjan Nagar Education Trust and the Punjab Education Foundation.
Kasuri has a Bachelor’s in Applied Psychology and History from Kinnaird College, Lahore; an MBA from TRIUM, the graduate programme of New York University, London School of Economics and École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris.
Kasuri is from a well established political and business family and was one of the pioneers in this area in Pakistan and her performance is an excellent example of the marriage of entrepreneurship to the availability of opportunity.
The Beaconhouse School System is said to be one of the world’s largest: having received an infusion of a significant amount of foreign capital provided by a private equity fund it has gone beyond Pakistan’s borders and established in some cases acquired school systems in Africa, the Far East and Britain. BNU is providing instructions in communications, IT, visual arts, architecture and economics.
“I am committed to serving the community by providing quality education of an international standard within our cultural framework in our schools across the country”
This one example provides a good illustration of how women’s advanced education and acquisition of modern skills have begun to change the social and political landscape. Well qualified women with right kinds of skills have decided not to stay at home and build and care for their families. They are increasingly becoming professionals and occupying high level positions.
“I feel privileged to be part of an organisation that has a long tradition of dedicated service for the nation. First and foremost, we are committed to serving the community by providing quality education of an international standard within our cultural framework in our schools across the country. We are one of the largest privately owned schools in the world with more than 241,139 students in caring and dedicated staff. Our schools offer the finest facilities, which include state-of-the art computer laboratories, fully equipped science laboratories, well stocked libraries, teaching aids and other essentials necessary for an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning. It has been 38 years since the Beaconhouse School System came into being and over these wonderful years we have grown from strength to strength and made significant contributions towards the quality and standard of education in Pakistan. We believe that every child has a right to education. We endeavour to and will continue to extend our reach so that meaningful, accessible and affordable education is readily available to all children. It is with this firm belief in the right for quality, accessible and affordable education that The Educators came into existence. We hope to forge a strong alliance with all those who believe in and share our vision by inviting them to join our cause,” Nasreen is quoted to have said.
Nasreen has been lauded for her services to the education system of the country. She was part of the Pakistan Power 100 honours outstanding achievers in London, rubbing shoulders with Abdul Sattar Edhi, Naeem Zamindar, Zouhair Khaliq, Tehmina Durrani, Monis Rahman, Namira Salim, Naeem Ghauri, Rashid Rana and Amin Gulgee.Nasreen Kasuri is a source of pride for the entire country.
A Prevalent Education System
Nasreen Kasuri heads the Beaconhouse School System, which has developed into one of the largest educational systems in the world. The school system has gone beyond Pakistan’s borders and established in some cases acquired school systems in Africa, the Far East and Britain.
First Non-Profit Liberal Arts University
Nasreen is the chairperson of the board of directors of the Beaconhouse National University, the first non-profit liberal Arts University of Pakistan of, which Beaconhouse is the principal sponsor.
Pakistan Power 100
Nasreen has been lauded for her services to the education system of the country. She was part of the Pakistan Power 100 honours outstanding achievers in London, rubbing shoulders with Abdul Sattar Edhi, Naeem Zamindar, Zouhair Khaliq, Tehmina Durrani, Monis Rahman, Namira Salim, Naeem Ghauri, Rashid Rana and Amin Gulgee.
Saira Agha – AUGUST 24, 2015
Pride, success, and glamour is how one would describe the awards ceremony held by Pakistan Power 100 in London on September 29 attended by hundreds of prominent personalities from the international Pakistani community.
Over 700 of Britain’s leading Pakistani citizens along with honourable Pakistani personalities like Abdul Sattar Edhi, Monis Rahman, Namira Salim, Naeem Ghauri, and Amin Gulgee were present at the ceremony. A large number of non-Pakistani invitees also attended the event to show their support.
Pakistan Power 100, developed by the British Pakistan Trust, has a mission to honour only the very highest levels of achievement from within the Pakistani community and positively promote the outstanding contribution made by Pakistani men and women on a local, national, and international level. The trust is a non-profit organisation that will use the Pakistan Power 100 list to generate funds contributing to the betterment of all Pakistanis.
