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All is fair in art

Apart from showing the wide range of themes, genres and approaches of Indian art, the India Art Fair in New Delhi provided an occasion to look at Pakistani art from another perspective

All is fair in art

“… in the much-celebrated free circulation opened up by global capitalism, it is ‘thing’ (commodities) which freely circulate, while the circulation of ‘persons’ is more and more controlled” — Slavoj Zizek

People crossing the land border between India and Pakistan experience this surrealistic sensation on a daily basis. The luggage is immediately picked up by the porter from the other side but the traveller has to have his visa and other documents checked in order to step across.

Zizek’s free circulation of things could be observed during the 7th edition of India Art Fair held from Jan 29-Feb 1, 2015 in New Delhi, with several works by Pakistani artists included in the show. The huge exhibition was accompanied by panel discussions and other art-related programmes. A special feature of the recently concluded Fair was the substantial amount of modern Indian art at one place, in the space allocated for Delhi Art Gallery that presented works of Jamini Roy, M.F. Husain, F. N. Souza, Ram Kumar, S. H. Raza, Rabindranath Tagore and several others from that school.

Apart from these works, India Art Fair was more focused on contemporary practices in art, including some big names like Anish Kapoor, Daniel Buren and Michelangelo Pistoletto. As expected, a majority of entries were by Indian artists. Among them, one could spot the names of artists of international stature like Subodh Gupta, Shilpa Gupta, Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat and many more. This annual event represented the wide range of themes, genres and approaches of Indian art. There were comparatively very few works of Pakistani artists shown at more than one gallery.

Only one gallery from Pakistan, Art Chowk Karachi, participated. It showcased works of Atif Khan, Simeen Farhat, Sadia Jamal, Fraz Mateen and Mohsin Shafi. The other gallery that had a prominent Pakistani presence was Latitude 28, which displayed works by Mohammad Ali Talpur and Mohammad Zeeshan along with Indian artists. Other booths displayed works by Pakistani artists like Adeela Suleman, Abdullah M Syed, Amber Hammad, Hamra Abbas, Imran Qureshi, Mehreen Murtaza and Bani Abidi.

To be able to recognise the names from back-home was indeed a high point of the Art Fair and a reason to feel proud. Beyond discovering familiar names, it made one think about the difference between the art from Pakistan and India. It was observed that not only contemporary art, but the works of modernists in India were not much different in sensibility and technique (even though some subjects or visuals were starkly rooted in Indian mythology) from their Pakistani counterparts. For instance K.K. Hebbar and Shakir Ali’s canvases could easily have been put together. Or M.F. Husain and Sadequain could have been equated in terms of their flamboyant, ambitious and immense productions.

K.K. Hebbar and Shakir Ali’s canvases could easily have been put together. Or M.F. Husain and Sadequain could have been equated in terms of their flamboyant, ambitious and immense productions.

In a similar manner, the art of Rashid Rana and Subodh Gupta or the works of Hamra Abbas and Shilpa Gupta are contemporary for more than one reason. These are created not by artists of almost the same age, but of individuals who have corresponding views on life, art and world in their works and words. Perhaps the crucial aspect of these artists’ works and worth is their double-edged relationship with their sources, origins and identities. Many of these artists (such as Talpur and Kallat) have been using ideas and images connected to their societies and environment and are able to transform and transcend these particular elements into a general, universal and contemporary pictorial vocabulary that unites them.

Despite the fact that Hamra’s work is derived from structure of Holy Ka’aba, or Mohammad Ali Talpur’s pieces are variations on Arabic calligraphy, and Bharti Kher’s canvases are elaborations on bindis, the manner of employing cultural/historic substance is common in these artists, since they are not devising an exotic concoction for its market — as identity.

You could not miss the typical ‘Indian’ works due to their infusion of tribal imagery, naïve treatment and a touch of folk or miniature-like element, and which have been popular as ‘Indian art’ (an equivalent perhaps of the revived miniature painting in Pakistan that has an unmistakeable tag of ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Lahori’). But if this contingent is ignored, the rest of works at the India Art Fair offer a new beginning of art from this region, in which artists speak to the world in a language which is international but when they converse with each other the tilt of their local accent dominates.

This was evident during the breakfast meeting between artists from the two countries who spoke in a different, confident and comprehensive tone when talking to each other.

An important thing for a Pakistani participant in the Fair was to find the Other because, travelling outside the lines of border, a man is expecting to come across ‘aliens’; it was an apt occasion to consider oneself as a privileged alien since being an outsider is a mark of identity for some artists. These and other questions of identity (with the past) were addressed in many works. But they were addressed most interestingly and imaginatively in the work of Mohammad Zeeshan in the space of Latitude 28: a miniature — or a traditional-looking surface — was being swamped in a pool of black liquid ink. It was a metaphor of how tradition or the idea of heritage can be subjugated in the face of uprising contemporary currents, in order to be lost but not completely or entirely and before creating a newer version of past practice — suited for modern markets and art fairs!

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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