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Looking behind

An overview of the expressions of Pakistani art in the year 2017

Looking behind
Two Ways to a View I by Rashid Rana.

2017 can be marked for some exceptional exhibitions held in Pakistan and abroad. Some artists were shown at venues which provided new meanings to their works; several others explored new forms and ways of seeing, and expressed their ideas beyond conventional methods.

In the beginning of the year, an important exhibition was held at Rohtas 2, Lahore. Commenting upon the rise of fundamentalism, security concerns, kitschy taste; and the impact of popular culture in a society, Saba Khan’s solo show displayed works created with a wide range of materials. Referring to textbook imagery, urban architecture and decorative items in a community, the work blended a range of languages (visual, verbal, gallery art, public expression) to present and critique the notion of reality constructed through social media as well as commercial interests.

Seema Nusrat’s solo exhibition at Koel Gallery Karachi was an elaboration on safety measures we have to pass through every day; which are as feeble as any fable about the power of the state. In her work, objects put as a shield to protect official buildings were transformed into ‘beautiful’ compositions — alluding to the human habit of turning pain into pleasure.

The year will also be remembered for two ‘two-person shows’, both for different scale, sensibility and concept.

The year will also be remembered for two ‘two-person shows’, both for different scale, sensibility and concept though. In different rooms of the National Art Gallery (NAG) Islamabad, a comprehensive exhibition — kind of a joint retrospective — showed the works of two leading artists, Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid along with a performance piece of Khalid and a site-specific work of Qureshi. The exhibition, a significant landmark both for the artists and the history of Pakistani art, offered a rare opportunity to view works from different periods in order to understand the pictorial concerns and growth of these artists.

The other two-person show was held at the Koel Gallery, in which Saira Sheikh and Omer Wasim created a narrative about the ethos of Karachi. One may not believe in capturing souls in art but the essence of the metropolis was present through things and pictures belongings to those workers who maybe nameless/faceless, but are the real architects of a city.

Like in the past, Art Dubai 2017 was a major event as far as the Pakistani artists were concerned. Many Pakistani artists’ works were part of the fair though none was chosen for the Abraaj Art Prize. Beyond the art fair, Rashid Rana’s exhibition at Leila Heller Gallery in Dubai was a significant venture. Not because he shared the gallery space with Anthony Caro and Bill Viola, but because the artist constructed his imagery without a local reference. His work, initiated from the images of violence and incorporating visuals from art history, became a testimony of the present reality which unfolds extraordinary pictorial contact along with suggesting issues of our age. Complexity of ideas and sophistication of execution made that exhibition a remarkable visual experience.

Salman Toor -catalogue-3-3

During the same period and place, Lala Rukh’s exhibition was arranged in a private gallery in Dubai. Her work affirmed the artist’s peculiar diction that, despite being minimal, had a great impact. It was again witnessed at the Documenta 14, where Lala Rukh’s posters and other images were included. At the same Documenta, works of an artist of Pakistani origin based in UK, Rasheed Araeen were displayed. Araeen has been fighting against racial hegemony through his writing and politically oriented works. But his late recognition/admission into the mainstream art world (market?) seems to have bypassed the political content; instead it picked his formal pieces reminding of constructivist aesthetics.

Form can be a means to open up a web of wide world, as observed at the retrospective of Imran Mir at Mohatta Palace Karachi, which would continue in 2018. The artist’s attempt in making lines as a vehicle to convey ideas about space is incredible. Man has been trying to understand space since eternity. Different cultures devised separate modes to deal with that but, in Mir’s work, a viewer enters into his canvases (regardless of their scale) to share a glimpse of the sublime — a sensation managed through immensity of surface and ingenuity of pictorial means.

Salman Toor’s solo exhibition at Canvas Gallery Karachi affirmed his place and position as a conjuror of complex ideas/images in the art of Pakistan. Likewise, the solo show of Hamra Abbas at the Canvas Gallery denoted the unavoidable connection between religion and faith. Her work emanating from the tradition of the region as well as of modern art opened up new ways of approaching and appropriating tradition.

2017 is best recognised for two international ventures. Karachi Biennale included a range of artists from across the country and a few from outside. But the real feature of the Karachi Biennale was not these international artists (Yoko Ono, Michelangelo Pistoletto, ORAN), but the way the event became a point of reference to diverse practices. Held under a relevant and open-to-interpretations theme ‘Witness’, the Biennale was a huge success in terms of presenting a comprehensive picture of art in our surroundings.

Manchester makes a mark in terms of showcasing works from this region. As part of the ‘New North South’ project, artists from South Asia were invited to exhibit in the north of England. Solo exhibitions of Risham Syed, Waqas Khan, Mehreen Murtaza and Tentative Collective opened on Sept 30, revealing the different practices of these artists: From temporal to historical, from retinal to conceptual and from personal to political. Problem of colonialism, presence of popular expressions, and preference for new forms of expressions are a few aspects of these exhibitions.

Compared to North of England, a huge exhibition inaugurated on Dec 19 in Islamabad was a disappointment for many reasons. The 9thNational Exhibition, held after 13 years due to immense efforts of Jamal Shah and his team at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, presented a range of works selected from regional and provincial organisations, respecting the notion of equal representation. The show housed remarkable paintings by Ijaz ul Hassan, Meher Afroz, and a few others but a substantial portion was hardly worthy of being put at the National Art Gallery Islamabad.

The experience of this exhibition leads to questions about the relevance of a project such as a ‘national exhibition’. Somehow, the idea of collecting and presenting art that is produced within the confines of a nation-state is as superfluous as mapping the art of a calendar year!

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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