The prestigious ceremony began, after an elaborate reception, with the founder of Pakistan Power 100 Khalid Darr. He was grateful to all the invitees and nominees for attending the awards and defined his vision.
Welcoming the guests, Darr said, “To build a better Pakistan we need to learn the art of working together, we should seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. The Pakistani Diaspora across the world is a source of great strength for Pakistan and I believe that if we all come together to collectively use our intellectual and financial capital, we can bring significant and positive change to the people of Pakistan.”
Pakistan Power 100 has a role to promote Pakistan to the global community, to showcase the greatest influencers and to work towards changing the perception of Pakistan through the highest achievers. After Darr’s patriotic speech, the awards were presented to the outstanding achievers in their respective fields.
When talking about outstanding Pakistanis, the first name that comes to mind is the magnanimous Abdul Sattar Edhi. Despite his ill health and a hectic schedule, he managed to show up and take part at the event. Edhi received the Humanitarian Lifetime Award for his lifelong commitment to bettering the lives of all Pakistanis. His devotion to the welfare of mankind was reflected in his heart-felt speech. It was a seminal moment of the night; Edhi received a standing ovation at the end, with many of the attendees in tears by his selfless and genuine words.
Darr believes people on the list deserve to be honoured for being an inspiration for the Pakistani nation. Other Pakistanis who were also recognised in their fields included The Professional Excellence Award for Mona Kasuri, Media and Arts Award for Rashid Rana, Social and Community Award to Imam Qasim of Al Khair Foundation and The Business and Commerce Award was presented to the Ghauri brothers.
Tehmina Durrani received The Writer and Literary Award and Aysha Vardag was handed The Woman of Excellence Award. The Future Leader Award went to Gulfaraz Ahmed while the special award for Friends of Pakistan was presented to Sir Chistopher Lee. The world famous Pakistani-British boxer Amir Khan received the People’s Choice Award. Monis Rehman, Ikram Butt and explorer Namira Salim were awarded the Trailblazers Award. Zakir Mahmood of Habib Bank Limited was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award. The singer/activist Salman Ahmad was also presented with an award as Global Ambassador. The glamorous gala event was then concluded with a brilliant performance by Salman Ahmad.
The complete list of Pakistan Power 100, Pakistan Women 100 and Pakistan Future 100 is available on the official website of Pakistan Power 100, http://www.pakistanpower100.com.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 7th, 2012.
Amin Gulgee – Redefining the Language of Sculpture
Amin Gulgee has sculpted calligraphic forms and Buddhas in copper and bronze and exhibited his work the world over. Pakistan’s foremost sculptor, Amin’s natural and instinctive thrust is towards spirituality. His work – reflective and meditative – speaks for itself. It can be seen and felt. But Amin the man is seldom accessible. Amin graduated from Yale with a Major in Art History.
In an exclusive to SALT, Amin talks about his work, his beliefs, his values and his passions, of going through life as a thinking human being, .and how he has dealt with the recent tragedies in his life. His father Ismail Gulgee, one of Pakistan’s greatest artists best known for his calligraphy and portraits, and his mother, were murdered at their home, by domestic helps, in Karachi in December 2007.
Amin Gulgee has been honoured recently as one of the 100 most influential and admired Pakistanis in the first ever Global Pakistan Power 100 List brought out in September 2012.
Karachi based Amin speaks passionately about his new series and his upcoming show at Nitanjali Gallery in New Delhi in February 2013. In conversation with Roopa Bakshi.
What new paths have you covered in the past 12 years – since the time we last met? Any diversification, any new creations?
Over the past 12 years I have continued threads that already existed in my work, and I have discovered new ones. I think through my work. The process leads me; I do not lead the process. One thread that has remained is my interest in bringing Islamic calligraphy into the realm of sculpture. In my work 12 years ago the text was readable and now in more and more of my work it is not readable. Although I use the same letters now that I did then, they are freed from having a meaning.
