Sadequain at AICON, New York

Josheen Oberoi visits AICON Gallery’s expansive Sadequain exhibition

New York: It’s been a quiet month in the New York art world. With half the community decamping to Art Basel and the rest distracted by the blessed warm weather (we had a tough winter here!); interesting shows have been relatively thin on the ground. Not for South Asian art, thankfully. AICON Gallery is showing a mini retrospective of the Pakistani artist Syed Sadequain (1930-1987) and I was excited to see it not only for the quality of art but also the rarity of having access to such a body of work.

Occupying the entire expansive space of AICON’s Lower East Side gallery, this exhibit shows the gamut of Sadequain’s oeuvre. One of Pakistan’s most celebrated modernist artists, Sadequain was born in 1930 in Amroha, east of Delhi, in a family of calligraphers. He subsequently moved to Pakistan after his graduation from Agra University in 1948. He shot to fame at the young age of 31, when his work won recognition at the 1961 Paris Biennale.

A self-taught artist, he is most commonly identified with the development of a uniquely idiomatic calligraphic aesthetic. However, his visual language is in fact one of the most variegated and complex of the South Asian modernists working post 1947. He simultaneously worked through a variety of calligraphic, narrative, abstract registers, with artistic influences that ranged from multiple mediums; poetry, Western and South Asian historical artistic traditions. His compatriot, collaborator and famed poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz stated about his work, “In spite of his considerable pre-occupation with the solution of technical formal problems, Sadequain has never been purely a formal painter. Recordist, abstractionist, social critic, emotional visionary, within a few short years, Sadequain has sped from one role or compulsion to another with equal impetuosity.”

Three standing figures

Three Standing Figures, 1966, Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Sadequain’s engagement with language was seminal to his work and this is visible in this exhibition. Comprising twenty seven paintings and three drawings, the show is dominated by a collection of paintings from the 1960s, when Sadequain lived and worked in Paris. Titled The Lost Exhibition, this set of eight paintings are dancing figures of calligraphy; lyrical despite their scale. These works are considered examples of what the artist called “Calligraphic Cubism”. Employing the scratched surface technique on the background, the texture produces volume and three- dimensionality. Seemingly caught in action, the elongated movement of the script along the vertical axis make these works appear monumental in viewing. Sadequain described himself as a figurative painter and the dramatic execution of the Arabic Kufic script in these works, the ensuing conversations that are taking place on the canvas, did bring home that idea to me. These are the strongest works in the exhibit and definitely worth a dekko.

Man with Dagger, Oil on canvas, 54 x 30 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery

Man with Dagger, Oil on canvas, 54 x 30 inches
Image courtesy: AICON Gallery

Some of Sadequain’s formally figurative works are also part of this exhibition and these underline the remarkable range of his visual vernacular. Line, form, perspective – I was hard won to find a singly unifying element among these paintings. One of the more striking of these was Man With Dagger, showing a man holding a dagger in one hand and a head that resembles his own in the other, accompanied by a smaller figure of a woman holding a leaf. These muscular renderings, so different from The Lost Exhibition, are echoed in another set of calligraphic paintings in the exhibition, Untitled (Abstract Formation I and II). Interestingly, the image of a severed head is repeated in one of the works on paper, Untitled, Headless Self-Portrait. It clearly shows the headless artist in a studio, with a work of calligraphy in the background.

Untitled, Abstract Formation 1, c. 1960, Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 16 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Untitled, Abstract Formation 1, c. 1960, Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 16 inches
Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Untitled, Headless Self Portrait, 1967, Ink on Paper, 28 x 20 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Untitled, Headless Self Portrait, 1967, Ink on Paper, 28 x 20 inches
Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1962, an edition of the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro rightly noted, “Sadequain adds up the impression of space, density, volume and the reality of matter, which transforms an abstract thought into a material fact in plastic.” He shifted the paradigms of calligraphy, especially in his realization of its abstracted and stylized forms. This post cannot effectively capture the entire spectrum of his languages and so I would strongly recommend a trip down to the gallery to see them yourself if you’re in New York.

