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.