Venezia Calling

Kanika Pruthi of Saffronart talks about the South Asian artists participating at the 55th Venice Biennale

New York: 2013 seems to have had a promising start for the art world considering the reviews received from the art fairs so far. Frieze New York opened this May with around 180 galleries from 40 countries showing works in all media, including performance. The visual and sensory frenzy then travelled across the seas to Hong Kong, which witnessed the debut of Art Basel Hong Kong, the commercial success of this venture still a worthy point of conversation in the art circles. They say the market has been resurrected, and the buzz continues at the 55th Venice Biennale which opened its doors to art aficionados from around the world on 1 June.

Massimiliano Gioni, Director of the 55th Venice Biennale

Massimiliano Gioni, Director of the 55th Venice Biennale. Image Credit:

Massimiliano Gioni, the Director of this edition of the Biennale, titled this year’s exhibition The Encyclopedic Palace. Echoing the credentials of its Director – heralded as one of the youngest, innovative and most talented international curators seen in recent years – it is no surprise that this year’s Biennale has already gathered overall positive reviews in its first week. The eclectic ensemble exhibited this year mirrors Gioni’s refreshing approach, which shuns the dichotomies of high and low art, insider and outsider artist – there is a place for one and all under the Venetian sun.

Several works by artists from India and the subcontinent are on display this year, signaling a continued affiliation with the biennale after the debut of India’s National Pavilion at the 54th edition in 2011.

Dayanita Singh is among four non-German artists showing in the German Pavilion this year. During the opening preview on May 30, she signed and stamped limited edition copies of her latest photo-book File Room for visitors. At the Biennale she will show photos from her 2001 work Mona, which chronicles the life of a eunuch living in India. Singh has worked with the subject for over a decade now. The continuity-and-change binary in her practice and the elusive meaning and layered contexts, seem to echo the dominant theme of the Biennale and the curatorial context of Gioni’s efforts, which highlight the changing landscape of artistic practice today – redefining and re-imagining existing models which are in a constant state of flux yet ever-present.

Outpost, Samar Singh Jodha

Outpost, Samar Singh Jodha. Image Credit:

Samar Singh Jodha is showing his work titled Outpost in the Arsenal. The work is a commentary on global consumerism and its impact on aesthetics – intentional and accidental. The subject of his work is discarded containers fashioned into habitat by miners in India’s pristine northeast. He utilizes this pictorial trope to invite interplay of narratives around consumerism and the impact of technology.

Imran Qureshi, one of the most acclaimed contemporary Pakistani artists, known for his modern miniatures inspired by Mughal art, is also showing at Venice this year. His series of miniature paintings titled Moderate Enlightenment (of which one featured in Saffronart’s first Art of Pakistan Auction last year) depicts various characters taking part in everyday activities. These images embody cultural shifts and quietly counter Western preconceptions, while commenting on the scenarios and situations in his native Pakistan.

Moderate Enlightenment, Imran Qureshi

Moderate Enlightenment, Imran Qureshi. Image Credit:

Faiza Butt, born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, is exhibiting her pop culture infused works at the exhibition. Her works also draw from the miniature tradition, while commenting on current and controversial themes that explore issues of politics, gender and identity.

To read more about the 55th Venice Biennale click here.

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:

Imran Qureshi, Blessings Upon the Land of My Love, 2011
Image Credit:–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:

Mohammad Ali Talpur, Untitled, 2005
Image Credit:

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:

Rehana Mangi, Ding Dong Series I, 2009
Image Credits:

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.

Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan

Josheen Oberoi revisits the seminal 2009 exhibition Hanging Fire at Asia Society, New York

New York: Asia Society, the premier global institution promoting understanding between Asia and the United States, held the first museum survey exhibition of contemporary Pakistani art in the United States at their flagship space in New York in 2009. Curated by the renowned writer and curator Salima Hashmi, the exhibition Hanging Fire was a study on the vibrancy and multiplicity of praxis of contemporary artists in Pakistan.

