Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart gives an overview of the panel discussion on the Art of Pakistan held at Saffronart London last month
London: On 1 November, concurring with the preview for the Art of Pakistan Auction, Saffronart London hosted an eye opening panel discussion on the current situation of contemporary Pakistani art. Speakers at the event were Pakistani artist Faiza Butt, art collector Kamran Anwar, and art historian Dr Virginia Whiles.
The conversation revolved around the emergence and significance of Pakistani art at an international level and also around identity issues and the cultural framing of Pakistani artists.
Dr Viriginia Whiles opened the discussion noting that given the socio-political and economical context, Pakistani art is doing really well both in Pakistan and abroad. As an example a young Pakistani artist, Imran Qureshi, has been chosen as Deutsch Bank Artist of the Year for 2013, and many new galleries are opening up in Pakistan. However, it is generally very hard to make a link between the social, anthropological and economic world with art, and one way of doing it is through collecting which is a passionate involvement with the art.
The first question of the evening was addressed to Kamran Anwar about the reasons which prompted his passion for collecting. Anwar explained that he was lucky enough to receive a visit from Sadequain when he was at school in Pakistan. Always being interested in Persian and Urdu poetry, he asked Sadequain to illustrate some of his favourite verses in calligraphy. Sadequain quickly created a fine calligraphic piece for him, and this gift became the first piece of Anwar’s collection. The fact that his father was a collector of antiquities also prompted this passion.
Then, it was Faiza Butt’s turn to analyze the current situation of Pakistani art given her biographical background. Butt was raised in Pakistan, studied at the Slade School in the UK, and currently works between Pakistan and the UK. She said that it was really hard to create works which communicate to people beyond the boundaries they live in. All the fields expanded in a steep way and working for a new audience, the Pakistanis, created a wider range of people she needed to communicate to.
In connection to this matter, Anwar noted the emergence of an interesting ideological debate in branding art within a national context. However, he found he was not entirely sure of what was particularly Pakistani about Butt’s art, but felt that in a way it was. In fact, there are social and cultural references and political influences of the environment which either openly or subtly emerge in her works. Therefore it becomes the owner/audience’s choice whether to read the cultural message.
Butt agreed with Anwar, adding that Pakistani artists are not very keen on being culturally framed as Pakistani artists. They don’t want to be categorized because they don’t want to sell national history and they don’t want to represent the state of Pakistan, but they want to symbolize the tensions and cultural issues in Pakistan. It is a very delicate balance.
However, what is happening now in Pakistan has definitely sharpened the artists’ sensibility in a way. The Pakistani world is very distinctive. To explain, the artist noted that Picasso wouldn’t have painted ‘Guernica’ if there wouldn’t have been the Spanish Civil War. Similarly recent events, war, terror and national tragedies in Pakistan have played a big role in the artists’ world. Pakistani art reflects the aftermath of these happenings. Imran Qureshi’s prize winning work in Sharjah, ‘Blessings Upon the Land of My Love’, created in response to a suicide bombing was used by Dr Virginia Whiles as an example to support this concept. So, in this sense, culture identity can work as an informative process through the creation of art.
Anwar also added that although some Pakistani artists reflect the social condition of the country there are others that want to create art without content such as Mohammad Ali Talpur. In fact the artist doesn’t want his art related to the political situation in Pakistan. His line drawings, where he keeps on repeating strokes over and over again, are created as a meditative process akin to chanting.
In response to this, Butt argued that nonetheless there are certain Pakistani elements that you can’t take away from Pakistani artworks, they are ingrained in the artists and those are what make Pakistani art very distinctive. Besides the cultural and political references, the role of the artists as craft-makers is quite evident, perhaps as a consequence of the lack of an industrial revolution in Pakistan. Butt believes that in Pakistani art there is a distinct mark of human hands and you can feel the intimacy between the artists and their creations. Contemporary miniature paintings are a good example of this ideology. The technique and process remain as before, but they are a starting point for new ideas. One example of a contemporary response to traditional miniature painting are the works of Rehana Mangi, who uses hair instead of paint, but keeps the grid as the main structure.
Concluding the discussion all the panellists agreed that contemporary Pakistani art could be considered an art of the diaspora, as most of the artists are located outside Pakistan or at least spend half their time abroad. Butt, herself an example of this phenomenon, stated that living between two countries was certainly confusing but it sharpened the sense of an artist and helped her look at things differently. She was glad to not be desensitized by this condition.
The panel also agreed on the fact that there is not much happening abroad in relation to Pakistani art, and that more space should be given to it. Agreeing with the panel, I’m looking forward to new exhibitions and talks on Pakistani art, which would make it more accessible and available to audiences everywhere.