Twelve years is a long time, so it is easier for me to talk about what I am creating at the moment. I am working on a series called Spider Raga. In this series of work, I use the line from the Iqra ayat of the Koran which says, “God taught man what he knew not.” The Arabic script is Nakshi. In my body of work, I use one line from the Koran in one particular script and I repeat it over the years. Thus form for me becomes more important than the act of writing. In my earlier works the line from the Iqra script was readable and now for my Spiders it no longer is. The Spiders are homage to Louise Bourgeois, the French-American artist whose spider sculptures have long excited me. I wanted to create my own spiders using text. These Spider Raga works are about dance, freedom and joy. They balance precariously, reaching upwards. Dance is freedom!
A new series has emerged called the Cosmic Chapatti. These works are very controlled and meditative. They are about my great love of geometry and pattern. It is my attempt to bring a sense of harmony and peace to a world that seems insane. The process of creating these works was healing for me. My workshop is a place of escape for me.
Both the Spiders and the Chapatti works were part of a solo show I had last year in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore at the Wei-Ling Gallery. I am continuing these series for my upcoming show in New Delhi at the Nitanjali Gallery in February of next year.
Finally, the most recent work that I have resolved for my upcoming Delhi show is called “Perforated Wall: The Love letter.” This work was inspired by the poems of Rumi. It uses the script from the Iqra series and, as in the Spider works, the script is no longer readable.
This was the major sticking point presented by panellists during a session on art history and its relevance during the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) on February 11 which was moderated by art critic Nilofer Farrukh with art history teachers Taimur Suri (Islamic Art History at the Oxford University, Art History Instructor at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and the Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology) and Rizwanullah Khan (Art History Instructor since 1997, currently at Department of Visual Studies, University of Karachi), Amin Gulgee (artist, art history major Harvard University) and Dr Asma Ibrahim (archaeologist and Director State Bank Museum).
“Is art history relevant? More important for me is the question that who writes art history? Who is the audience — artists or the general public?”,asked Amin Gulgee, adding that much of our art history is written with an oriental perspective — “a book on the Shalimar Gardens by a western author concluded that it was all ‘bah’!”
Art history in the classroom
However, the failings of art history in our region extend further, stemming from institutions and academia of and related to art. Rizwanullah Khan said that the problem was two pronged; a narrow focus from the teaching perspective which limits itself to antiquated books restricted to progression of visual styles and secondly, the art students. “Students are not prepared, they have little knowledge of geography and cultural history, paired with poor vocabulary,” Khan lamented. To add to the problem, he said that these students had little time to reflect on the little they did manage to read.
Taimur Suri reminded the audience that the study of art history was important since it was a human phenomenon. However many others like him, who trained in the West, run into cultural barriers when in Pakistan since the West “institutionalises art, which is rigid for our form of art”. Suri added that their training and the prevalent Western format of education relied heavily on hard facts, “it is very difficult to talk facts to students here due to the different format of our art.”
A member of the crowd asked why is art history not made compulsory from primary school? Dr Asma Ibrahim, a member of the panel of the Higher Education Commission which held sessions on revising curricula, stated, “When we raise this point of teaching art history, they ask us where are the teachers to do that? “
Suri, also a panel member, offered a little more insight; “They are fine with teaching history, but when it gets to teaching art history, some say it’s against Islam — religion creeps in somewhere, I don’t know why.”
Durraiya Kazi, an artist and the head of the Visual Studies department in Karachi University, was a member of the audience and stated that as per her findings there was art curricula at all levels and programmes were offered even at the matriculation level, but the pitfall is that “schools and parents are simply not interested”.
By Gibran Ashraf – Published: February 11, 2012
Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2012.
“I work in order to understand myself. It is a highly personal journey in which I try to discover a balance with my inner self, my culture and my God” Amin says while receiving Goodyear Fine Arts Award for thesis on Mughal Gardens.
By ADEEL MANNAN
The journey of human brain from spirituality to immortality, beauty to glory, images to reflections, faith to ritualism, visionary to vivacious, originality to chastity, notion to novelty, all can be seen and felt in the outclass sculptures and jewellery of an outstanding savant in the Pakistan art industry. Yes, it’s AMIN GULJEE, a chip off the old block.