You can learn more about Sadequain at the Sadequain Foundation website (co sponsor of this exhibition) and from this article by art historian Iftikhar Dadi.

Seher Shah in Huffington Post’s “10 International Artists to Watch in 2013”

Manjari Sihare shares details of Seher Shah’s mention in Huffington Post’s List of Ten International Artists to Watch in 2013

Seher Shah_Radiant Lines-X Block

Seher Shah
Capitol Complex: X-Block
Collage on paper, 11 x 14 inches, 2012
Image courtesy of Nature Morte Berlin

New York: Contemporary art in Pakistan is finally receiving much deserved international recognition after bordering along the shadows of art from India. Last week, the Huffington Post listed Seher Shah in its take on international artists to watch out for in the coming year. New York based artist of Pakistani origin, Seher Shah has lived in different parts of the world  including Pakistan, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and now the United States. Most recently, Seher’s has been in the news for her work in a current exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art, Radical Terrain which celebrated the genre of modern Indian landscape painting juxtaposed with new work by younger contemporary artists. Watch the blog for more on this exhibit in the coming weeks.

Over the past 5 years, contemporary Pakistani artists have gained major international recognition. Among these are Rashid Rana who is well known for commanding high prices for his photomontages in global auctions. In November last year, the Deutsche Bank conferred Imran Qureshi with their “Artist of the Year” award. Similarly Shazia Sikander, a graduate of Lahore’s National College of the Arts, now based in the US,  has long been popular across the globe, receiving attention  and place in the collection of avid art collectors such as Bill Gates. In November, Saffronart held its inaugural auction of Pakistani Contemporary Art, which featured a total of seventy lots and represented an eclectic overview of the genre. Read more about some geniuses of Pakistani contemporary art in this article.

Questions of Identity and Innovation: Discussing ‘The Art of Pakistan’

Panel, from left: Dr Virginia Whiles, Faiza Butt and Kamran Anwar

Panel, from left: Dr Virginia Whiles, Faiza Butt and Kamran Anwar

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.

A packed house at Saffronart, London

A packed house at Saffronart, London

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.

Imran Qureshi, Blessings Upon the Land of My Love, 2011 Image Credit: http://www.sharjahart.org/blog/2011/february/sneak-preview--imran-qureshi

Imran Qureshi, Blessings Upon the Land of My Love, 2011
Image Credit: http://www.sharjahart.org/blog/2011/february/sneak-preview–imran-qureshi

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.

Mohammad Ali Talpur, Untitled, 2005 Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/auctions/PostWork.aspx?l=7510

Mohammad Ali Talpur, Untitled, 2005
Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/auctions/PostWork.aspx?l=7510

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.

Rehana Mangi, Ding Dong Series I, 2009 Image Credits: http://alexisrenard.com/art/ding-dong-series-i/

Rehana Mangi, Ding Dong Series I, 2009
Image Credits: http://alexisrenard.com/art/ding-dong-series-i/

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.

Imran Qureshi is Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year 2013”

Imran Qureshi
Moderate Enlightenment
2007
Gouache on Wasli
8.5 x 6.5 in
From: Saffronart’s 24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan, Lot 31
Exhibited and published: Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, 2009-10

Manjari Sihare of Saffronart shares details about Deutsche Bank’s 2013 Artist of the Year Award conferred to Pakistani contemporary artist Imran Qureshi

New York: Deutsche Bank has presented its fourth “Artist of the Year” award to leading Pakistani contemporary artist Imran Qureshi. The selection was made on the recommendation of internationally renowned curators including Okwui Enwezor, Hou Hanru, Udo Kittelmann, and Victoria Noorthoorn, who comprise the Deutsche Bank Global Art Advisory Council. This award was instituted in 201o to honor an international contemporary artist who has already amassed an unmistakable and extraordinary oeuvre working with the paper medium or photography,  the two focal points of the celebrated Deutsche Bank Art Collection.

