Walking into the main hall of Lahore’s newest arrival to the arts and culture scene, the Contemporary and Modern Art Museum (elegantly abbreviated to COMO), patrons are treated to Salman Toor’s Upside Down Party: a rich painting cleverly placed on the interior roof serving as a contemporary nod to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel mural. A rollicking gathering seems to be taking place in the sky, drawing our gaze up as we notice Fatima Jinnah, Jesus and Liaquat Ali Khan amongst a crowd. The party on the roof is unexpected yet perfect for the white cube-like space of the hall, and makes an immediate and lasting impact, setting the tone for the rest of the experience in the museum.
Until recently, the only museum to be found in Lahore was the Lahore Museum, a dark and dreary historic monument on the Lower Mall populated with dusty, tired relics from ancient times and a few tucked away artworks, none of which received the attention or treatment that they really deserved.
When Seher Tareen left Lahore in 2012 for her Masters degree with a focus on art curation at Central Saint Martins in London, the idea of creating a fresh and accessible public space for art quickly took root in her mind. Tareen already knew the transformative, healing powers of spending time in galleries and museums. “Growing up around art, with my mother collecting ever since I can remember, I have always had a pull towards it.”
Art can provide an escape from the heady demands of daily life, as it did for Tareen who was going through difficult patches in her own personal life some years back. When she saw Naiza Khan’s Armour Suit for Rani of Jhansi II — a show-stopping sculpture selected for exhibition at the Venice Biennale in the very first Pakistani pavilion, it acutely demonstrated strength and poise in the face of difficulty.
The sculpture beautifully juxtaposes delicate white feathers, gleaming silver metal and a shock of red fabric, a reference to Rani of Jhansi who was a heroine of the resistance against the British Raj during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The inspiring strength of the sculpture came to Tareen at an opportune time, galvanising her vision and cementing her resolve in forging ahead with planning for COMO Lahore.
Creating a community space that could serve as a platform for promoting cultural awareness became a priority for Seher Tareen. But taking that desire a step further, Seher wanted this art to be accessible by as many as possible, and so for her it was a “complete no brainer” that the COMO Museum should have no ticket and be open to the public at large. “We wanted to encourage more people to come out and experience, understand and appreciate art. To that end, we are also partnering with Cosa Nostra to create a cafe space at the Museum where visitors can congregate and spend as long as they like.”
With a woefully underdeveloped museum scene and access to art limited for most social classes, the art world in Lahore has largely been enjoyed almost exclusively by the privileged classes. Living in a country such as Pakistan, the average citizen does not have opportunities to interact with art; galleries and art shows seem almost inaccessible for outsiders and are frequented by a small group from the upper middle classes.
Museum culture is important because it sparks a conversation for the visitor between the artefacts or artworks and how they reflect back on political, cultural and social issues. Through their exhibits, they allow a representation of diverse ideas in engaging, non-threatening but stimulating ways. The most interesting art for me is that which is the most subjective, taking inspiration from a broad theme but conveyed in an open-ended manner that engages the viewer and stays on your mind even after you have moved on.
Risham Syed’s The Marble Hearth is one instance of thought-provoking, head-scratching art that is memorable for its uniqueness and shrouded symbolism. A beautiful fireplace carved from gleaming white marble stands off to one end in the COMO Museum, its hearth where one would expect a fire is replaced with a detailed painting of a rocket ship taking off for its maiden flight into, presumably, outer space. A comment on wealth and its accompanying comforts, the violence of the fiery takeoff depicted within stands in stark contrast, referencing the destructive nature of modern life.
The building that houses the COMO Museum is a sanctuary from the buzz and activity of Lahore. Located in the heart of Gulberg, but tucked away from the main road on a quiet little lane, an old house was newly renovated to house the artworks in the right setting. A crisp white facade reveals little except for gleaming gold letters displaying ‘COMO’. Taking a step inside, visitors are greeted with the mission statement for the first show titled ONE on view currently. “The beginning, the first, the only. A universal unit of singularity that can hold the concept of the divine. One is the paradox of the finite and the infinite. It is the start, the end and all that lies between.”
“We pride ourselves on being equally representative and strived to have a balance in the number of male and female artists, providing an opportunity for female artists who may otherwise not receive the same in the industry,” shared Seher Tareen. For the first show, Rashid Rana, Risham Syed, Ali Kazim, Naiza Khan, Salman Toor and Saba Khan got the opportunity to display some of their handpicked works. Every six months, there will be a rotation of the art displayed, with other artists bringing in fresh material.
“Our curation philosophy is to collaborate with the artists. To that end we worked with each artist and got them to weigh in on what art they wanted to display from their personal portfolios and how it should be staged,” noted Tareen. Each artist and artwork has a personal significance for the founder, who is also working on a coffee table book/museum catalogue hybrid set to come out later this year.
Though the COMO Museum is open to the public, thus far there has been no marketing campaign and commercial interests seem to be extremely low on the list of priorities. Field trips for schools and colleges are planned in the upcoming future, as well as academic talks and cultural events. One such talk Art on the Edge — Influence of Zahoorul Akhlaque took place during the Lahore Literary Festival 2019 with speakers Zehra Jumabhoy and Conor Macklin.
The exhibits within the museum interrogate social and political norms in Pakistan. Saba Khan’s sculpture of a series of steps that seem to lead nowhere is entitled Monument for an Undecided Event, making fun of bureaucracy and unnecessary pomp that so often accompanies our government’s every endeavour. Rashid Rana’s Red Carpet from a distance seems to be an intricate Persian carpet, but upon closer inspection is made of thousands of tiny photos taken at various slaughterhouses in Lahore, the richness of the bright reds in the carpet provided by the bloodshed and gore within each photo: perhaps a comment on the consumption and destruction that is characterised by modern civilisation.
A visit to this museum is memorable and so it is lovely that anyone walking down the street can pop in and have their appetite for creativity so wonderfully whetted. COMO’s opening has been a long time coming and it is truly a jewel in Lahore’s crown.