Amin Guljee, a renowned Pakistani artist and sculptor, born in a house of paints and brushes in 1966.He is the son of famous artist Ismail Guljee.Despite of being actively discouraged from pursuing fine arts by his father; he earned a degrees in Economics and Art History from Yale University, USA. Nonetheless, Guljee ended up as an artist creating works as an expression of spirituality. Amin’s work speaks for itself.
Amin Guljee Primarily works with metal; creating sculptures and jewellery. His work has been inspired by Hindu and Buddhist Mythology as well as drawing the tradition of Islamic calligraphy using Koranic inspirations turning calligraphy to sculptures. His sculptures cast the divine in copper and bronze, fashioning objects in 3 dimensions that suggests infinite and enduring ephemeral in metal. His sculptors range from magnificent hunks of metal, the size of filling cabinets to necklaces worn by fashionable women in London and Karachi. Theme of his work is to mix the sacred.
“I create sculpture in which I am physically able to
combine the elements that traditionally do not belong
His theme can be easily felt in this famous quote;
“We are like sculptors, constantly carving out of others the image we
long for, need, love, or desire, often against reality, against there
benefit and always in the end a disappointment, because it does not
Amin’s theme and this quote would be just like an example of a sculptor carving in snow.
Sculpture is a form of prayer to him. He wrestles with God in copper and bronze and the outcome is bold, muscular and innovative. The supreme ingenuity, perfection and execution in his sculptures depict a fine assemblage in the round and relief and made in the huge variety of media and gloominess. Skepticism is one of the themes of his work. Pakistan is a very young civilization as it is only 58 years old, but on the other hand Pakistan has a 500-year-old heritage and civilization and Amin’s work is just like a lamp in it, scaling the all edges of history, modernism and technology.
In one of his interviews; he tells about his early life that” I had no hands-on guidance from my father. Studio art was the last thing I wanted to do. In fact my parents actively discouraged me not to become an artist. They feared that I’d have to struggle.
It’s funny that I became an artist – I am non-romantic about an artist’s lifestyle. For all the pleasure and joy of work, one has to survive on one’s work. My life has been a series of accidents. I was in college, doing three majors in Art History, Architecture and Economics at Yale. Architecture was great – I got to paint and draw and create models – and at Yale you could just about do anything. In my final year at Yale I had to choose one major for my thesis. I hated Economics and thought Art History would be more interesting and challenging. My dissertation was on Mughal Gardens with special focus on Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. After my graduation I thought I’d try my hand as an artist and if I did not succeed, I’d go back and do an MBA.” He tells that “ I had my first show in Karachi-and then I went to New York to live there as an artist. That was a difficult time. I had to go door-to-door with my jewellery pieces-art jewellery and gallery-wearable art. I had some successes. Initially my jewellery was very large-it was very unwearable-in New York it became scaled down. Basically, it is a sculpture with a hole. Whenever I get stuck on a large piece, I switch scale and I move to a smaller piece. I enjoy making jewellery. Then I came home to Karachi-wanted to do larger work. I began experimenting and working with metal. Copper and the bronze are the only glorious metals that exist-they stay forever-I like that permanence “
Amin’s thirst towards spiritual enlightenment, skepticism and nepotism is simply evident from one of his sculptures called Chance- a DNA molecule with the word ALLAH inscribed on it; for him that is “God”. ”God for me is everything – it is me –– it is you –– it is the wind outside – it is the light we see – it’s everything horrible and everything wonderful – I don’t see any separations – I see God in just about everything – God for me is the process of Life and the way things are – God for me is also Chance – the element in our lives that we do not control. The three most important paths of our life are birth, death, and love – all three are controlled. What’s beautiful about Islam is its submission to God and that there is a direct link between God and a person – nothing comes in between – you create your own balance between the divine and you – or between chance and you.” what Amin says about God.
According to him, ”God has created everything and everybody. All religions teach us to be good, to be happy, and to achieve a balance – that is humanism. All religions have basic similarities. My father is a great collector of antiquity and as a child, I would touch his Gandharas and Krishna’s and talk to them – my understanding of them was not in a ritualistic way – I reacted to them as a child. I related intuitively to the Bodhisattvas. When I came back from college I wanted to recapture them and create them in my own image. When I do a sculpture of the Buddha – I am not a Muslim doing a Buddha. Today, there is a need for intellectuals to interpret religion. If one is happy, one does good things; if one is unhappy, one does bad things -–simple-minded perhaps, but that is the essence.”