The Deutsche Bank Collection is  one of the most comprehensive corporate art collections in the world, featuring over 55,000 photographs, prints and drawings worldwide. The Collection started with early acquisitions of significant German-speaking artists such as George Baselitz, Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Pölke. As the Bank has grew globally, so did the size and interactive nature of their art collection, which was directed to reflect today’s diverse contemporary art world and an international point of view. Hence works of German artists were juxtaposed with works by master artists from respective host countries. The bank’s art collection is strategically headquartered in New York City to take advantage the city’s vibrant contemporary art environment and the international profile of the people who work in and visit the bank daily.

The award is not based on a financial reward, but positioned as an integral part of Deutsche Bank’s art program through its  substantial collection, exhibitions, and its joint projects with partners. For the past three years, since its inception, the reward included a solo exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin accompanied with a comprehensive catalogue, an exclusive edition designed by the artist and acquisition of the artist awardee’s select works on paper for the Deutsche Bank Collection. This year, the announcement coincided with another important disclosure by the Bank. On Monday, November 12th, 2012, the Deutsche Bank announced the space which currently holds the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin will be converted into the German capital’s newest kunsthalle in Spring 2013. This announcement was a follow up of the news that broke out early this year of the Guggenheim closing its Berlin premises at the end of 2012.  This space will mark the end of the bank’s 15-year collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. In its press release, the bank declared that “the Kunsthalle is conceptualized as a place where young, promising talent can be seen first. Its inaugural exhibition in April 2013 will feature the work of Imran Qureshi, one of the most important figures on Pakistan’s art scene today.” Read more.

To learn more about Imran Qureshi, click here.

The Art of Imran Qureshi

Guest blogger, Sayantan Mukhopadhyay reflects on Imran Qureshi’s Moderate Enlightenment series of paintings

Imran Qureshi
Moderate Enlightenment
2007
Gouache on Wasli
8.5 x 6.5 in
From: Saffronart’s 24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan, Lot 31
Exhibited and published: Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, 2009-10

New York: As contemporary art hurtles further into its characteristic world of postmodern diffusion – where national categories give way to dissolving borders and trans-regional connections – potent markers of heritage serve as reminders of mooring and place.

Imran Qureshi has stated the importance belonging plays in his art and his Moderate Enlightenment series reveals a keen interest in re-pitching a distinctly South Asian artistic vernacular, paying homage to tradition and the importance of history in visual storytelling. The miniature – an art form that has been devoted exclusively to portraiture and the human form – is an encounter with an individual. In its historical use, important imperial or divine figureheads would be richly painted and ornamented with gold leaf, allowing inquisitive eyes a point of access into the court or the heavens.

Qureshi paints intimate portraits of religious men and finds a quiet anxiety with contemporary Pakistan therein: seemingly mundane images of men turn into hidden symbols of social unrest. These post-9/11 treatises search to understand how perceptions of zealotry can be influenced by fashion and posture. In his use of the miniature, he highlights the issue as a South Asian one, fixed at once to geography and culture, but also one that is fiercely contemporary. Here, Orientalist fantasies of Pakistan cede to modern concerns and pressing international affairs.

Qureshi’s dexterous mastery over the miniature is a testament to his need to find a global voice laden with legacy. In a painstaking process that requires deft use of fine brushes, miniatures must be held close to the artist’s eyes to ensure accurate detailing. The artist’s inestimable skill earned him a place in the Asia Society’s iconic exhibit of contemporary Pakistani art, “Hanging Fire,” in 2009/10. He later went on to win the Sharjah Art Prize in 2011, establishing him as one of Pakistan’s most important stars today. Refusing to be titled reductively as a ‘Miniature Painter,’ he has shown himself to be a versatile artist, his large-scale installation pieces proving him comfortable with media either big or small. An artist to watch and to follow, Qureshi lets us catch glimpses of a Pakistan through visions grounded there but equally aware of the world at large.

Sayantan Mukhopadhyay is an Associate at Aicon Gallery, New York’s leading gallery dedicated to South Asian contemporary art. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Comparative Literature from Williams College and has spent time with the Indian & Southeast Asian art department at Sotheby’s New York.

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