Monday, November 30, 2009

R M Naeem's show

R M Naeem exhibited his works at the Koel Gallery this month under the title ‘Faith Soul Search’. Each of the three words suggests something profoundly personal. Strung together, they tie in very neatly with Naeem’s belief that his art is ‘a meditative personal journey’.

The artist explains that he does not aspire to portray the chaotic contemporary circumstances in his art; rather his paintings depict a world of peace, love and hope. However, counter to his statement, the imagery exudes a solemn, almost morbid atmosphere. It is a surreal world inhabited by bald and blank figures, most of whom are frozen in the ritualistic yet mechanised act of bowing. At a time when faith and religion have become such loaded terms, the satirical overtones present in R M Naeem’s paintings are an inevitable outcome. The recurring bowing heads and closed, covered eyes seem to mock the sad state of affairs wherein faith has become so regimented and mechanical. For example, one particular painting shows a woman placing a mask on a child’s face – a reference as to how children are forced to conform to the existing religious norms rather than acquire faith through personal and spiritual exploration. The mask is present in many of his paintings, an obvious symbol for hypocrisy, concealment and deception. It also subtly refers to the identity-crisis faced by the Pakistani youth today where their sense of self and values are different from what is expected from them, and yet they are made to wear masks by fearful parents in order to conform to society.

The exhibition sustains interest through a series of juxtapositions. The expressionless figures depicted in dull, repetitive motions are meant to be ‘searching’ as the title suggests, however their submissive state makes this the least likely possibility. The background setting is composed of natural elements like soil and water juxtaposed with traffic posts and cemented, confined spaces. Nature symbolises the vastness of spirituality, whilst the latter emphasises the rules and laws imposed by men. The symbolism becomes very engaging since the artist gives free reign to his viewers to pin their own associations.

In addition to the heavy symbolism, the exhibition also leaves behind the much-needed proof that people are still willing to invest in art, even if only in name-brands like Naeem himself. The cheapest paintings were priced at Rs. 150,000, and yet almost everything sold out.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A photography exhibition

The Photospace Gallery, which opened early this year, has been much publicised and lauded as Pakistan's first photographic gallery. No doubt it serves the crucial purpose of providing photographers a much-needed accessible platform to display their works to the public; however the extent to which it has actually helped to endorse photography in the art market is debatable. While photography has long received recognition as an art form, it has to constantly battle with the prejudices of art buyers who are often insecure about the print's potential for mass reproduction. The latest artist to exhibit there was Stephan Andrews who admitted that although the turn out of visitors was encouraging, next to nothing sold.

His exhibition, 'Trial by Existence' displayed 27 photographs. However a single glance at the display was enough to make it evident that this was yet another black and white rendition of those on the fringes of society. Slightly let down, but not fully convinced to slot the exhibition as yet another cliche, I proceeded to a closer examination of the images to find that each subject was very sensitively portrayed. Thankfully enough, Stephan was not interested in epitomising and isolating the tragedies of the suffering 'other' but in simply recoding everyday happenings, focusing more on the atmosphere ad surroundings rather than the people themselves.

An interesting aspect of the exhibition was Stephan's incorporation of text in his images, using street graffiti to create witty interplays.

For example the photograph above, shows a dilapidated gate painted with the phrase 'No Urination Allowed'; beneath this sign is spray painted a repartee which intentionally taunts the futility of the sign - something all Karachiites are familiar with. Another photograph, shown below, showed a man sitting in a corner, with an arow and the word 'Clinic' painted on the shutter behind him. The arrow points straight at him, seeming to the viewer an uncanny revelation in a city of chance encounters.

The remaining photographs were equally varied: all fresh approaches to different subjects ranging from a bicycle to peacock feathers to dholwalas. While allowing the artist to successfully showcase his talent as an art photographer, this variety also became a drawback as the exhibition lacked a common thread tying the images together. Stephan's attempt to lend coherence to the exhibition by heading t under a poem by Robert Frost named 'Trial by Existence' came off as a forced and rather superficial imposition on the individual photographs. The pictures were too carefully composed to effectively convey the struggles and trials of existence and by relating the poem to his photographs, Stephan took for granted that the people he portrayed had 'no hopes but the suggestion of dreams'.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Objects on display

Roohi Ahmed and Abdullah Syed's group show, 'Figure of Speech', at Chawkandi broke away from the dull monotony of art exhibitions this summer. Full of wit and satire, both artists playfully challenged the Karachi audience's conception of art by blurring the boundary between art and non-art in a way very reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp.

It was a unique group show in the sense that their works weren't simply grouped together as is the usual practice in Karachi. For example in the four person show at Canvas 'As i see it', each artists work stood distinctly apart, unmingling with the others. However, Roohi and Abdullah's works engaged each other playfully, and depended on eachother for an interchange of dialogue.

The most fascinating were the objects on display, some of which I managed to photograph and post above.

They brought to mind the surrealist object which was conceived in 1931 to escape traditional aesthetic categories. For the surrealists, the object became a reconciliation of the conscious and unconscious, an intervention of irrational thought brought into the phenomenal world.