On the occasion of Saffronart’s inaugural auction of Art of Pakistan, starting today, I retrace my steps to a piece I had originally penned for the Saffronart website in 2009. The show included the work of fifteen Pakistani artists in diverse media, many of who are part of the upcoming auction. As a survey exhibition of contemporary artists and art practices in the country, the exhibition served to undermine the monolithic perspective of Pakistan and its art that often still dominates the news media. The artists in the exhibition addressed contemporary concerns ranging from the personal and local to the regional and global, thus offering a glimpse into the active internal dialogues that animate Pakistan. What follows is a brief survey of what I saw.

Hamra Abbas
Ride 2
Painted fiberglass and wood
Approx. H. 72 x W. 39 x L. 94 in.
Image courtesy of the artist and Green Cardamom
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Amongst the works on display was Hamra Abbas‘s Ride 2, 2008, an electric-pink fiberglass sculpture of Buraq (a mythic winged creature – half woman, half horse) believed to be Prophet Mohammad’s holy mare. A popular motif in Pakistan, it is often illustrated in classical narratives. However, it was the folk representation of the Buraq that Abbas reproduced in this life-size work, that claims the religious icon within a female narrative, and, through it, signifies both power and freedom.

Naiza Khan
Galvanized steel and suede leather
H. 26 x W. 12 5/8 x D. 6 3/8 in. (66 x 32 x 16 cm)
Image courtesy of Mahmood Ali
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Adeela Suleman and Naiza Khan’s works also evoked questions of identity and of the politics of the body. Naiza Khan’s sculpture Spine, 2008, for instance was a corset-like cage made of galvanized steel with red suede stitched over it. The sculpture appeared to be an armour-like trap encompassing and protecting the body, but was also seductive in the choice, colour and texture of the suede. Explaining her work, the artist says, “These objects occupy a place between love and war, and are ambiguous in their position of aggression and seduction.”

The sculptures by Adeela Suleman displayed in the exhibition were made of found domestic objects (tongs, jars, funnels and spoons) and physically resembled the structure of helmets worn by two-wheeler drivers in Pakistan. In Suleman’s works, objects associated with female-use are re-framed within a non-domestic setting, evoking questions of gender roles and boundaries. Also included in the exhibition were photographs of women wearing these object-helmets, bringing immediacy to the works by inserting the gendered self into them.

Mahreen Zuberi
Open Wide I
Gouache on wasli
H. 9 5/8 x W. 12 5/16 in.
Image courtesy of the artist
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Mahreen Zuberi showed six “austerely rendered vignettes” of the symbiotic relationship between pain and pleasure, executed in gouache on Wasli paper. Using the traditional miniature format, the artist presented images of objects that had the relationship of aggressor and victim. In one of the works, for example, disembodied hands holding dentist’s tools probe a similarly body-less mouth set on a flat negative space. This exploration of the human psyche using inanimate objects is a familiar trope for the artist as also seen in the work below from the upcoming Saffronart auction.

Mahreen Zuberi
Gouache on Wasli
10.5 x 15.5 in
From: Saffronart’s 24 Hour auction: Art of Pakistan, Lot 68

Imran Qureshi
Moderate Enlightenment
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, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Imran Qureshi’s works share the same medium and scale as Zuberi’s, but are deliberately sociopolitical in their intent. Working in the tradition of Mughal miniature portraits, Qureshi contemporarized the figures in his paintings. On the surface, their setting, background and garb appeared traditional, but the figures were depicted exercising with dumbbells or reading contemporary books; questioning stereotyping based on appearance. Qureshi had also installed a site-specific painting at the Asia Society for this exhibition. One of his important works in the current auction that was part of the Hanging Fire exhibition is on the right here.