“Love is the most important part of being human-Love is what defines humanity. I look at my life and feel so great that I love-Nothing else matters. ”Amin says on the essence of life. He thinks we are here for a short time-the only thing we should be taking away from this earth is love from people. So, love everyone and yours life too. This feels that for him love is just like a body without soul.
Amin Guljee, a voyeur, an extreme loner in his teenage- in fact some considered him retarded and not a great lover of poetry tells something about his interests that;
” I love Camus, I love the existentialists –I read anything that comes near me. My idea of weekend in Karachi was checking out 5 books. Reading has always been my escape. I’ll read Stephen King to Manto. I used to be in a dance troupe in college – I just love dancing. I learnt a bit of Kathak and Bharat Natyam in Karachi – just for six months – nothing serious. My sister is a good Bharat Natyam dancer. In fact the most famous Kathak dancer in Pakistan today is a man – Fasi – he is brilliant. I like travelling but I like people more than I like places. I am not a great sightseer.”
When my pen was oozing my views about Amin’s work and his personality just believe for a couple of minutes I forgot that he is a sculptor because the element of spirituality and his perceptional powers led me he is a philosopher or you can say a poignant.” I love looking at people. I can sit in a café and look at people for hours. What I really want to do is go to Sri Lanka – I have never been there – I would like to go to Sri Lanka and sit there on a beach for a week watching the stars, the sea, the colours, and feeling the wind– that would be my millennium gift to myself. I’d also like to go to Bangladesh one day. The two artists I admire most are my father and Amrita Shergill. I find Amrita Shergill’s paintings really close to me – I feel a great connection with her work.” Amin says.
Amin’s high scale-oriented work is a blend of different inspirations and cultures depicting some new visions for the people belonging to different regions .On bringing South Asia closer he says;
“There should be more communication within the subcontinent. I am more familiar with things happening in New York and Washington, than I am with what’s happening in Bombay or New Delhi. We should start looking within ourselves; we should celebrate ourselves. I think colonization has made a profound impact on the subcontinent and it is time we discovered our own heroes – up till now everything that has been considered valid, at least in art, has been coming from the west – ‘we study western art, we revere their heroes – it is about time that we start celebrating ourselves’– as far as contemporary art is concerned, there needs to be an interaction among ourselves – it should be done without embarrassment – done with a sense of confidence. In the last fifty years many walls have crumbled and come down – I hope that happens in my region too. I hope our priorities go toward education and welfare of our people. I think it will happen – there is no other way it can be. Maybe not in my generation – perhaps in the next – but it will happen.” His on bringing the nations are closer to what Leo Tolstoy said “All art has this characteristic- it unites people”.
Amin’s work is not only confined to history or religion, but a symbol of globalization and technological advancement could also be found there in which archetypal and biblical icons are used to depict a very personal vision in the work. A show ‘Dish Dhamaka’ curated by him following the same route by asking 20 artists, architects and designers to present their ideas using satellite dishes, a common place of the cityscape.
“ I love ‘Alhamdulillah’ because of its simplicity and its constant usage in the vernacular. It denotes intimacy with God, and is reflective to the fact that he is with us in our daily lives and not just confined to the mosque” Amin says. Amin Guljee’s gigantic 20ft high pieces and their miniature versions of the huge sculpture called Steps, which depicts ‘Alhamdulillah’ in square Kufic. In this regard he has produced some fascinating pieces.’Charbagh’ a geometric grid garden introduced in the sub-continent by the Mughals also inspired Amin’s thought; as its also the name of on of his exhibitions. Amin being not a mathematician presented a fine work by combining the two forms that’s are diametrically opposite to each other. Under the concept of Charbagh he produced some awesome sculptures in a period of 3 years i-e Charbagh 1 (bearing the inscription of Allah), Moon Phase 1 (a sphere divided in quarters and some calligraphic square grid) and Screaming Egg (a deviant sculpture) made of broken coloured glass bottles varying green and brown colours in it.
