The late, self-taught sculptor Shahid Sajjad has often been quoted as saying: “Even if one doesn’t study at the NCA, Lahore, rubbing one’s back against its walls can turn one into an artist for each brick there exudes Art.” Times have proven him right.
As spring had yet to arrive, new ‘artists’ burst from their eggs and hungry caterpillars turned into Lepidoptera fluttering around the garden of art, NCA, Lahore. Gripped by the fear that ultimately their work might be a meaningless speck on the vast page of art history!
Ever since its inception, the NCA Annual Degree Show has built up a deserved reputation as the premier showcase of the contemporary art of Pakistan. The recently concluded NCA Annual Degree Show 2017, Lahore, was full of beautiful, smart, and trenchant art this year too. It unfolded as a series of crisscrossing conversations and exhilarating moments where things simply felt good together. Overall, the show benefited from — and was burdened by — an anxious climate that no one wished for, and it offered some encouragement, if not solace, with its earnest back-to-work persistence.
After a walk through the venues it was clear that the curators (Imran Qureshi and Ali Kazim) prefer art that is, for the most part, conformist. This left no room for any subtler message or for the audience to make up their own mind, since the works tended to shove the propaganda down one’s throat. Any critical thinking from the spectator does not seem like a necessary feature since the curators (and the artists) obviously know exactly how things actually are, and expect the spectator to simply be taught. Having said that, the curators may have treated the show just as one of their many commitments — fully dedicated but relatively detached from the hysterical pressure and the drama that regularly lace the Annual Degree Show.
One shouldn’t really draw comparisons with past editions when it comes to reviewing an exhibition like the Annual Degree Show but even refraining from playing this game, it is unquestionable that this year represented a rather uninspiring feast.
That is to say, the show did not offer particular peaks. There were some downfalls along the road but the general feeling was that of a good exhibition even when it looked a bit weak on the details. It was certainly not the kind of show that makes you want to scream about the absence of an artist as opposed to the presence of another. But where is the policy of talent scouting, by looking back instead of forward, intelligently contributing to the general discourse? Having taken the running from theory and practice, can the Degree Show continue to bear this weight of responsibility?
“Historical Attention Span Deficit Disorder,” coined by the historian Christopher Andrews, suggests that today’s cultures, seduced by “short-termism,” tend to neglect long-term experiences, branding almost anything as “new.” The Annual Degree Show may have bowed to the new realities of the contemporary world order, but this spirit extended to the exhibition itself in only an intermittent, fitful way. Today’s graduate in Fine Arts (read artist) has come a long way: he has a much higher self-esteem; he keeps an eye on the market and the trends that prevail; and above all, thinks he has the license to do ‘anything’ in the name of contemporaneity.
A recurrent complaint of scholars antipathetic to contemporary art is that it is an elaborate fraud perpetrated on the public by an elite of artists, curators and critics. They feel that in recent times, art has taken a disastrous turn away from craft-based skills towards ‘unaesthetic,’ social and political interests.
The Annual Degree Show attempts to refract the world through a prism of cultural production. Of course, the world reflected by today’s shows is no longer shaped by the modernist gaze of the rational, illuminated Crystal Palace of the first World’s Fair, but is instead seen as an endlessly expanding multiverse, with more and more miniaturists pouring in and fewer sculptors and printmakers passing out.
Maha Sohail’s sometimes functional, one-of-a-kind sculptural pieces provide a kind of unruly connective tissue linking disjunctive works. Her sculptures are revealed as chameleonic décor elements, easy to pair with other artworks despite their big, vaguely dystopian personalities. But Sohail’s repurposed, in-process aesthetic, that of a discerning scavenger and couture upholsterer, finds its best companion in the hedonism of Sabeen Ahsan’s trickily layered, biomorphic compositions. The painter’s seductive works on paper synthesise an alternative history of abstraction, one dominated by women’s innovation, from Helen Frankenthaler’s vibrant stains to Georgia O’Keeffe’s radically magnified vulvar compositions. Esha Sohail uses photography to heighten the intrinsic qualities of ordinary objects and homes. Her works explore places suspended in time but deliberately avoid a narrative structure while Tooba Ashraf’s untitled mixed-media paintings’ narrative hovers around the fear of loss of family — both as a legal structure and the framework for interpersonal relationships. Her matriarchal family portraits favour personal, affective ties over those dictated by a traditional hierarchy of dependency. The work can be read as a paean to the decline of the traditional family unit.
Despite frequent critical emphasis on their sombre narratives, Bilal Khalid’s etching/aquatints and drawings derive their full impact from subtly subversive details, which become visible only when the viewer has recovered from the initial encounter with the young artist’s imagery. Having spent his childhood in a house located adjacent to a graveyard, Khalid draws out the shift in meanings of the site as he grows up and comes to realize that the ‘monuments’ around him are not heaps of earth but sepulchers and emblems of man’s eternal abode.
Ali Jamali’s mixed-media works embody a strange synthesis of ardent physicality and visual restraint, a fusion that is perhaps another of the ‘perceptions’ and ‘perspectives’ he’s dealing with. Their force lies in a sense of continuing potential, or rather in self-contradiction. Materiality, skill, and the promise of meaning meet at a point of absurd and uncanny beauty. Rehman Zada’s miniatures confront us with cables — a mesh of lines and knots that at the outset have the appearance of an abstract composition. What we do not see is what these curiously hovering cables are transporting. What energy or which stories?
The exhibition did develop several relevant trajectories related to fact and fiction in historiography, hitting perhaps the most exciting points when addressing alternative histories and hidden stories while it may not be easy to point out the highlights in terms of artistic quality in this kind of a show as it’s a constellation of artists, with different premises, telling us different stories and revealing different ways of formalising their narratives.
For whom was the NCA Annual Degree Show 2017 meant? To the greater part largely for buyers, collectors and gallery owners, the messages come as neither a surprise nor a provocation — the problems or issues (if any, at all) pinpointed are already well known and also fought in these circuits. The curatorial endeavour of the NCA Degree Show 17 is set out to challenge what an exhibition can revolutionise about issues of inequality presented in an art work, but it speaks to the already convinced and hence turns in this setting into something very ‘politically’ correct.
Due to the current climate, it is difficult to think that the NCA Annual Degree Show 2017 will be regarded as an unforgettable event in the short-term future. In times of economical recession there is the tendency to advocate the state of emergency. When most buyers and aspiring collectors cannot touch the great masters’ work nor that of the well-established artists’ with a long pole, such shows provide an ideal opportunity to those who like to think that they are getting more than the work’s value or more than their share for such small price tags.