Roohi's paintings were of organic leafy forms, and Abdullah's played around with razor blades and beeswax. These central themes recurred in the objects also. Beeswax was moulded in the shape of leaves; the leaves purposefully made to look mechanised - some leaves actually in the shape of razorblades while others meticulously held together by needles; and the razorblades in turn were patterned together to take the flowing shape of leaves. In this way the viewer was confronted with an intermingling between the organic and inorganic, the natural and human-made. Because of this ambivalence of their nature, these objects conveyed a strong sense of tension to the viewer, as if caught half-way between their transformation from one form to the other. Their raw materials were so evident, i.e. beeswax, razorblades and leaves, and yet they seemed so fabricated, tamed and handled.

It was just extremely refreshing to see these artists move beyond painting and experiment with things more tangible.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Iqbal Geoffrey, a precursor to the miniature movement?

The Great American Landscape
His Majesty the Emperor of India with his lunch

In the works of Iqbal Geoffrey I found an interesting precedent to the contemporary miniature movement. Going through the catalogue of Geoffrey’s solo-show put up at the National Art Gallery, Islamabad, I came across some collages (dating from the 1960s and 70s) which resounded with the same sort of subversiveness that we find in the works of contemporary miniature painters like Waseem Ahmed. Artists from this movement are applauded for reinterpreting the centuries-old tradition of miniature painting, challenging its sanctity by fracturing its traditional space and introducing hybridity and cosmopolitanism.

However, it seems that Goeffrey, decades ago, had already started to experiment along similar lines, perhaps making him an important precursor. Its worth making a comparison between the collage by Geoffrey and the painting by Waseem Ahmed below for it is an amazing coincidence how similar the pose of the woman is whom both artists have placed provocatively besides Krishna.

Close-up of The Great American Landscape

Waseem Ahmed, Krishna Series

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Exhibition of Waqas Khan at Canvas Gallery

The work is reminiscent of organisms which originate in nature, grow, multiply and before dying reproduce themselves in wonderful ways. The interpretations can be manifold, but the sensory pleasure if foremost.
- Imran Qureishi

While most galleries have gone in hibernation during Ramadan, Canvas refuses to sit dormant and has put up an exhibition of works by a Lahore-based artist, Waqas Khan (which ran from 1-10sept).

I will have to admit that more than looking at the works I enjoyed meeting the artist himself. Surprised to find him at the gallery even after a week into the exhibition, Waqas jokingly exclaimed he had been spending more time at the gallery than its employees even. Introducing himself as an NCA graduate of 2008, he admitted that this was only his second solo show, the first being held at Rohtas Gallery in Lahore. On asking whether he was enjoying exhibiting in Karachi, I got a polite, but luke-warm response, ‘ummm, ya’. On inquiring further, he complained that the gallery visitors weren’t interactive enough, and that I was probably amongst the first to actually ask him about his art. Lahore he explained on the other hand, had a more inquisitive, and friendly art community.

His observation comes as no surprise since the art community in Karachi is without doubt very insular. I remember attending an exhibition opening at Rohtas in Lahore last winter and being amazed at how approachable everyone was. In Karachi however, this process is a lot more intimidating as the art elites either have too great an air about themselves or for whatever reason are unwilling to talk to those outside their group.

Coming back to his art, Waqas presents an impressive body of 20 pen and ink drawings. He works with felt tip on wasli, building up his images using the very fine and meticulous mark-making process of the pardakht technique. The artist is influenced by the two mediums of printmaking and miniature painting; however, he views his art not as miniatures, but rather prints on wasli. He stressed repeatedly that he was not a miniature painter, but rather a printmaker merely incorporating the miniature technique of pardakht in his works.

What I found interesting was how he liberates his works from the rigidity of pardakht by using the meticulous mark-making process to produce images which are amorphous. These organic forms, build up from infinite tiny cells, seem to be floating in space, moving in a rhythmic flow. His works have no preconceived notions attached to them, giving viewers the freedom to invent their own meanings. The formlessness moulds itself according to the viewer’s mind, so that the images can present endless possibilities. My favourite piece is the drawing done in blue below, which for me unerringly represents the face of a woman.

The past two decades have witnessed the renaissance of miniature painting in Pakistan, NCA being among the few art schools with an entire department devoted it. However, recently the movement seems to have come to a deadlock with the same sort of art being produced over and over, crammed with same old socio-political criticism. It is a refreshing change to see Waqas go off in a different direction, experimenting between the mediums of printmaking and miniature painting, forgoing the conceptual element in favour of sensory pleasure, expecting nothing from his viewers but visual indulgence.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pakistan's National Art Gallery

I have been wanting to writing about the National Art Gallery, Islamabad (NAG) ever since it’s hyped-up opening in 2007. However, being the efficient procrastinator that I am, it was only recently – after reading Carol Duncan’s article titled ‘Art Museums and the ritual of citizenship’ – that I finally found the incentive to write this blog.