Amin Guljee’s new jewellery collection, ‘solah singhar,’ takes women’s eternal obsession with the mirror one step further –from looking into it to wearing it “For me solah singhar represents the mysterious power of women” says Amin. “Although the concept of singhar is for the pleasure of men, its application and interpretation lies in the hands of women.” Amin uses the mirror not as a symbol of vanity but of self-awareness. The mood is feminine, regal chunky but yet delicate. It is a collection very obviously inspired by the Sindhi tradition in costumes and textiles. Amin reinterprets the sparkle of mirrors against the barren desert. (paragraph from Karachi plus magazine).
“All seeing eye” is a symbol of truth for him. “ I see the eye as an absolute, the eye never lies”. Amin is a lover of space and changing patterns in his life. In his student life he made some fine pieces related to interior decoration constructed from environmental mosaic-discarded metal pieces and material used in the building trade. He is also fascinated by the local bazaars of Nathia Gali where, Amin delved into the markets acquiring a feast of local pots and other objects to create yet another singular decoration, on the roof of his parent’s house. It is a landmark now, well known by visitors to the beautiful gully. The artist enjoyed this work enormously, relishing the hands-on aspect of creating the mosaic, the effects of glass and mirrors inset in the fragmented pottery. He never tired of living with the results of his imaginative designs Amin explains: “It is also a nod to the great Spanish architect and artist, Antonio Gaudi, whose parks, churches, and other structures are unforgettable for me. It is my salaam to him.”(Pictures from the dawn)
Amin’s public collection can be found in The International Monetary Fund (Washington, DC, USA), Jordan National Gallery (Amman, Jordan), Hofstra University Museum (Hempstead, NY, USA), The WAH Center (Brooklyn NY, USA) and Pakistan Modern Art Museum (Islamabad, Pakistan).”The Message”, ”Minar”, ”Habitat”, “Char Bagh”,“Man and Computer”, “Balance”, “Allah”, “Cube” and “Sufi” are one of the commissions granted to Amin. Young Achiever award, First Award for Jewellery, Calligraph-Art Award and Excellence in Art Award have been awarded to him by Indus Vision, Pakistan School of fashion Design, International Calligraphy Competition and Sindh Government. He himself had curated many exhibitions by the name Urban Voices five times consecutively from 1997 to 2001 at Sheraton Hotel, Karachi. Amin Gulgee’s Sola Singhar (Sheraton Hotel, Karachi, Pakistan 2001), Alchemy (Sheraton Hotel, Karachi, Pakistan, 2000), Jewelry for Mary McFadden’s 1996 Spring/Summer Collection, Fashion Week: Seventh on Fifth (New York Public Library, New York, USA) are one of the epic examples of his fashion shows and performing art pieces. It’s not the end; there goes a long list of his group shows and exhibitions took place in different countries from Pakistan to USA.
I would like to put it up differently that Amin’s work is a present history enriching every element in it from finite to infinity. Words are not helping me to sum up his profile. Well his work is an ‘Eye’ of him for us indicating and depicting the “antiquity of his soul.” He does not sculpt to sculpt; but sculpt to make his thoughts and abstracts feelings a reality and originality by his marvelous work. Amin a maverick holding a chisel in his hand and mingling thoughts always bringing a new aspect in his work, that is an influenced one.
- 1988 to 2000
- Amin Gulgee
- Amin Gulgee Gallery
- Group Show
- IMF Show
- Print Media
- Public Works
- Solo Show
- Al-Nahda Royal Society
- Arabian Gallery
- Art Gallery
- Art Space
- Body and Soul
- Char Bagh
- Continuity – Kinetic Essence
- Cosmic Mambo
- IMF Show – The Search for light
- Indus Gallery
- Intercontinental Hotel
- Lahore Art Gallery
- Lawrence Gallery
- Looking for the Magic Center
- Open Studio
- Open Studio II
- Other Works
- Rida Gallery
- The Hilton Ankara
- The Search for Light
- Through the Looking Glass
- Walking On The Moon
- Washed upon the shore
- Zenith Gallery
- The Spider Speaketh in Tongues
- Urdu Press
- Wei-Ling Gallery