Like Qureshi, Faiza Butt deals with the issue of stereotyping, but relates it to the recent, global increase in tension and fear. In two of her works on display at Asia Society (Get out of My Dreams, I and II, 2008), she presented noble young men in settings reminiscent of ‘Paradise’, staring out of the frame to meet the viewer’s gaze. A closer examination of the works, however, revealed that the figures are surrounded by symbols of modernity and technology like hairdryers, wine glasses, electric razors, and US currency, and that the young men themselves are bedecked with signifiers commonly linked to contemporary religious radicalism.

Faiza Butt
Get out of my dreams I
Ink on polyester film
H. 24 x W. 19 in.
Image courtesy of the artist
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Huma Mulji
High Rise: Lake City Drive
Taxidermic buffalo, sheet metal, fiberglass, henna, and Duco paint
H. 137 7/8 x W. 82 7/8 x D. 26 7/8 in.
Image courtesy of the artist
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Two of the other artists, Huma Mulji and Asma Mundrawala, dealt with the specific concerns of urban-rural relationships and the changing landscape of Pakistan, albeit in divergent ways. Mulji’s installation (High Rise: Lake City Drive, 2009) – a vulnerable looking taxidermic buffalo placed on a high Greek column – confronted the question of progress as defined by changing economies and the uneasy relationship between urban and rural Pakistan.

Mundrawala confined her work to the context of Karachi and the effects of modernization on its landscape and culture. Her works included pop-up books and a video installation, which re-imagined nostalgic scenes from moments of popular culture. Using photographs of people she didn’t personally know from her family albums, she reinvented idyllic Karachi scenes that did not necessarily exist anymore, “recreating an unsatisfactory world by furnishing it with imagined alternatives”.

A reimagining of oppositions was also seen in Rashid Rana’s photographic montages. In Red Carpet I, 2007, he created an elaborate, vibrant mosaic of a Balochi carpet using images from Pakistani slaughter houses as its minute, bloody components, making his concerns with duality and contradiction explicit. Ayaz Jokhio’s drawings also emphasized the visual impact of physical forms and the incongruity of their different functions. In Diptych No 1, 2008, the image of a pen was juxtaposed with an enlarged drawing of a bullet, startling the viewer with both their visual similarities and the sharp divergence of their functions.

Rashid Rana
Red Carpet 1
Edition 1/5; C-print + DIASEC
H. 95 x W. 135 in.
Image courtesy of Gallery Chemould and Chattertjee & Lal Mumbai
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Bani Abidi’s ironic video titled Shah Pipe Band Learns The Star Spangled Banner, 2004, followed a brass pipe band in Lahore hired by the artist to learn the Star Spangled Banner (the American national anthem). Through this work, the artist captured the anxiety of the uncertain times in Pakistan, and the country’s ambiguous relationship with the West. The futility of the exercise of learning the tune and the irony of it underlined this sentiment for the artist.

Ali Raza
Throne II
Burnt paper collage and acrylic on canvas
H. 72 x W. 48 in.
Image courtesy of the artist
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Also on display were Anwar Saeed’s explicit illustrations in the book, I Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual, a true story of a boy imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for being homosexual. By rendering these images, fantastical and sexual in form, the written story of pain and humiliation was made personal by the artist.

Like Saeed, Ali Raza also used text, but as raw material for his paintings. He burned advertisements and used the ash to create collages with acrylic paint, commenting on the issues of censorship and corruption that continue to confront Pakistani society on a daily basis.

Importantly, paintings by Zahoor ul Akhlaq, who died in 1999, were also part of this exhibition. An important figure amongst Pakistani artists, he revived the techniques of miniature painting, and encouraged students to innovate with subject matter. This teaching is evident in one of his works that was on display, the triptych A Visit to the Inner Sanctum 1-3, 1997, which although in the style of miniature painting was abstract in content and form.

This exhibition represented the range and vitality of contemporary Pakistani art, in terms of medium as well as content. The exhibition, not being too far in the past, is also a significant marker in the continuing practices of these and many other artists living and working in Pakistan.

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