Before diving into her article, here’s a brief outline of her view on museums. She explores the idea of the art museum as a ceremonial monument, wherein visitors enact a ‘secular ritual’ by following a route through a programmed narrative of the history of art, in which “art history displaces history, purges it of social and political conflict and distils it down to a series of triumphs, mostly of individual genius.” She exposes the art museum as a site which is not a transparent and neutral sheltering space for display and preservation of art, but like ceremonial structures of the past, carries out less obvious political and ideological tasks which affirm certain ideas, values and social identities.

The national art collection at NAG displays the collective genius of Pakistani artists, producing a visible entity of the ‘spiritual wealth’ of the nation. Despite the reality of a very neglected and tormented art history, the museum portrays a sense of historical continuity, exuding national pride. However the museum succeeds not so much as an act of ritual but rather as a spectacle. There is far too great a divide between the art and public sphere for there to occur active art appreciation and spiritual enrichment for the majority of the public. Instead, for the masses, the museum becomes a spectacle, meant to awe and captivate with its sheer scale and size. When I visited the NAG last December, its setting was even more spectacle-like, for it was surrounded in rubble from the four months prior Marriot bomb blast, ironically forming a very literal demonstration of the white cube aesthetic. Passing by chunks of concrete, twisted metal and wasted furniture, one entered the sealed, hygienic white space of the NAG creating a fantastic contrast between the artificial space of its galleries and the social realities outside.

It is common knowledge that art has never been a priority for the state, evident from the fact that the NAG project was first conceived by Zia-ul-Haq in 1978 and has taken thirty years to materialise. The answer as to why Gen. Musharraf finally chose to prioritise this museum for funding can be found in Duncan’s article. She observes that third-world monarchs are increasingly using the western-style museum as a means of signalling to the west that one is a reliable political ally, “imbued with proper respect for and adherence to western symbols and values”. The museum has become a tool with which to provide a veneer of western liberalism, assuring the west that one is a safe bet for economic and military aid.

Musharraf’s policy makers no doubt realised and availed the political usefulness of opening an art museum despite its cost of Rs. 456 million. The government’s decision to spend such massivefunds on building a national art collection was an obvious move to make the state look progressive amidst the piling international accusations of terrorism, backwardness and religious extremism. NAG became the highlight of Musharraf’s policy of Enlightened Moderation, displaying him as a progressive leader, different from the previous, and in comparison‘uncultured’ dictators. Both Musharraf and Pakistan received much positive press coverage following the launch. For example, Carol Grisanti, NBC News Producer, after visiting NAG wrote in her article that the museum “defies Pakistan’s image as a deeply conservative country of religious extremists.”

However, the liberal image projected was only skin-deep. Conservatism was ever present since the Ministry of Culture set up a committee to filter those works which they deemed 'sensitive'. The censorship was not only restricted to nudity in art but also to those works depicting a negative image of the west; for example Iftikar Dadi's Clash of Civilizations was not approved, clearly showing the administration's priority to please America rather than display constructive, progressive visual dialogues. It seems that the administration was so caught up with the political agenda, that little planning was done for the actual running of the museum. Outrageously enough, there was no permanent support system set up to ensure its long-term running and the inaugural show itself was cut short because an extended insurance was beyond the budget.Jamal Shah, the director of the NAG, has continuously cited lack of trained personnel and acute fund shortage as the greatest impediments. However, I fail to understand why the administration did not foresee these problems and plan accordingly! It takes little sense to know that funds and professionals are the two essential things needed to run a museum.

Also, there has been no sustained effort to encourage the common man to visit the museum. No outreach programs have been put in place to allow people from adjoining villages and towns the chance to engage with the national art. The gallery assistants initially assigned to each gallery were extremely uninformed, and within a few months disappeared altogether. Considering the fact that a very tiny percentage of Pakistanis are acquainted with art, friendly, informed invigilators are a necessity in our museum.

NAG, with its opening, brought along a naive hope in the artworld that it would act as a vehicle for creating and promoting large-scale art awareness within the Pakistani public. Indeed, PNCA was given the rare opportunity of affecting a real change in the dynamics of art viewership in Pakistan, however, the opportunity seems to be wasting itself away as three years have passed with no tangible result.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Start

Graduating with my History of Art degree, I returned to Karachi feeling much of an outsider to the art world here. How to become part of what so many people have referred to me as the ‘art circuit’ is still a conundrum for me. But after spending the last month hopelessly trying to find the right way in, I have decided to start with this art blog.

Its purpose is simple: to keep updated with the latest art happenings in town, post reviews of various exhibitions and perhaps most importantly to start discussions on the key issues emerging in contemporary Pakistani art. For example, the voracity with which local artists are availing new critical methods, deconstructing socio-political issues and transnational identities are aspects which, at the very least, deserve comment. I hope to undertake an active consideration of their art works, resisting simplistic conclusions and binary thinking, paralleling the contemporary artists’ resistance to homogenous categorisations. There is a real dearth of critical writing being done on Pakistani art, especially from within Pakistan, and I hope those who read my blog will share their opinions and further the discussions.